"Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection."
—Jane Austen, in an 1814 letter to her niece, Fanny Knight
She was a master of stories of romantic love, yet found little in her own life. The happy endings in which affection and respect trump class and crass didn't quite play out in her own short time on Earth. She lived most of her life in a beautiful corner of England — but used it only once as the locale of her immensely popular books.
Jane Austen's quiet birth, life and death in early 19th century Hampshire are not the stuff of romantic legend. But more than 200 years after her birth, Austen's books are romantic icons. They've been translated into dozens of languages, filmed for screens big and small, and spawned a range of copycat projects ranging from obsessive 21st century fans in "The Jane Austen Book Club" to the campy best-selling "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" that extends Austen's signature tussles of Victorian manners and morals to the brain-gobbling living-dead gentry.
"Janeites" are the fans who have read and reread the books and when given the chance, scour the English countryside for all the places, real and imaginary, connected with Austen and her books. Where exactly is Pemberley, and is the brooding Mr. Darcy "in residence" as Miss Elizabeth Bennet inquires in "Pride and Prejudice"?
My own Austen journeys have stretched from Steventon, where Austen was born, to Winchester, where she died — with stops in Bath, Southampton, Portsmouth, Oxford and Chawton along the way.
These journeys were taken up out of love — not for Austen, but for my wife, whose stacks of dog-eared Austen paperbacks are on the short shelf next to her nightstand. I am not so much a "Janeite" as an enabler of one. So I offer the apology for a dabbler who writes about what millions across the planet embrace with so much passion.
So take a journey to the world that created the mind that created Elizabeth and Darcy, Elinor and Edward, Emma and Mr. Knightley. We'll just try to avoid Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She might not approve of insolence and mushy breeding.
"Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?"
"To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment."
The pretty Hampshire village is where Austen was born in the rectory of her father's church in 1775. Like many places that have an early connection with a famous person's life, Steventon has less to offer the fan than hoped. It was the incubator of Austen's talents, but her literary life really started after she left town. The 13th century St. Nicholas church where her father was vicar still stands, though the rectory was torn down in 1828. The church bells are a 1995 gift from the Jane Austen Society of North America. Life in the small village shaped her country-centric attitudes. The Vyne, a great house in nearby Basingstoke that is now maintained by the National Trust, was the scene of the kind of parties that populate her books. Austen's father's decision to retire from the church and move in 1801 to the busy, expensive city of Bath came as culture shock to Austen, then 26. In what may be an apocryphally melodramatic story, Jane is said to have fainted dead away when her father broke what he thought was the happy news.
"But Catherine could be stubborn too; and walked out of the Pump Room, leaving Isabella with Captain Tilney."
—Jane Austen, "Northanger Abbey"
My first exposure to Austen tourism was on a visit to Bath, the lovely but tourist-filled spa town with its famous Regency-era crescent. Austen visited the Lower Assembly Rooms and the town's famed Pump Room, both of which look much as they did in Austen's time. My wife sought out the house on Sydney Place where Austen lived. When she stood in the doorway, it was as if I were witnessing the literary equivalent of a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Austen herself had mixed feelings about Bath, which taught her much about the class-based manners and backbiting that would be laced throughout her books. Both "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion" are set primarily in and around Bath. Neighborhoods just a few hundred yards apart had widely different social standing. Austen once wrote a relative of the social claustrophobia, lamenting, "I hate tiny parties; they force one into constant exertion," an idea echoed by Anne Elliott in "Persuasion," who complains of returning to Bath for the social season, "with a sinking heart, anticipating an imprisonment of many months." Whatever Austen thought of Bath, Bath loves Austen. There is a Jane Austen Centre chronicling her life on Gay Street. The death of her father in 1805 had Austen on the move again.
SOUTHAMPTON and PORTSMOUTH
"The men appeared to her all coarse, the women all pert, everybody under-bred."
—Fanny Price remarking on the people of Portsmouth in "Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen
It's hard to imagine the pretty port that Austen experienced when she arrived from Bath in 1806. Southampton then was known for its narrow medieval alleys and Tudor-style half-timbered buildings whose upper floors hung precariously over the streets. The town was a stopover in the spa craze that swept England during the early 19th century. Life in the navy towns of Southampton and nearby Portsmouth excited Austen's creative mind, fueled in part by the presence of her brothers Charles and Frank, who served in Portsmouth (and eventually became admirals in the Royal Navy). The Portsmouth scenes in "Mansfield Park" are the only time she actually sets a portion of one of her novels in Hampshire, the region where she was born, lived almost all her life and died. Unfortunately, the Navy connection has all but erased the cities Austen knew. Nazi bombers hammered the wharfs and port during World War II, and what Adolf Hitler didn't destroy, misguided urban-renewal plans finished off. What is left is a sterile city with just a few pockets of Old World charm intact. The area where Austen lived around Castle Square has been completely modernized. A potentially wonderful remnant is the historic Dolphin Hotel on High Street. Jane and her sister, Cassandra, attended dances there, but when I visited before a Cunard cruise out of Southampton a few years ago, it was more than a bit sad and run-down. Not a place to stay. However, I received a report last summer that the hotel had been sold and a major refurbishment was in the works, in part to benefit from interest in Austen tourism. I still can't recommend it for stays, but I will be interested to hear about the progress. Southampton is a great gateway for visiting Jane Austen country, particularly for those arriving on the Queen Mary 2 or another Cunard liner.
"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"
—Jane Austen, "Pride and Prejudice," written primarily in Chawton, 1811
If you can make only one stop on an Austen trip, make it this village in Hampshire. Jane's brother Edward inherited an estate and offered a cottage to his mother and sisters. The centerpiece of a visit is the house where Austen lived and wrote, but even those along for the ride with a Jane fan will enjoy the pubs and lanes of the small, sunny town. Her mother and sister are buried in the churchyard. No place evokes the English country manners and dispositions of Austen's characters better than Chawton. To see Chawton is to understand Austen's world, just as the bleak Yorkshire moors of Haworth shaped the Bronte sisters. There's a nice Fuller's pub and a tea shop. But for true fans like Sarah Brubacker, a reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, this is the touchstone of any Austen journey:
"The house was exactly the size I imagined; comfortable, but not small. There were the amber crosses that Charles Austen, Jane's seafaring brother, had given to her and her sister, Cassandra — famous to us Janeites. On the door leading to the staircase, a sign warned that it squeaked, and said Jane liked it that way so she could hide her manuscripts if she heard someone coming. Then, there it was: Jane's writing table. I stood and stared, amazed that she could write a brilliant work like 'Persuasion' on such a tiny table. It was beautiful to me. It looked so well-loved and well-used."
"The last sad ceremony is to take place on Thursday morning; her dear remains are to be deposited in the Cathedral."
—Cassandra Austen, writing of the death of her sister, Jane, in 1817
Jane Austen's life story ends in the famous cathedral city. Increasingly ill, she moved to Winchester in March 1816 for treatment and lived in a small yellow house a short walk from Winchester Cathedral. She died in July 1817. The building where she died has a small plaque commemorating her last days. It's now a building affiliated with one of the city's universities. It is a short walk to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen was buried beneath one of the north aisle floors. The cathedral is one of Britain's great religious edifices, and the Close, the area of lanes and Tudor-era buildings nearby, is wonderful to stroll on a warm afternoon. Around the corner from Austen's final residence is the Wykeham Arms pub — a phonetic version of the cad British officer at the center of "Pride and Prejudice." The gastropub serves excellent modern English food, particularly game in the fall. It also rents rooms for less than 100 pounds that include a large breakfast. My favorite part of Winchester is to stroll along the riverbank to the center of town, a walk that has the tranquility and timelessness of an Austen novel.
THE REEL JANE
Tai: "You think I'm a mentally retarded airhead?"
Cher: "I never said that, I just think you two wouldn't mesh."
—From "Clueless," a 1995 modernized adaption of "Emma"
Re-creating the early 19th-century world of Jane Austen's books has been a challenge for moviemakers and TV producers. Rapid industrialization has changed the look of many areas in Austen's books. To re-create the countryside, location hunters have had to go farther afield to find bucolic scenery and quaint villages that had retained their Victorian Age feel into the 21st century.
For the outdoor beauty, the Peak District and Derbyshire, in the north-central part of the country, are your best bet. Austen called it "no finer countryside in England." Along with the rolling hills and hillside vistas, the top Austen movie location is to find Pemberley, the great house of Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice."
Pick your version: In the 2005 Keira Knightley version, the fine country house of Chatsworth was the primary location of Pemberley. But for many fans, Pemberley is Lyme Hall in Cheshire, a Palladian mansion surrounded by 1,300 acres of National Trust parkland. In the 1995 version, Colin Firth was immortalized in the hearts of Janeites for his soaking-wet exit from a pond on the property. The mustard-colored Longbourn, the Bennet family home, was primarily photographed at Groombridge Place near Tunbridge Wells. It's a private home, though tours, specifically of the gardens, are possible.
If you can't make it all the way to England, there's always Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the center of action in "Clueless," the 1995 remake of "Emma." It's a reminder of how timeless Jane Austen's themes can be. Infatuation, pride, misunderstandings, class differences and vanity can get in the way of true love. But in Austen's world, there is a happy ending — if not always in real life, then in the pages of a good book written a long time ago.
"But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union."
—Jane Austen, "Emma"
IF YOU GO
A JANE DAY OUT: Like most sights in England, it is possible to visit Bath, Winchester — even Chawton — on a day trip by train from London. But I would suggest making it at least an overnight destination, preferably on a weekday (though check to make sure museums are open). Chawton Cottage is more enjoyable on an uncrowded Thursday than on a jam-packed Saturday.
CHAWTON COTTAGE: Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton, Alton, Hampshire, jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk. For general information about the village, try chawton.info. Museum entry is $12. For a bite to eat (or for non-Jane fanatics to pass the time), I suggest Greyfriar's, a pub affiliated with the Fuller's brewery near London. Lunch and dinner with light snacks in between. For those who don't think ale and Austen are a good mix, try Cassandra's Tea Cup. The museum can give you directions to Chawton Library, the onetime home of Austen's brother Edward. Austen's mother and sister are buried in the churchyard.
WYKEHAM ARMS: A hotel and pub in Winchester near Austen's final resting place. The 18th-century pub has 14 rooms, including my favorites in an annex across the street (quieter, with nice views across the town rooftops). Rooms from $90 per night, including breakfast. 75 Kingsgate Street, Winchester. Fullershotels.com.
ROYAL CRESCENT: Whatever money you save by staying at the Wykeham Arms, you can blow with a stay at the Royal Crescent, a luxury hotel on the famous curved street in the fashionable spa town. There's a Jane Austen Suite. Rooms from $500, but the accommodations are wonderful and the location is simply stunning. 15-16 Royal Crescent. royalcrescent.co.uk.
DOLPHIN HOTEl: Where Jane and her sister attended dances in Southampton. It is undergoing restoration. An important Austen site, but not worth putting up with a night until the makeover can be apprised. 35 High Street, Southampton.
Austen's novels: "Pride and Prejudice" is usually considered Austen's apex, and the editors of the American Book Review rated its opening line ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.") as the second best of any novel, after Moby Dick's "Call me Ishmael." There are many editions of Austen's books. My wife's favorites are the Broadview Literary Texts. Each has a nice and thankfully short analysis that puts the books in their historic and cultural context (without boring the reader before they even start the actual fiction).
Favorite backgrounder: There are more books about Austen than by Austen. For the traveler, I would skip the biographies and instead find "Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury," by Rebecca Dickson (Metro Books, $20). It's a beautiful book that includes illustrations of the period as well as reproductions of handwritten letters and manuscripts by Austen.
MOVIES AND TELEVISION:
"Pride and Prejudice": There are three major versions, all worth watching. The first Hollywood version, in 1940, with a much-too-old Laurence Olivier as Darcy and Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet, features inappropriate costumes that seem left over from "Gone With the Wind" and rewrites of the dialogue that will make purists cringe. Still, Olivier gets the haughtiness down solid. For many people, the classic version features Colin Firth as Darcy. Firth still makes Jane fans' knees quake, and his ubiquitous connection with the story was fodder for his role in "Bridget Jones's Diary," in which he plays a character named Darcy. Just as Firth is the king of Darcys, the feisty and — for once — properly youthful Keira Knightley is the Elizabeth Bennet of choice for her role in the 2005 movie. Unfortunately, she plays opposite Matthew Macfadyen, who suffers from what seems to be a combination of depression and constipation throughout.
Others Austen movies: "Emma" (a sweet Gwyneth Paltrow) and "Sense and Sensibility" (a slightly overripe Emma Thompson) had the big-screen treatment. British variations on film and the BBC go back to the post-World War I era. Britain's Independent Television Network is running through the entire Austen canon, including versions of less-popular books such as "Northanger Abbey" and "Mansfield Park."
"Becoming Jane Austen": Austen fans are widely split on the merits of this 2007 biopic with Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen. It was named favorite independent movie at the 2008 People's Choice USA Awards. But criticism was withering, with The Associated Press dismissing it as a "sporadically entertaining game of dress-up" and Time panning the star, writing that "Hathaway never makes us think the woman could write anything more complex than a diet book." It was a middling box-office flop, earning $18 million.
"Clueless": The 1995 high-school comedy starring Alicia Silverstone is director Amy Heckerling's modern update of Austen's "Emma." Silverstone's Cher is Emma. Fans of the book will enjoy picking up the parallels in character, plot and dialogue, while it works as a sharper-than-normal teen-angst flick for everyone else.
ON THE WEB
The Republic of Pemberley: Taking its name from Mr. Darcy's palatial estate, this is the Colin Firth of Austen fan sites. Everything from the books to the movies to the locations is here. The first place online to plan your Janeite journey. pemberley.com.
Click on it: VisitBritain.com has copious information about Jane Austen sites. For information on the shooting locales of the Austen novels, go to Visit Britain's movie location Web site.
Events: The Jane Austen Festival, featuring Regency dress balls, theater, dancing, exhibits and talks, will take place Sept. 17-25 in Bath.