Being an avid reader and author of romantic comedy novels, naturally Jane Austen looms large among my heroes and inspirations, and that goes back a long way. As a teenager in the Nineties, when Jane’s work was enjoying a huge surge in popularity, my Sunday evenings were often spent in front of one of the many excellent television or film adaptations of her novels such as Andrew Davies’ Pride and Prejudice and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility.
From there, and it’s the wrong way round, I know, I began to read her books, and found them even more full of life and humour than even the best screen versions. Whilst the books are full of the social codes and norms of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, fascinating in itself, I found that her vivid characters and the light and fresh touch of her pen made it almost impossible to believe how long ago Jane was writing.
Since then, I’ve returned to re-read her books every now and again, and been charmed anew each time. These days, I live not so far from where Jane was brought up, and since I also love nothing more than a day out exploring historic places, punctuated by the occasional stop for tea and cake, I decided to make a tour of some of the sites where she lived or spent time. Some are on the main tourist trail and others are less well-known, but all are well worth seeing, and I thought I’d share them here, in case you’re a Jane Austen fan too, or simply a lover of a day out with tea & cake!
Steventon in Hampshire, the place of Jane’s birth in 1775, is a tiny village even today. Jane’s father George was the rector of the parish, earning a modest income, which he supplemented by farming and teaching. The family lived in the rectory and Jane was christened in the pretty church of St. Nicholas, which is now the main site to visit.
The church itself dates from the twelfth century but was restored in Victorian times, including the addition of the steeple, so you may wish to imagine it in a slightly humbler state, as Jane might have known it herself. These days, the worldwide interest in Jane helps to support the church, the bells, for example, being restored and rehung in the Nineties with funding from the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Inside the church and in the church you’ll see memorials to some of Jane’s relatives, including her brother James, but the rectory where she grew up and wrote drafts of what would become Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, was later taken down by her brother Edward. It stood in a field near the church, and there isn’t a lot to see now except a lime tree he’s reputed to have planted, and perhaps the remains of an old water pump.
For me, there’s something marvelous, though, about the peace of Steventon remaining centuries later. It’s not so difficult to imagine how, in such a quiet, out of the way place, Jane would have had the space and freedom to dream up her stories, and how the atmosphere of a small village would have thrown characters and gossip into even sharper relief, fuelling her sense of humour and imagination. Steventon is well worth visiting simply to wander and wonder at how, over two hundred years ago, a girl was born in a little English village and went on to become one of our greatest ever authors.
If you want to take tea in Steventon, you’ll need to take your own flask, but on a fine day, what could be more pleasant than a picnic? Otherwise, you can call in at nearby Overton, where you’ll find a range of options including the Overton Gallery Tearoom which serves lovely teas in its courtyard in summer and before its cosy open fire in winter.
2. The Vyne
One of Hampshire’s finest country houses, The Vyne near Basingstoke, is an imposing yet still wonderfully inviting place. Originally dating from the Tudor period and built for one of Henry VIII’s courtiers Lord Sandys, the wonderful red brick house retains its Tudor chapel but was later adapted to the fashions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the addition of a classical portico and Palladian staircase. No doubt these must have been extremely impressive to Jane, who is known to have visited for dances whilst staying with her brother James, vicar of Sherborne St. John, the parish in which The Vyne sits.
It’s lovely to imagine Jane arriving here, full of anticipation at an evening of dancing and entertainment to come, drinking in the spectacle of the grand surroundings and the county gentry in their finest coats and gowns. Given the significance of country estates, house parties and balls in her novels, as both settings and drivers of plot, it’s hard not to think of The Vyne inspiring Jane as she conjured up scenes at Netherfield for example. It has even been suggested that she may have based her character Fanny Price, heroine of Mansfield Park, on a young ward of the Chute family who owned The Vyne estate.
As well as exploring the house, which, for book lovers, also includes a wonderful old library and a curious ring with it’s own literary connection to Tolkein, make sure you allow time to stroll in the grounds. There are lovely formal gardens, lawns sweeping down to a lake, and extensive woodland in which to lose yourself.
When I visited, it was gloriously warm, ice-cream weather, and as well as the usual National Trust tearoom, for such occasions, there’s a kiosk selling the absolutely delicious Jude’s Ice Cream with outdoor tables and deckchairs on the lawns too.
Jane lived in Bath from 1801-1806, her father moving the family here after his retirement, rather to her surprise despite some family connections to the city, and it’s debated how much she enjoyed her time here. An apparent lull in her writing activity may have been caused by a period of unhappiness, but it might also have been due to the greater distractions offered by the city, in comparison to Steventon, and the city does provide the backdrop to two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Certainly, Jane’s time in Bath included family sadness, her father passing away in 1805, which also left her mother, herself and her unmarried sister Cassandra in reduced circumstances.
In Jane’s day Bath was a bustling, fashionable spa town, a magnet for visitors keen to take the waters and enjoy the social whirl of a season in the city. Bath still draws in the tourists today, of course, a good number of them visiting because of Jane’s association, so whilst being very lovely indeed, its neat neo-classical streets can feel rather cramped and frenetic, especially in Summer. I’d recommend a visit in winter, if possible, when the city is a little quieter. On a crispy, frosty day with the sun bringing a glow to the golden limestone buildings, Bath positively sparkles.
There are plenty of Austen-themed attractions here, including the Jane Austen Centre, Jane Austen tours and walks, a Jane Austen festival and even costumed balls. The places with the most direct connections to Jane though, are to me, a little more interesting. It’s well worth even a self-guided walk to seek out the various houses where she lived or stayed at various times. 4 Sydney Place was the family’s residence for most of their time in Bath, but they also rented homes in Green Park Buildings East, 25 Gay Street and Trim Street, the latter reflecting their diminishing means after the death of their father.
Aside from these, the Pump Rooms in the Roman Baths and Assembly Rooms are at the heart of Bath’s tourist scene, and would have been in Jane’s day too. They’re certainly worth seeing for a flavour of the
For a well-earned break away from the busy pavements, any tea-lover absolutely must visit Comins Tea on Monmouth Street. Here you can enjoy a unique tea experience. This independent tea merchant and tea room offers a wide menu of single estate loose-leaf teas from different parts of the world, all with their own tasting notes. Each is prepared with a nod to its origins and character, brewing time and drinking vessels tailored accordingly, making it a little like enjoying your own personal tea ceremony. On top of this, the tea room offers a wonderfully calm and quiet atmosphere, making it the perfect place to indulge yourself in a proper conversation, a good book, or even a little writing.
The only house where Jane lived and wrote that’s open to the public, the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton is a must-visit site for any fan. The museum describes itself as the most treasured Austen site in the world, and it’s easy to see why. As well as the house itself, charming and atmospheric, there are so many fascinating artefacts on display here that provide a tangible connection to Jane’s time and to Jane herself, including manuscripts, letters, jewellery and furniture.
Perhaps the most fantastic of the treasures is Jane’s writing table, a beautiful little octagonal piece, well-loved and well-worn. It’s wonderful to linger beside it and imagine what took shape on this pretty little table, the intricate plotting and sparkling wit of creations, but also the struggles and painstaking editing that is part of any author’s lot. Viewing it, I couldn’t help but wonder too about the aches in her back and neck which Jane must surely have felt when she rose after long periods lost in her work.
More surprisingly, perhaps, in Chawton, you can also see the small donkey carriage Jane used to make trips into nearby Alton for shopping or other errands. The humblest of carriages, the donkey could graze in the orchard with no groom or stables needed, but it was sufficient to keep a hem from getting muddy. With access to a carriage, and different models of carriages a key signifier of social status in her novels, it’s interesting to imagine Jane herself travelling the roads in this miniature vehicle, pulled by her donkey.
A visit to Chawton isn’t complete without also calling at Chawton House and church five minutes away from Jane’s house. The church of St Nicholas, Chawton stands very prettily situated at the end of the driveway to the house. Knowing the importance of attending church in Jane’s novels, not only to worship, but to see, be seen, and share in the latest local news, it’s worth visiting just to imagine Jane hurrying here with some anticipation, keeping her eyes and ears open, eager to glean what she could. Beyond that, the church holds a further connection to Jane, the churchyard being the resting place of her mother and sister, both named Cassandra.
Chawton House or ‘The Great House’ as Jane called it, was inherited by her brother Edward from distant family members who made him their heir. It was Edward who was then able to provide the house in Chawton for his mother and sisters, events that all have echoes in Jane’s writing. Nowadays the house and gardens are open to visitors as well as being a centre for the study of women’s writing, hosting regular public and academic events. The house is rich in features connected to the extended Austen family, including a dining table at which Jane would have eaten, and an alcove in which she loved to read. Finally, as is only fitting, there is a lovely place to take refreshment too, in the Old Kitchen Tea Room.
Already seriously unwell, in 1816, Jane travelled from Chawton to Winchester with her sister Cassandra, to seek medical treatment from a doctor at the recently established city hospital. These days she’s most often said to have been suffering from Addison’s Disease, affecting many aspects of her health, but Jane both continued to write, and also to demonstrate her sparkling humour, making light even of her own illness, describing it as ‘bile’ causing her to ‘turn every wrong colour’ and ‘live chiefly on the sofa’.
Jane and her sister took a house in College Street, just beside Winchester College. Increasingly, Jane was confined to bed, and it was here, sadly, that she finally passed away in 1817, at the age of just forty-one. It’s a private residence today, not open to visitors, but the house is marked by a blue plaque. Jane had, of course, achieved an immense amount in her too-short life, and was fortunate to have lived to enjoy a certain amount of success in her own lifetime, but still, it’s tantalizing to imagine what other literary treasures she might have gone on to produce had she been granted more time.
If you’re in Winchester, not far from College Street is another short stop worth making. The Winchester City Museum is a charming little museum, free to enter, with special features on the city in Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, as well as the nineteenth century. There are several interesting objects on display here which again bring you very close to Jane. There are two beautiful little coin purses, one a delicate mesh, the other colourfully beaded, which belonged to Jane and were passed down through her family. Alongside these sit an ivory spool case engraved with her initials, part of her needlework set, and a comic poem written in her own hand. All intimate little things, which bring you within touching distance of Jane herself.
Winchester Cathedral is Jane’s final resting place, and a wonderful ancient place. Full of fascinating history and idiosyncratic details, as cathedrals tend to be, it’s well worth touring the whole building to see, among other things, the famous flooding crypt and the beautiful mosaic of a stained-glass window made of shards of windows broken during the English Civil War.
Jane was buried in the north aisle, her funeral being attended by four male relatives, it not being the custom for women to attend funerals in those days, and her memorial stone makes no mention of her writing, again reflecting prejudices of the time. Given Jane’s prodigious talent, now so widely celebrated, it’s a stark reminder of the social limitations she faced and satirized. In 1872, finally, a brass plaque was added in the aisle to right this wrong, and commemorate both her life and work., and in 1900 a public subscription funded a memorial window above it. If you visit, you’ll most likely find you aren’t the only one there paying a personal tribute, reflecting the global reach and countless readers she has touched in the two centuries since her death.
It’d be quite understandable if you need a break and some cheering up after all that. Fortunately, Winchester abounds with lovely cafes, but do keep an eye out for Cafe Winchester on St Thomas’ St, and especially for its zingy courgette & lime cake!
I hope you enjoyed the tour and thank you for reading. I have no pretensions of approaching anything like Jane’s level of talent, but my own humble novel The Art Trip is out now. If, like me, you’re a fan of romantic comedy novels and you’ve enjoyed my writing, of course I’d be delighted if you’d like to take a look!