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Published on Monday, April 8, 2019

Jane's world

Bev Fearis took her family on a Jane Austen themed weekend in Hampshire, one of a series of newly-created tours to celebrate England's Literary Greats.

As they stood by the window of Chawton House, taking in the view, the delegation from The Jane Austen Society of North America were apparently moved to tears. The pristine lawn, sloping down to the woods and beyond that the rolling hills, dotted with grazing sheep, blue skies and white fluffy clouds overhead had simply overwhelmed them. 'It's just so English,' they had sighed. If only Jane had been there to witness it. I'm sure she would have captured it perfectly in her writing, teasing them with her sharp and sarcastic wit.

Carol, our lovely guide, had shared this story of the emotional Austenites as she took us around Winchester Cathedral, the place where the famous 19th century novelist was laid to rest, aged just 41, which is remarkable when you consider what Austen had achieved (and even more so when you see the size of the desk she worked at, but I'll come to that later). I'd tirelessly studied Austen's novels at University but didn't know that much about her as a person. Carol, on the other hand, knew everything, and recounted it with such enthusiasm and humour that even Freddie, my 9-year-old, was enthralled. After a stroll around the cathedral grounds, Carol took us to the rented house on College Street where Jane had spent her final days with her sister Cassandra. The daughter of a vicar and with six siblings, Jane was closest to her only sister who cared for her in her dying days. We then walked the route that Jane's funeral procession would have taken, a men only affair, Carol told us, because women were deemed too emotional to cope. We finished at Jane's resting place, in the cathedral's North Aisle. Her grave stone has no mention of her writing. It wasn't respectable for a woman to be a writer in those days. Freddie shot me a quizzical glance.

Our tour sadly over, we thanked the lovely Carol and made our way to the Cathedral's fabulous cafe, The Refectory, a bright contemporary space with a large terrace and walled garden. It was time to treat ourselves to a traditional English tea - a feast of triangle-shaped sandwiches, enormous scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream and generous slices of chocolate cake, Bakewell tart and other delights, all served on a three-tiered tray sprinkled with flowers. There was enough there to feed Jane's entire family. Luckily the Rectory supplies doggy bags. 

Next stop was the The Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester Castle and home to King Arthur's legendary Round Table, hung on the wall. The castle was built in 1067 and for over a hundred years it was the seat of Government of the Norman Kings. The Great Hall dates back to the 13th century. Freddie loved dressing up as a knight, posing in front of the giant round table and pretending to do a public execution of his Dad.

Afterwards there was time for a quick stroll through Winchester's cobbled streets for a spot of window shopping and to pop back to an historic book shop, P&G Wells, that Carol had pointed out. It's just two doors down from the house where Jane died and has been there since 1790, so she would have no doubt been a regular. I imagined her gliding down the aisles in her long petticoated skirts, her white gloves leafing through the heavy books.

The best of our Austen weekend was to come the next day, after we'd polished off a full English breakfast buffet at the Mercure Wessex Hotel. We drove half an hour to the pretty village of Chawton, home to the cottage where Jane lived for eight years and wrote, edited and published all her major works. The cottage was owned by her brother, Edward, who lived nearby in Chawton House, a much grander place which he inherited after being adopted by distant relatives. It was from the window here that the Austenites had shed a tear over all that 'Englishness'. For us, it was quite a different 'English' experience - grey and drizzly, but still beautiful. Despite the weather, we braved the four-and-a-half mile Jane Austen Circular Walk from Chawton to Farringdon and back, a walk that Jane did herself many times across fields and woodland and over stiles. Like Chawton, Upper Farringdon is a charming and picturesque village with quaint little stone cottages and cosy pubs - ever so English!

Back in Chawton we popped into the local cafe, Cassandra's Cup, to warm up with the soup of the day before heading across the road to Jane Austen's House Museum. We started with the out houses, learning about cooking in copper fires and washing laundry from the well, then took a stroll through the house, remarking at the tiny beds and reading snippets of Jane and Cassandra's letters. Carol had told me to look out for the desk and said I'd be surprised. I was. It was barely big enough to fit a sheet of paper on it. I stood for a while imagining how many hours Jane must have spent at that tiny table, composing her novels in her meticulous swirly hand writing with an ink pen. It was a fitting end to a fascinating literary tour that made me want to read Jane Austen's novels all over again, this time with a deeper insight into her life and the period in which she lived. I reckon I might even be able to persuade Freddie to read one too. 


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