Embark on a Georgian jaunt through Jane Austen’s England
This year has been declared the “Year of Literary Heroes” in Britain, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, 125 years since the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes novel and 20 years since the first Harry Potter book. Here, the writer takes us through the world of Jane Austen by way of Bath, Winchester and Chawton.
Taking the train
In Hampshire and, therefore, deep in Jane Austen country, there is a steam train that the English take to transport them back through time.
Throughout the summer months, volunteers act as stationmasters, signallers and engine drivers on the 16km of the Watercress Line that runs through the idyllic English countryside that we all know, even if we have never seen it with our own eyes.
Steam trains have the tightest of grips on the English imagination, and families gather on the station platform to watch, hear, smell and, therefore, remember the Industrial Revolution that they never saw with their own eyes.
The action on a steam train is easy to understand because everything happens on the outside, but the engine itself is a controlled explosion, an elemental combination of fire, water and metal.
In Malaya, early steam engines frequently exploded or fell off the tracks when they took the corners too fast or crashed into unfortunate elephants, who were unaware that they had been replaced by the steam engine. Both sides came off badly in those clashes.
The Watercress Line chugs its way within a few kilometres of Austen’s last home in the village of Chawton, where she sat at her surprisingly small desk trying to write her novels, as her health faded.
Austen never saw a steam engine in her life. She died in 1817 just before coal, steam and steel created our world.
The invention of the steam engine should be the dividing line between our time and hers, making her works as mysterious to us as nearby Stonehenge. And yet, Austen’s enduring appeal owes everything to the steam age because her pride and sensibilities were middle class before the Industrial Revolution had invented the middle class. And like the steam train and middle classes, Austen’s novels are a controlled explosion. They reflect the wants and fears of the middle classes: the desire for love and security, and the fear of falling.
She has guided the middle classes through the dangerous shoals of social etiquette, shown them how to stand up for themselves and be witty, while at the same time proving that love and marriage can and should go together. And then, the steam age taught millions how to read and carried her books and her nation’s cultural sensibilities around the world.
The steam, wars, oil, the end of Empire and the post-industrial decline that stand between us and Austen should make her world impossible to find, and, yet, in the English counties of Hampshire and Somerset that I had never visited before, she can be found.
Austen’s life was not like one of the countless romantic comedy movies that her novels have inspired.
In Pride and Prejudice, which she wrote when she was 21, the headstrong Elizabeth Bennet sparred with the aloof, darkly handsome and, by sheer coincidence, immensely wealthy Mr Darcy.
Despite her family’s difficult financial circumstances and the absolute necessity for a good marriage, Elizabeth Bennet will not compromise her moral standards and she sees no worth in the rude Mr Darcy. And then, he changes his haughty aristocratic ways for her and they all live happily ever after.
Austen never found her Mr Darcy, but her family did live on a financial knife-edge, which can be seen on the streets of Bath.
Austen’s father came from a once wealthy family that had steadily declined, which is why he was a rector in the Church of England, the traditional last refuge for the educated poor before complete financial oblivion.
In 1800, he suddenly retired and took his family to live in the spa town of Bath. Like all spa towns, Bath was a dedicated party town, the Ibiza or Koh Samui of its day.
In Bath, the 24-hour party people (actually, all partying had to stop at 10pm) rubbed shoulders with the wealthy sick, who were on desperate pilgrimage to the hoped-for cures of the hot spring waters, just as the ancient Romans had done before them. Before the cool kids like the tempestuous poet Lord Byron made it hip to go “swanning about Europe in a big shirt” (as Blackadder called it), Bath was still at its peak when Austen arrived from the quiet countryside at the age of 25.
She had already written but not published Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in her happy childhood home before she entered the social minefield of Bath.
When she wrote about Bath, we get the impression that she did not like it much, but she wrote none of her novels when living in Bath. Perhaps she was too busy having a good time? But probably not, judging by her changes of address.
A knowledgeable guide took us on a walking tour of Bath (which you should do too). Bath is meant to be walked, it’s part of the cure.
Austen must have been among the most humble and anonymous of the thousands who flocked to this town in its heyday. The wealthy, powerful and fashionable would barely have glanced at plain Jane, the rector’s daughter without a dowry and even at only 25, already too old for a good marriage. But 200 years after her death, Bath is now Austen’s town and the heroine of the middle class is celebrated everywhere, particularly in the Jane Austen museum, which is a very similar house to her original home.
Her legions of fans simply called her Jane, because she is a friend. The heroines of her books are by turns awkward and determined.
Austen and her characters are “relatable” and our museum guide, who wore a Regency-style dress, described her life as if it is still ongoing.
It is a large Georgian house in what was in Austen’s day a fashionable location, close to the still grand ballroom of the Assembly Rooms where dances were held every day and where Jane’s only romance might have begun.
Jane was briefly engaged to a young man, but he was not her Mr Darcy and it was not love, actually, or otherwise, so she called it off the next day.
Unfortunately, within only a few years, her father died and she, her sister and her mother had to move to another address on the other side of town.
When I walked through Bath, I found it to be very familiar, and not just because it has been the backdrop for so many films. I grew up in an English spa town called Tunbridge Wells, where one of Austen’s brothers is buried.
I knew the young people taking advantage of the summer sunshine in the park in front of the majestic sweep of Royal Crescent because I was once one of them.
Taking the cure and the waters of a spa town ceased being fashionable in the mid-19th century when British royalty stopped visiting them and instead went to the beach or overseas.
Growing up in the faded glory of Tunbridge Wells with its own Assembly Rooms and opera house that had been turned into a bingo hall by the 1970s, we knew that Bath had been the pre-eminent English spa town.
I thought I knew the grand crescents and promenades of a spa town, but Bath is on an altogether larger scale. Bath is grandeur because the houses that could stand in London’s Belgravia were the holiday homes for the wealthiest people of what was then the wealthiest country in the world.
Austen must have felt humbled, even humiliated by the wealth on display. But the grandees of yesteryear have been forgotten and only Austen is remembered. It is her town now.
By the time Austen moved to Winchester, she had published three of her novels anonymously and to some success.
I had never been to Bath or Winchester before. Bath may have once been a Roman town, but its real heyday was in the 18th century. Bath is a modern town by English standards, but Winchester is old with its heyday in the mythic Dark Ages.
Any town with “chester” or “castor” in its name denotes that a Roman fort once stood there, but the Anglo-Saxon kings who made Winchester an alternative capital of England had long since forgotten the town’s original Roman name as they battled forlornly against the Viking invasion.
I left Malaysia when I was four and in my English primary school, I developed a fascination for King Alfred the Great, King of Wessex from 871 to 899, and Winchester was his capital.
Winchester is now a delightful English town with the most astonishingly clearest of rivers running through it. The beds of watercress that wave in the water were once harvested and transported daily to London on a train called the Watercress Line.
With its river, cathedral and a growing reputation as the centre of a West Country food Renaissance (it has a River Cottage restaurant), it is tempting to see Winchester as the beguiling epitome of domesticated Englishness, but standing tall is a defiant statue of King Alfred the Great.
In my childhood, I was taught English history, or mythology really, and King Alfred was its steadying fulcrum.
I shuddered with terror when I was told how the Roman legions got onto their ships and sailed away from Britain in 410AD, abandoning the civilised land and its people to the barbarians.
I didn’t understand dates and got it mixed up with time, so I thought 410 was something like last Tuesday afternoon. You can imagine how scary I found this story.
After the Romans left, darkness and chaos descended onto the land for 400 years and any buds of civilisation that did emerge were snapped off by the marauding Vikings.
And then, King Alfred emerged in Wessex, a land that no longer exists except as the name of a water company owned by a Malaysian.
In my childhood, I was mightily relieved to hear that King Alfred fought back the Vikings and he brought law, education and a navy, all the things the English needed to feel secure.
Basically, King Alfred is the kind of guy who would have been killed off in the first season of Game of Thrones. His mythology is perhaps a little too stolid, humourless and Victorian for today’s tastes that prefer a dystopian vision with more TV shows about Vikings, than about a man who was once England’s hero.
Austen’s novels have happy endings and yet, even she has now been hijacked to serve our dystopian obsession with the book and film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is about, well, it’s all there in the name. I’m sure she would not have approved. It’s not just that her women did not need to shoot and stab in order to be heroines, the real problem is that it is dull storytelling.
Austen died in Winchester at the age of 41 and is buried in the cathedral. This would have been a great honour, but she gained this final resting place because of her family connections with the church and not because of any fame as an author.
You can see the house where she died, but you cannot go inside. It is part of the famous Winchester public school that the boys walk past on their way to play cricket. It is incredibly English and I saw that some prospective Thai parents on a tour of the school were suitably impressed.
Not forgetting Chawton
I do not want to give the impression that Austen’s life was nothing but genteel poverty and ill health. She had much happiness in her life. She lived her entire life with her beloved sister and mother because it would have been unthinkable for her to have lived on her own as a respectable lady.
Mothers in Austen’s novels are colourful but not necessarily sympathetic characters, but one can only imagine that she got along well enough with her mother.
She also had several siblings to whom she read her novels and it was they who pressed her to get them published. And she did eventually have kind of a Mr Darcy in the form of her brother, Edward, who had been adopted by an extremely wealthy and childless relative.
When Edward inherited the fortune and great estates, he gave a cottage in Chawton to his mother and two unwed sisters, which finally gave them financial security.
Chawton is perhaps too small to even be called a village, but it is really very lovely.
Austen’s cottage is now a museum where her belongings and other period pieces have been painstakingly curated. She either wrote on a tiny desk in the cottage or sometimes she would take a short walk to the palatial Elizabethan house that was one of her brother’s many residences.
In Chawton House, she found a nook in the library overlooking the grounds and the grand processional driveway. And there, she wrote.
The house remained in Edward’s family but over time, it fell into disrepair. Until Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems, invested a lot of money in its restoration, which is magnificent.
Although Lerner is from faraway America, she is one of Austen’s devoted fans and has not only restored the house, but also installed a library of 9,000 old books and manuscripts by female authors. In a way, Lerner is a Darcy to Austen’s legacy.
If Austen were somehow still alive today, then perhaps she would be the richest British author ever, although she might be vying for that title with Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose world I will be visiting next.
Not only do her books continue to sell, but each one has been filmed several times over, and if she was feeling litigious then, every romcom that has slavishly followed the formula that she created would have to pay her a percentage of their box-office earnings.
But her books were not bestsellers in her lifetime or even for many decades after that.
Her fame had to wait for the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, which brought mass literacy and the middle class that shared her sensibilities. And then, her appeal grew in the harsh 20th century that needed to experience the certainty of a happy ending after a difficult, yet witty journey.
Her novels describe a world as it actually is, and how it should be.
Before I left Chawton and my tour through Austen’s life and her world, I experienced a sudden overload of Englishness.
It was summer and I was outside Austen’s cottage. And then, several English girls appeared out of nowhere, wearing bonnets and Regency dresses and carrying parasols. They were not performing. Nobody had asked them to come. They just wanted to be there dressed as Elizabeth Bennet outside Austen’s home.
Kam Raslan is a contributor to The Edge Malaysia
The 17th annual Jane Austen Festival takes place in Bath, England from Sept 8 to 17, 2017
This article appeared in Issue 796 (Sep 11) of The Edge Singapore.