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 life and death in early 19th century Hampshire are not the stuff of romantic legend. But more than 240 years after her birth, Austen's books are romantic icons.
"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?
Here are some of the best English destinations to get a taste of Austen history.
"To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment." - Jane Austen
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. Austen's father's decision to retire from the church and move in 1801 to the busy, expensive city of Bath came as a culture shock to Austen, then 26. In what may be an apocryphally melodramatic story, Jane is said to have fainted 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
Bath is a 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. Austen once wrote to 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 St. 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. Unfortunately, the naval 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 modernised.
"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 centrepiece 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.
"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 the north aisle.
THE REEL JANE
Re-creating the early 19th-century world of Jane Austen's books has been a challenge for moviemakers and TV producers. Rapid industrialisation 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 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 said there was "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 more than 500ha of National Trust parkland. In the 1995 version, Colin Firth was immortalised in the hearts of Janeites for his soaking-wet exit from a pond on the property. The mustard-coloured 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.
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