Recently, I partook of a short 4-day bus tour of the home of American Presidents in Virginia. Living in neighboring state of North Carolina, the trip was not exhausting, and so on the first day (before we settled in our hotel for the evening) we visited the home of the 5th President, James Monroe. Ash Lawn-Highland is billed as a “place of comfort and hospitality.” On the succeeding days we traveled to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and Woodrow Wilson’s Library and Museum. At each there were the typical tour guides, brochures, souvenirs, and period pieces, some reconstructed and some simply spoken of.
Like any serious writer, I carried my trusty laptop and spiral notebooks with me. Those who know me well know I am likely to carry my notebook to the physician’s office and write while I wait, so naturally, the tendency to write during countless hours upon the road was too much to pass by. As I walked through history, especially that of Thomas Jefferson, who is dangling from my family tree, I was thinking about the many tours of Austen’s England.
Although there are places in England which boast actual connections to Jane Austen, much of what we Austenites enjoy are the moments we share of the fiction Austen wrote rather than actual places she lived or visited. For example, if one travels to Bath, he can view the assembly hall and imagine Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth from Persuasion having enjoyed their moments together there. A visitor can walk along Milson Street, as did Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. We can enjoy the fiction and forget how Austen’s spoken dislike of Bath.
We can conjure up images of Pemberley, but which image was the one Austen had? Was it Chatsworth or Cottesbrooke Hall or Lyme Park? Perhaps it was none of those, but we Austenites do not care. We walk into Chatsworth’s foyer and imagine Elizabeth Bennet from the 2005 film or into Wilton House for the Pemberley interior scenes from the same film. We can visit Burghley House in Lincolnshire and think ourselves sitting in Lady Catherine’s drawing room at Rosings Park in Kent. There is also the interior scenes from the 1995 adaptation, which were set in Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. We can relive the moments at Netherfield Park by visiting Edgcote Hall in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
Those of us who love Austen know there are hundreds of places in England, which claim a connection to the writer. At Steventon, for example, only a pump remains of the rectory where the Austen family lived, but that fact does not stop hundreds of Janeites from making a trek to see that exact spot and to take a multiple pictures to commemorate the moment where they come close to knowing a bit more of Austen.
We crave any connection to our dearest Jane, from the plaque which denotes where the Austen’s former residence once stood in Castle Square in Southampton to the likes of Austen’s writing box, displayed at the British Library. With Austen, the fiction and reality easily combine for her fans. In many ways, I think Austen would find it quite amusing so many of us trudge along lanes and parklands for a glimpse of the fictitious landscapes she described in her six novels. It is a most satisfying experience: we are more than sightseers. We are participants in creating “memories,” we will cherish forever.