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The road to Chawton: a young Janeite’s pilgrimage

I spent the spring semester of my junior year of college studying in England. As an English major and a lover of literature, I was making the somewhat obvious choice of locale for my semester abroad. My university had an exchange program with the University of Kent in Canterbury, so I spent my weekdays going to classes in early modern English literature and British history and wandering the city of Canterbury, ogling the ancient buildings and sitting in coffee shops reading. Most weekends I spent with my boyfriend, either in London where he was studying, or in one of the European cities we had carefully chosen to spend our precious time and resources in. I was as nervous and excited to be abroad as any American college student, and though I had a few ideas in my head of don’t-miss European attractions, my generally easy going demeanour meant that I was content to follow the suggestions of others more likely to spearhead planning and making itineraries. The one destination, however, that I was determined to make it to no matter what was Jane Austen’s home in Chawton, England, where she spent the last eight years of her life, and which is now preserved as a museum and homage to her memory. Finally, in mid-May, 3 weeks before I was to return to the U.S., I realized that it was time to stop talking about it and make something happen. Unable to find anyone interested enough to accompany me, I undertook the journey myself, a journey which, despite the 100 mile distance between Canterbury and Chawton, took 14 hours round-trip, and involved at least four methods of transportation.

Alton High Street

High Street, Alton

The morning of May 13th, 2010, I awoke at 7:30, no easy feat for a college student whose only obligations were going to class a mere three days out of the week. It was the kind of morning, however, where the eager anticipation of what you are waking up for quickly overpowers the inherent need to sleep until after the sun has begun it’s daily downward trajectory. I ate breakfast and filled my backpack with the essentials: mug of coffee, snacks, bus schedule, copy of Pride and Prejudice read so many times the front cover has been completely torn off, etc. The first stage of my journey was at this point routine: take the city bus from campus to the city center, then transfer to the National Express to London. Though the public transportation system in England is far superior to that in the U.S., I had become somewhat frustrated with the hub-and-spoke organization that meant I had to take the two hour bus ride to London in order to reach most other destinations within the country. The £10 “funfares” offered by National Express between Canterbury and London, however, were hard to find fault with. Once in London I took the tube from Victoria Station to Waterloo, where I ran from the underground station to the rail station to make the next train bound for Alton. An hour later I was exiting the Alton rail station, eager to soon be in the home of my greatest literary hero.

Before I left Canterbury I had written down the number of the bus that ran between the railway station at Alton and Chawton village, two and a half miles away. At this point, however, I had no intention of spending any more money on public transportation that day. At home I was known for my excessive and sometimes inconvenient frugality, and the sheer expense of being a tourist in Europe had further exaggerated this trait. After purchasing (and losing) several Oyster Cards, my boyfriend and I had essentially declared a strike on the London Underground a few months earlier, and stubbornly walked to our every destination during daylight hours. This practice resulted in us figuring out, one weekend, that we had walked a total of 14 miles in two days, during a typical period of sightseeing and errands. Therefore, I foresaw no difficulty in walking the two and a half miles to Chawton, and so began walking giddily along Alton High Street on a pleasantly sunny spring day, imagining Jane Austen herself taking a similar path to the chemist or the grocers two hundred years earlier.

Jane Austen's house, Chawton

Jane Austen's house, Chawton

Passing out of town however, confusion and impatience began to cloud my joyful fantasies. I had walking directions written down, but after starting with trepidation up a few different side streets, I realized they were not detailed or extensive enough for my rather poor sense of direction. I found myself crossing underneath a highway overpass and standing in front of a traffic circle, with the motorway going off in a few different directions. With zero sense of where to go from here, I remembered that with a surprising amount of foresight I had written down the telephone number of the museum. I attempted to describe my location to the nice woman who answered the phone, and she informed me that I should be able to locate a pedestrian footpath just down the road. I set off down the one residential street that opened up off the roundabout with optimism, but after walking for fifteen minutes I was as confused as ever, so I retreated back and looked around in frustration as cars raced around the circle. Desperately I looked to the cluster of signs in the center of the roundabout, one of which had an arrow directing vehicles to the Jane Austen Museum. The sign, and the stretch of highway it pointed toward, was clearly not intended for pedestrians. But what choice did I have? I looked both ways, sprinted across the roundabout, and set off down the side of the A339, trying to maintain a happy medium between the cars and trucks zooming by on one side, and the patch of dense and prickly-looking bushes on the other. As I trudged along, sweating in the sun and getting too far along to turn back, the hilarity of the situation failed to grasp me. I cursed my inability to follow directions and my refusal to spend a precious £2 on a bus. The good news was that the road signs were consistent, and though it took another 20 minutes and a mad dash across a busy motorway, I finally reached my turnoff and continued down a more pedestrian-friendly country road. My relief at finally seeing a brick house with the “Jane Austen’s House” sign hanging over the sidewalk appear in front of me is indescribable. Up to this point, at least two hours after alighting from my train at Alton, my mood was admittedly very black, but it lifted at an almost instant rate. This 180-degree turn around was especially remarkable considering my usual tendency to let a frustrating situation send me into a long period of exaggerated wallowing. But I was nothing short of elated as I walked into the house and paid my admission fee. I was like Elizabeth Bennet walking all the way from Longbourn to Netherfield to see Jane, and was sure that if Mr. Darcy were there to greet me he would consider my “fine eyes” “brightened by the exercise.”

Jane Austen's house, Chawton

Jane Austen's house, Chawton

I sat, the only person in the room, and with rapt attention watched a short welcoming video outlining Jane Austen’s life, with particular attention paid to her years spent at Chawton. I then walked slowly through the house room by room, making sure to look at every object and read every word on each descriptive plaque. The house was furnished as it would have been in Jane’s day, and I was impressed by the number of objects in it that had actually belonged to the Austen family, and been used in this very house on a daily basis. When I visited the British Library during my first weekend in London, I had stood in front of the glass case holding Jane Austen’s lap desk for a full five minutes, having an almost religious experience marveling at the desk and the manuscripts placed on top of it (I also returned for a second and third viewing before leaving the room). The house itself was a magnified version of that; I was in a state of sensory overload and complete bliss as I ogled Jane’s writing table, a quilt that she made, and even (creepily?) a lock of her hair. Another highlight was the amount of original letters the museum had on display, written both to and by Jane. Having read each of her major novels multiple times, it is always a treat to read excerpts of Austen’s work previously unknown to me, and wonder anew at her wit and expression. After soaking up everything I could in the house, I went outside into the garden, where I sat on a bench and ate the lunch I had packed myself while reading the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice from the copy I have had since I was 10. I tried to cherish every passing moment, congratulating myself on creating such a perfect situation. My next move was to spend a half hour in the museum gift shop, which, considering the 30 square foot area it occupied, was impressive. After an agonizing decision making process, I made my purchases, which were nothing short of extravagant by my standards. So far in my travels, the only souvenirs I had purchased, with the exception of obligatory gifts for family members, had been mostly in the form of postcards. Suffice it to say that my purchase of a mug, a new copy of Pride and Prejudice, a tea towel and three postcards (at £1 each, nonetheless) was unprecedented. I of course wanted to buy more, and see more, and in general stay there forever, but I had a long return journey ahead of me, and considering the adventures of the morning, I knew I should give myself plenty of extra time. I asked the proprietor of the gift shop for walking directions back to the rail station, making sure to understand them completely this time. After standing in front of the house and taking a final 25 or so pictures, I turned and walked reluctantly down the street, following a much more direct, and much less perilous route than the one I had taken earlier.

Once back on the train, I reflected with satisfaction on my pilgrimage. I was proud of myself for making it alone; in fact glad that I had enjoyed it by myself rather than dragging along someone who would not have appreciated the experience as much as I had, or in the same way. 14 hours after I had set off, I was back in Canterbury. The return journey had proceeded without difficulty, with the exception of a dispute with a bus driver over a ticket purchased for the wrong time (the pleading tears involved were only half-fake), and a subsequent two-hour interval spent in the Victoria Station Starbucks. Good thing I had two copies of Pride and Prejudice on me.

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