Jane Austen is like being in love. When someone mentions her name, my eyes light up and a smile comes to my face. It’s an immediate reaction rather than a conscious decision. I can’t help myself. This love affair began shortly after I turned 16—yes, I was a late bloomer. Once I entered this world, I was smitten.
My introduction was the story of the Dashwoods—smart, sensible Elinor and her sister, Marianne, who, unlike her older sibling, eagerly and openly expresses her feelings—in “Sense and Sensibility.” It was this contrast in their demeanors, their individual stories of love and heartbreak, and the insight into the often soap opera–like behavior and snobbery of the English gentry at the time (money struggles, love triangles, class divisions, illegitimate children) that drew me in.
By that time in my education I had made it through “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in the 6th grade, “Catcher in the Rye” in the 9th, and a variety of others, but—and this may be literary blasphemy—“Sense and Sensibility” was the first classic novel that I truly whole-heartedly enjoyed. This story was something different entirely; literature just didn’t seem quite the same after I’d been introduced to Elinor and Marianne. I then met Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice,” Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in “Persuasion,” and I continued until I’d finished all six of her novels, her unfinished works, and her early writings. I was at the end of the Jane Austen road, but I still somehow wanted to find out more.
In 2002 I spent the summer studying in London, and that’s the year I went to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton. It seemed the only remaining step left to take. This house is where Austen spent the last eight years of her life before she died in 1817 at the unfortunately young age of 41, and it’s important because it’s where she did the majority of her mature writing. Within those walls she revised “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “Northanger Abbey” and wrote “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” and “Persuasion.” It was the birthplace and home for a handful of the world’s literary classics and some of the most well-loved characters created in any language.
It was a little before 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon when I set out by myself from Waterloo station on the 11/4-hour train ride to Alton. This was part one of my three-legged trip. Once I arrived in Alton, I had to catch a bus connection and then walk the remainder of the way into the village of Chawton. The museum closed at 5 p.m., and my time was already running unnervingly short.
As I sat on the train, I watched London fade into suburbs and then into countryside. I had brought “Persuasion” with me. I’d read it again while I’d been in London and reread parts while on my journey there. It somehow seemed right to have one of Austen’s novels with me, but I couldn’t get very far. The anticipation of my destination distracted me. The crowded train slowly emptied stop by stop, and by the time I arrived at mine only a few people stepped off onto the platform with me.
Irregular bus schedules and a lack of taxis in the English village on a Sunday afternoon left me flustered, but eventually my bus pulled up. I told the driver where I was headed; he signaled me when my stop arrived and pointed me in the right direction, which happened to be across a multi-lane roundabout. I dashed across and made it to the start of a shaded street that didn’t seem to match the huge highway just steps away. It was a warm day, but the old trees with their bright summer leaves shaded my way. I passed by fields and homes on either side, and then I saw the village ahead—small streets and short brick buildings with white trim. On my left there was a waist-high brick wall surrounding a well-kept yard. The grass was manicured and neat, the flowerbeds were unruly in a picture-perfect kind of way, and wooden benches dotted the yard and pathways. Then I saw the white sign: Jane Austen’s House.
It was quiet when I walked inside. There were only a handful of other people, both women and men, in the house this late on a summer Sunday. Apparently, I’d missed the departure of the tour buses by about 30 minutes. Being late had its perks. The house was filled with memorabilia: Jane’s and her sister Cassandra’s cross necklaces, Jane’s writing desk, a quilt she’d made, and some of her dresses—she was much shorter and smaller than I’d imagined. There were signs posted throughout the house that marked where Jane slept and wrote and what her daily life was like. The house was large, even by American standards. Most of the visitors were quiet as we walked through the rooms. There were so few people still there that each person could experience the house at their own pace and were often on their own in each room.
In one of the rooms at the back of the house overlooking the garden was a small bookstore filled with various editions of her novels and other authors’ spinoff stories. A soft-spoken, gray-haired man in a white dress shirt and black pants was the attendant. After I bought my second (or third?) copy of “Sense and Sensibility,” he handed me a sticker to place inside it that said, “Bought at Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire.” It seemed appropriate to end my journey with the book that began it all.
Rachel Quinlivan is a freelance writer and artist based in Birmingham, Alabama. She loves to travel and hops on a plane any chance she gets. You can see a sampling of her artwork in her etsy shop at www.blueprintdesign.etsy.com