It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that one always takes for granted what is right under one’s nose. I have the good fortune to have always lived within a stone’s throw of Winchester, the city where Jane Austen died and was laid to rest. My current home is a short and beautiful drive to the tiny village of Chawton, where Jane wrote a number of her books. Yet I have often taken this for granted. This month, with the 200th anniversary of her death, I have come to realise how lucky I am to live in such great proximity to places that are so significant to Jane’s life.
Winchester has hosted some wonderful things to celebrate Jane’s life this month, including a fantastic, free exhibition in the public library and a trail of Jane Austen quotations on the pavements around the city. Winchester Cathedral has also organised a number of events, including a special evensong on the anniversary of her death. As I joined the throng queueing to get into the cathedral for evensong, I was surrounded by people from across England and the globe. I met women from America, Australia and Istanbul, in addition to Taunton, Lymington and Hertfordshire; I was so struck by the fact that we were all brought together for that single event – united by our love of Jane Austen’s books. As I took my seat in the packed cathedral and looked around at the congregation I wondered what Jane would have said.
“The third reading,” the vicar announced, “is from ‘Pride and Prejudice’.” I wonder if I will ever again hear such a proclamation at evensong! The entire order of service was based around music and prayers that would have been familiar to Jane, and some of the prayer were, in fact, written by her. I like to think that she was watching over us that evening and that her crumbling bones beneath the cathedral floor could somehow sense the packed building above her, full of admirers of her work which has withstood the test of time.
I have written elsewhere about my relationship with the classics. Sadly, my reluctance to pursue books that might challenge me meant that I didn’t begin to read Jane Austen’s works until I was 18. I began, of course, with Pride and Prejudice. I was working in an 18th Century mansion at the time and, each lunchtime, I hid myself away in the beautiful, wooden panelled library, next to the great windows which looked out onto acres of parkland. As I read of Netherfield Hall and Pemberley, I was transported from my library to the libraries of those great houses, and as I looked out of the window I could see Elizabeth Bennett traipsing through the parkland in pursuit of her sisters. It was all in my mind’s eye, but it felt so real.
It wasn’t just Austen’s ability to conjure characters and locations that so enthralled me, but her subtle wit and humour – who could fail to laugh at the preposterous Mr Collins? Or Mary Bennett’s proclamation? She has provided us with a wealth of rich and fascinating characters and a window into the past so that we might understand a little more about what life was like back then. When I read Jane Austen’s works, I am always so struck at the sheer mundanity of women’s lives during that era; all they seem to have done is paid social calls, attended balls and been at the mercy of a father or husband. Whilst we like to romanticise the regency period, there is no denying that it must have been stifling for the women.
At the end of the exhibition in Winchester Discovery Centre (also known as the public library), visitors are invited to complete a postcard under the heading ‘What does Jane Austen meant to me?’ and I confess that I was rather stumped. Since then, I have mulled over the question in an attempt to articulate a response, and here is my answer:
I feel a deep affinity with Jane Austen. We are both women of Hampshire, with large families and a love of our countryside. But beyond that, I revere Jane’s ability to write and her decision to publish ‘novels’ as a time when they were scorned. Moreover, as an aspiring writer, I feel so inspired by what Jane achieved as an author. In her 42 years, she wrote six novels which means that, two centuries after her death, her face is about to appear on the new £10 note and Winchester is teeming with visitors from across the world who have come to pay tribute to her. Each of her books is so beautifully crafted, the words are so finely chosen and her work is so intricate yet accessible – truly, Jane Austen is a light to be guided by.