Scenes of good sense

Penny McDonald charts key Austen bolt-holes during the bicentennary of the author's first book, Sense and Sensibility.

We've had the sea monsters version, new television adaptations every couple of years and now the movie, From Prada to Nada, a Latino take released this year based on Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility, 200 years after its publication. This year travellers can weave their visits around the book's celebrations and locales.

Sense and Sensibility is the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and their search for a place in society. Their pathway begins in Sussex, diverts to Devon in the West Country, gets sidetracked to London, then turns westwards again to Somerset.

These settings are based on Austen's own travels in the early 19th century. She was born and raised in Hampshire with six brothers and one sister, before her clergyman father retired to Bath in 1801. In the three years after his retirement, Jane travelled from Bath around the English south west, a countryside she adored, taking in the newly fashionable seaside resorts of Sidmouth and Dawlish, and with frequent visits to London.

The plot mirrors key events in her life, too. In the summer of 1801 Austen fell passionately in love with a handsome young man, his name unknown to us, while on holiday at Sidmouth, Devon. He was forced to leave in a hurry, for reasons never revealed to posterity, and died suddenly. She was bereft.

Sense and Sensibility begins at Norland Park in Sussex, the ancestral home of the Dashwood family, with an estate earning £4000 a year. On the death of their father, Elinor and Marianne are left with little money by the heir, their half-brother, and are forced to move with their mother to a cottage on the Devonshire estate of a rich relative, Sir John Middleton.

Devon

Austen set most of Sense and Sensibility in Barton Cottage in Devon, which she placed "four miles north of Exeter". Although a shock after the grandeur of Norland Park, Barton's prospect, set in a valley surrounded by hills, was pleasing and the nearby society tolerable. There's Colonel Brandon, "the wrong side of five and thirty" but owner of the Delaford estate in Dorset, worth £2000 a year; and John Willoughby, the heir of nearby Allenham and owner of a small estate over the county border in Somerset.

It's an ancient landscape marked by combes (valleys), rounded hills and wooded slopes of trees. Narrow winding lanes and high hedges block out the light and the surrounding farmland is still dotted with old cottages on the fringe of hamlets and villages.

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Marianne twists her ankle on a hillside and Willoughby, out hunting with a gun and dogs, rescues her. She falls in love with him but he leaves for London suddenly. Elinor, meanwhile, has fallen for her sister-in-law's brother, Edward Ferrars, but learns that he is secretly engaged to Lucy Steele.

Today's Barton Cottage, while not the original and nowhere near Exeter - it was, however used by the BBC in its 2008 adaptation - can be hired by holidaymakers. It's a 15th-century cottage on the estate of Hartland Abbey, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in North Devon. Rates from £775 ($1262) a week (hartlandabbey.com/cottages.htm).

Hartland Abbey is close to the village of Clovelly, 24 kilometres west of the 14th-century market town of Bideford. With its woodlands and walled gardens, Hartland is a stunning stopping-off point for walkers on the South West Coastal Path, a continuous path running along the wild coastlines of the West Country's Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset.

Sidmouth, the scene of Austen's three-week romance, figures in this year's Sense and Sensibility celebrations and is the venue for this year's Jane Austen Society (UK) conference on September 1-4 (www.janeaustensoci.freeuk.com).

London

Austen set nearly a third of the novel in London, where Elinor and Marianne stay at the house of a family friend, Mrs Jennings. At a society party Marianne is snubbed by Willoughby, who has left her for an heiress.

When Austen was in London in April 1811 to read the proofs of Sense and Sensibility, she stayed with her brother, Henry, in Sloane Street. Henry had married their exotic cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, whose first husband, a French aristocrat, had been guillotined in the revolution.

Born in India, Eliza was rumoured to be the love child of the first Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings. Sense and Sensibility has its Indian connection in Colonel Brandon, who fights a duel with Willoughby for seducing a ward of his family, named Eliza.

Austen fans will want to see the only original portrait of Austen in existence. A pencil-and-watercolour portrait, circa 1810, by her older sister, Cassandra, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery (npg.org.uk). It is one of five images of Austen in the gallery: a silhouette circa 1810-15 "by an unknown artist", and three engravings after Cassandra's portrait.

Somerset

Austen disliked Bath society but after her family moved there she took the chance to travel around the countryside and is thought to have visited Weston, presumably Weston-Super-Mare, a drab seaside town on the Bristol Channel.

Nearby is the small town of Clevedon, called Cleveland in the novel, and turned into the house of Mrs Jennings' married daughter, Charlotte Palmer. Elinor and Marianne break their journey to Devon here and Marianne, fancying she might glimpse Willoughby's estate over a distant ridge of hills, catches a chill on a twilight walk and falls seriously ill.

Marianne recovers and back at Barton Cottage she agrees to marry Colonel Brandon. Elinor discovers Edward's engagement has been broken off. He has decided to be ordained as a priest and is offered the curacy of Delaford parsonage by Colonel Brandon. Elinor accepts Edward's proposal of marriage.

The golden hues of Bath stone and its Georgian street architecture still evoke Austen's world. At 4 Sydney Place is the bronze plaque commemorating Austen's "principle domicile" in Bath.

A Jane Austen Festival will be held in Bath on September 16-24, preceded by the annual Regency Costume Ball at the city's Guildhall on July 9. Ballgoers are encouraged to dress like an Austen character and there are dancing lessons during the day.

There are Jane Austen walking tours in the city throughout the year. Travellers can follow in Austen's footsteps as well those of the characters from Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and visit Georgian buildings such as the Pump Room, Assembly Rooms, the Circus and the Royal Crescent (www.janeausten.co.uk).

Hampshire

After her father died in 1806 Austen was able to leave Bath, with "happy feelings of escape!" and, with her mother and sister, moved briefly to Bristol, then to Southampton in much reduced circumstances. Her brothers donated towards their upkeep and, in 1809, Edward, newly widowed, offered them a cottage in Hampshire at Chawton.

Austen settled back to her writing and from Chawton House would complete six novels and begin a seventh. In a letter to Cassandra about the excitement of Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, she wrote: "I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her suckling child."

A two-storey brick Georgian house, Chawton sits on the old London to Winchester road and was to be Austen's last home. It's a museum now and many personal items have been carefully preserved, including letters and her music books (Austen loved to play the piano). There is the family china, jewellery and the patchwork quilt made by Austen, her mother and Cassandra.

From the mahogany writing desk she submitted the manuscript of Sense and Sensibility to her London publisher, Thomas Egerton, in the autumn of 1810. It was accepted for publication the following year.

The museum is celebrating the Year of Sense and Sensibility with musical events: on June 25 is a recital by harpsichordist Christian Matjias; on September 10 a piano recital by Katharine May; on November 26 is Marianne's Songs, an evening of songs from the period reflecting the character of Marianne. There will be writing workshops and lace and quilting demonstrations (jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk).

Winchester

At 41, Austen was dying of what is now thought to have been Addison's disease, an endocrine disorder, and was sent to a physician in the city of Winchester, 16 miles from Chawton and once the capital of Saxon Wessex. She and Cassandra lodged at College Street House. Austen died on July 18, 1817, and was buried in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral, England's longest cathedral, built in the Norman style in 1079.

Literary pilgrims can visit her tomb and a new permanent exhibition to commemorate this year's bicentenary. Rare items of memorabilia are on display: the burial register that records the wrong date for her death, Henry Austen's draft of the text of her memorial stone, a poem by James Austen on her death and one of Austen's poems (winchester-cathedral.org.uk).

- Sense and Sensibility, published anonymously "By A Lady", appeared on October 30, 1811, in three volumes, priced at 15 shillings. The first edition sold out by the summer of 1813. The second edition, published in November 1813, cost 18 shillings, and Austen was still receiving royalties a few months before her death.

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