It is a truth universally acknowledged that any story about Jane Austen must start with the words "it is a truth universally acknowledged". Not sure why, as I've never read any of Austen's work. From a position of profound and confident ignorance I have deemed them 19th century chick lit and have really only caught fleeting glances of various TV Darcys erupting manfully from lakes. He's a bit of a dick, I understand.
Which is why I'm resting up in a west London hotel (one of those elegant white Victorian mansions where the elevator is more upright coffin than mode of transport) and wondering what in God's name I'm doing starting a week-long Jane Austen tour.
It seemed like a good idea at the time but … a week? With Jane Austen fans? It's not as if I've not already had my fill of Jane Austen; it's the 200th anniversary of her death this year and the woman is everywhere.
There are TV shows and documentaries wringing out every last detail of her cruelly short 41 years and the bookshops are heaving like Regency bosoms with every conceivable edition of her novels. Jane Austen at Home lurks at No.7 on The Sunday Times bestseller list; Jane Austen: The Secret Radical is burning a hole in my suitcase; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an unexpectedly huge success.
And on top of all that she's the face of the new British £10 polymer note, which will be launched on July 18 – the anniversary of her death in 1817.
Airbrushed Austen or resting bitch face Austen, she's still arguably the most successful female author in history
It's an honour that's already caused a stir because the image they've used is a Vaseline-lensed, botoxed version rather than the supposedly more realistic portrait, drawn by her sister Cassandra, of a thin-lipped, somewhat shrewish looking woman just after she's sucked on a lemon.
Still, airbrushed Austen or resting bitch face Austen, she's still arguably the most successful female author in history, compared to Shakespeare and Dickens in the British literary pantheon, and rarely ever out of print.
On our tour are Sonja Stoegmueller, our Austrian tour leader, twin sisters from New Zealand, a retired teacher from Melbourne and another retired lady from Auckland. It is what you might call an intimate group. Which means ignorance like mine cannot hide in the crowd. They are all, disappointingly, horribly normal, not a Janeite (the Trekkies of the Austen world) among them.
Our Journey Through Jane is going to take us from London to Winchester, Lyme Regis, Bath and beyond. We will be checking out the important places in her life and also some of the locations (Evershot and Lacock) where adaptations were filmed.
Our first outing takes us to Piccadilly and Mayfair, where guide Kevin Flude takes us on a tour of Regency London as Jane Austen would have known it. We tramp the select streets where she and her sister would have strolled on the occasions they came up to London to see their brothers.
These are streets festooned with up-market fashion stores and gents' outfitters where military men went to get their uniforms made. In a quiet square off the main drag we listen to the story of how Jane's banker brother Henry had an office here before he went bankrupt and had to settle for more straightened circumstances as a curate.
All of which most certainly wriggled its way into her fiction but the "real" Jane Austen story played out in the countryside, villages, hamlets and towns of Hampshire, Somerset and Dorset, and that's where we're heading tomorrow.
Steventon, Chawton, Winchester, Lyme Regis and the cosmopolitan delights of Regency Bath were the terribly English grist to the Austen mill that produced Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park.
The first three of these books started life in Steventon, the small hamlet in north Hampshire where Jane was born on December 16, 1775, and where she lived for the first 25 years of her life.
Today, Steventon is a loose and somnambulistic assortment of neat cottages reached along dappled lanes lined with hedgerows and splashed with wildflowers. The low hills on either side are clipped, well-ordered and peppered with the cleanest sheep you've ever seen. Manicured is the cliche that springs to mind but this is countryside that has had a mani and a pedi.
Just after our minibus turns off the busy A30 at The Wheatsheaf pub (part of which used to be the post office where Jane would pick up the family's mail) there is a sign that declares this the birthplace of Jane Austen. A noticeboard further on reveals that there is a Jane Austen in Words and Music evening soon in St Nicholas Church, where Jane's father George was rector.
Built in the 12th century the church is pretty much unchanged since Jane's day. Inside there are various Austen touches, including a plaque and hand-embroidered cushions featuring the silhouette of the author at a writing desk. The graveyard outside is awash with Austens.
Our next stop is Chawton, the village where Jane, her mother and sister went to live after the death of George Austen. It was here that she spent the last eight years of her life, in a cottage provided by her brother Edward.
A museum today, this large, rambling, creaky old house was where Jane revised her first three manuscripts, wrote three more and even started a seventh, Sanditon, which remained unfinished at the time of her death.
Chawton is lovely. The museum is well laid out and full of JA memorabilia while the village itself (which we stroll around with a guide) is of that thatched cottage, roses-round-the-door, lichen-covered stone, chocolate-box style that the English do so well.
Our final destination for the day is Winchester, an ancient city of Roman descent that Jane visited occasionally ("she didn't just come here when she was dead" explains guide Geraldine Buchanan) but which she, most importantly, repaired to for the final few months of her life to be nearer the family doctor. Fat lot of good he was. She was buried in the cathedral and remains there to this day.
It's here we trip the light fantastic at a costumed Regency dance evening and where, among the cack-handed newcomers and the wonderfully ribboned regulars going through their pousettes and maggots (don't ask), I remain resolutely seated. I think Darcy would have approved; perhaps he wasn't such a dick after all.
In the pretty little seaside town of Lyme Regis we meet guide Natalie Manifold to tour the town and check out the famous Cobb – the curved harbour wall from which, in Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove falls. Jane was very much taken with Lyme Regis, writing: "A very strange stranger it must be who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme to make him wish to know it better."
And then it's on to Bath, the butter-coloured sandstone city that sprawls smugly on the banks of the River Avon and is known for its hot springs, Roman baths, Georgian architecture and the Jane Austen Centre.
There is another tour, from another delightfully dotty guide who explains what Jane got up to during her five-year sojourn in Bath, and which ends at the centre. Inside, there are opportunities to try on Regency clothing, take a self-guided tour and watch a short film presented by Adrian Lukis, who played the dastardly Wickham in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice TV series alongside Colin Firth.
You can also buy all manner of souvenirs, including "I Heart Wickham" badges for the Regency gal who likes a bad Regency boy.
In the end, after we say goodbye and make our separate ways out of Bath, I settle down on the train, open my new Pride and Prejudice and read: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains…"
Hang on …
hrd.org.uk (Hampshire Regency Dancers)
Bed and breakfast at three- and four-star hotels is included in the price. We stayed at: Grange Strathmore Hotel, 41 Queens Gate Gardens, London (grangehotels.com); The Winchester Royal Hotel, St Peter Street, Winchester, Hampshire (winchesterroyalhotel.com); Fairwater Head Hotel, Scouse Lane, Hawkchurch, Axminster (fairwaterheadhotel.co.uk); The Royal Bath Hotel, Manvers St, Bath (royalhotelbath.co.uk).
Peregrine Adventures' Jane Austen's England – Limited Edition trip starts from $3435 per person in a twin share room. The price includes seven breakfasts, two dinners, all transport and accommodation as well as walking tours and museum/cathedral entry. See peregrineadventures.com
Keith Austin flew to London at his own expense and was a guest on tour of Peregrine Adventures.
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