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I recently returned from a three-plus week trip to England.  The following recounts 1-1/2 days near the end of the
trip, when I was in Hampshire in southern England.  I had spent the prior day at the Chawton House Library,
researching early English women writers.  This next day, 4 June, I had reserved to visit sites related to Jane Austen.  
This is the first in a series of travel journals.  
HAMPSHIRE, England
Wednesday, 4 June 2008 (and part of
Thursday, 5 June 2008)
Thankfully, when I had toured the cathedral and finally made my way around
to where JA is buried, the school kids were in other parts of the church.  I
walked down that side aisle reading inscriptions on memorial slabs as I went
until I came to JA’s in the middle of the walk.  That nebulous reflective mood
was still on me as I read the inscription her family had installed on the face of
her grave.  I was moved to be standing there, looking down at her remains,
but it also struck me as somehow humorously fitting that this woman, whose
writing had inspired me to learn more about the society of her era and
especially of women in that era, was unwittingly still bringing home the point
in her memorial slab a hundred ninety years later.  

    “In memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd
     GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly rector of Steventon in this county.  She
     departed this life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness
     supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian...”


it began.  [The rest can be found below in a caption box by the photo.]

Amidst my offering of respects to this woman, I stopped to chuckle on
reading that.  Here was Jane Austen, revered author, acknowledged by many
as the greatest English novelist ever on the strength of only six finished
works; forty-one years of age at the time of her death, a full adult by anyone’
s standards.  And yet true to a time when women were identified by the men
they were beholden to, she is immediately noted as the daughter of Revd
George Austen late of Steventon.  There is almost more direct information
given about him than about her, and his name was writ as large as (larger
than?) hers.  

I had known from my readings before visiting that there was nothing on the
stone slab about her writing, so that did not surprise me.  And somehow –
though with all the conflicting accounts of this woman we hear from her
family members and generations of academics, I can hardly claim to know
her character – the epitaph that followed seemed fitting, based on the
closeness of family we read about the profession of so many of the Austen
men.  I stood for a moment reading it all again, appreciating it, and the
echoes of groups of school children receded from my consciousness.  
“The benevolence of her heart, the
sweetness of her temper, and the
extraordinary endowments of her
mind obtained the regard of all who
knew her and the warmest love of her
intimate connections.  Their grief is
in proportion to their affection, they
know their loss to be irreparable but
in their deepest affliction they are
consoled by a firm but humble hope
that her charity, devotion, faith and
purity have rendered her soul
acceptable in the sight of her
REDEEMER”
How long is long enough to pay respects to someone?  I have no idea, but
after a few minutes, I felt I should move on; but I was still caught in that
mood and strangely lethargic.  I glanced over to the right where on the wall is
the brass plaque installed some years later to honour her literary
achievements and, above that, a stained glass window installed in her honour
in 1900.  It depicts St Augustine (which can be abbreviated to Austen, just as
St Benedict led often to the name Bene’t/Bennet/Bennett.)  The plaque was
highly polished and shiny and reflected a colourful arrangement of flowers
that rested beneath it.  I wondered who maintained those flowers, if some
were continually there in JA’s honour.  Running the length of that wall section
was a low projection at its base that formed a stone bench of sorts, so I went
to sit a spell, still not quite ready to leave.  I sat there feeling gratitude for
what this woman’s books had added to my life while people came and went –
some stopping briefly with their open guidebooks to read her memorial slab,
some just walking across it without notice.
I looked around me and decided to take a few pictures of the cathedral from
where I sat, thinking stupidly that this was JA’s view for eternity, or would be
if she could look out from her repose.  It was a splendid sight, lots of light
from the high windows opposite.  And just as I was about to finally get up
and leave, a couple came walking down the side aisle.  They were in their
thirties, I would guess, both with somewhat spiky short hair (his dark, hers
bleach blond), and she wearing designer jeans and spike-heeled sandals.  
They were speaking German to one another rapidly, but I could tell they
were looking specifically for JA’s resting place.  A few yards away now, the
woman spotted the shiny plaque on the wall next to me and nearly squealed
in her excitement.  She immediately scuttled over and stood next to it so her
husband could take pictures.  They were chattering away and I heard “Jane
Austen” mentioned a couple times in thick accents.  And I couldn’t help but
laugh (and if I am totally honest, feel the littlest bit smug) to note that while
Frau Fan was posing with a big smile next to the brass plaque, Herr Fan was
standing smack-dab in the middle of JA’s stone slab to take the photos and
neither had paid the least attention to it.

Frau Fan then joined her husband to review the digital images and, at one
point, they looked in my direction so I smiled; they smiled and said hello, so
in return I pointed to the spot where they stood.  They looked down but
nothing registered – Herr Fan felt a couple pockets to ensure he hadn’t
dropped anything.  And they looked at me again in question.  So I pointed
down again and said “Jane Austen,” trying to think if I knew the German
word for ‘grave.’  I didn’t, so I said “her grave” in English; and they finally
looked down again and took my meaning.  I probably should not have been,
but was quite entertained by it all.  Immediately there was another photo
shoot with Frau Fan now standing at the head of the slab and before the
couple finally left, they ‘danke shoen-ed’ me and waved.  Somehow, that
seemed my cue to leave as well – it wouldn’t get any better than that.  The
irreverence of that moment felt something of a tribute in itself, an absurdity
JA might have enjoyed as much as I had done.  

As I headed out towards the cathedral exit, I stopped one last time at the
back of the church, looked down its long nave, and felt truly humbled in so
many ways.  I stopped at a stand of votives and lit two candles – one for my
own loved ones who I have lost, and one for Jane Austen.
After the cathedral, the bright sun and heat of the early afternoon felt
wonderful and I stood a few minutes just basking in it.  I considered getting a
light lunch before leaving Winchester, but had eaten breakfast so late, I wasn’
t hungry.  And there was a large gift shop I glanced at, but somehow just
wasn’t in the mood.  So I slowly ambled back to the high street, up to the
medieval gate and turned down to the car park and my hire car again.  A
quick consult of the map, and I was on the road... to Steventon.

I passed through some lovely little villages on the fifteen or so mile trek
from Winchester to Steventon, and a few which names I well recognized
from reading her letters and biographies and related material: Ashe, Deane,
Overton, Dummer and Basingstoke further on.  It was when I reached
Overton that I realized I had missed the turn to Steventon and turned
around to go back a few miles.  From that direction, I saw the sign and turn
easily – it had apparently been obscured by vegetation from the other side.  
I drove up a small road and, just before a gathering of buildings that would
be the village of Steventon, a signpost directed me left for the church.  So I
turned, deciding to go there first.  I drove up a narrow lane, passing on the
lower corner as I turned the plot where the rectory once stood that JA was
born and raised in.  

I was a little surprised when I reached the tiny church to see directly
opposite it a very large house and property.  A gardener was out on a riding
mower cutting the vast lawn, and an expensive-looking car was parked in
the drive.  Then I recalled that there was a manse there (though I was later
told it burned down in the mid-1800’s and this built in its stead) – but still I
had not expected it.  Sort of like finding The Alamo in the middle of a
downtown block of San Antonio.  But I gave my attentions over to little Saint
Nicholas church.  

I got a thrill (and a bit of chill despite the warm day) looking at that tiny
church that JA knew so well – even though the pointed steeple with its quill
vane in her honour was added many years after her life –
and one of the first thoughts that assailed me was recalling how she had on
three occasions as a girl written herself into her father’s church register as
being married, each time to a different named gentleman.  One of the
gentlemen named was Henry Frederic Howard Fitzwilliam – that was the
second of the entries.  The first had multiple names as well, though I don’t
recall them except that Arthur was among them.  And humorously enough,
the last entry was for Jack Smith.  (Jack and Jane, you gotta love it.)  

I took a deep breath of fresh Hampshire air, and opened the gate to the
church yard, noting as I did so a bicycle parked to one side of the fence.
I took a photo or ten of the exterior of the church, then settled myself to
enter it.  I imagined that it would have a significant impact on me
emotionally, both from my experience just earlier at Winchester and because
my friend Sandra had visited St Nicolas Church as few months earlier and
written of how peaceful and simple it was.  

It was simple, and lovely, and intimate.  And I am certain it would have had
a profound impact on me had it not been for the equally simple fact that it
was anything but peaceful, or rather quiet.  I turned the door handle and
entered and before I could even close it was met with a hearty hello.  To my
left at the back of the church was an older gentleman with a little wad of note
papers and a pencil in his hand.  I said hello, thinking that would be the end
of it.  But my friend was not about to let it go at that.  Before ten minutes
had passed, I knew half his life story.  I knew he was 72 years young, he
kept fit by riding his bicycle everywhere, at least 60 miles a week (his was
the bicycle outside) – that he was retired and lived in Winchester (from which
he had ridden, fifteen miles one way of pretty fair hills which I had to admit
was impressive), and that he came here quite often.  He was a late comer to
JA, he said, but nonetheless was intrigued now with ferreting out the details
of her life.  But sadly, he kept mentioning that he had trouble remember
details, that the exercise of his rides caused him to forget a lot, and that he
carried around his little notes to keep writing down things as he encountered
them.  (I have to admit I was a bit concerned for him, hoping his dementia
was only that of normal aging and not something whereby I would worry to
have him riding his bicycle around the countryside.)  He was, when I arrived,
copying down information from an Austen family tree diagram that was
posted on the wall at the back of the church.
While I would have preferred to have the church to myself, I did kind of feel
for this gentleman – he was obviously delighted to have someone to talk to –
and in truth, he was interesting even though he muddled up a lot of
information.  He showed me some pencil sketches he had done, saying that
he believed none of the (few) pictures we have of JA are accurate – that
Cassandra’s famous sketch of her wasn’t well done, and the others all got
the eyes very wrong indeed.  So from all the descriptions of her he could
find, he had done his own sketch of JA… as well as one of Cassandra, a
couple of her brothers, and a few other things.  They were actually not bad
artistically, and I asked if he intended to publish them.  No… they were only
for himself.  Then he showed me his copious notes, scribbled on this little
wad of papers.  I will say this for him – he didn’t always make total sense,
and his memory for facts may have failed him, but he was certainly
enthusiastic, and it was very endearing the way he talked about JA as if she
were an old friend!  

After a while, I excused myself to take some pictures in the little church,
starting to walk up the aisle.  He followed me, chatting all the way.  I took a
pic of some inspirational words written high up and he entered into a (very
one-sided) discussion of the various meanings of ‘grace.’  At that point, I
gave up thinking that he would be leaving anytime soon – he had too captive
an audience – and I reconciled myself to finding no peace in this otherwise
peaceful location.  
PAGE TWO (continued)
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