Four years ago, I set out on a pilgrimage in search of Jane Austen. For a long time, I’d been a tragic Janeite. I could recite the first few pages of Pride and Prejudice and tell you exactly what Captain Wentworth wrote in his letter to Anne in Persuasion. Even as I write my ‘I love My Darcy’ canvas bag hangs on the door handle, worn and yellowing from daily use. In my wardrobe, cocooned in a plastic garment bag, is a Regency style dress that I have worn to an embarrassing number of costume parties. Perhaps most embarrassing of all is my Jane Austen doll, complete with bonnet and petticoats. Part of me wants to make excuses and explain away this nerd trophy: It was a joke birthday present from a friend. I would never buy something like this myself! Hah, I’m not that tragic.But, honestly, it is the one of the best presents I’ve ever received.
It wasn’t just Austen’s writing that inspired me; it was her. I subscribed to what Austen scholar Claudia Johnson calls Janeitism: ‘the self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasm for Jane and every detail relative to her.’ I felt close to Jane when I read her novels and, like other fanatical readers, imagined that she and I would have been best friends had we met.
And so, in 2010, aged nineteen (a very green nineteen), I applied to a creative writing summer school in Manchester. Alongside narrative and poetry classes, the summer featured trips to the Lakes District and Bath, where we could walk where Austen walked or sit where famous authors like Wordsworth or Dickens had once sat — heaven for any literary fangirl like me.
I decided to leave my Jane Austen doll in Brisbane but when I arrived at my accommodation I propped up my copies of Persuasion, Emma, Northanger Abbey and So You Think You Know Jane Austen? using shoes for bookends. The next morning, on the first day of class, I walked through the quiet halls of the college to the cafeteria, revelling in how adorably English everything looked.
I joined a line for breakfast. Blindingly yellow scrambled eggs, grey sausages, and sweaty strips of bacon congealed under heat lamps. There weren’t many people about. I eyed them, wondering who was also attending the summer school. I suddenly felt possessive of Jane — was there another student here who loved her as I did? Did he or she know Jane as well as me?
Luckily, I was the only Janeite in the group, as well as the only non-American. Most of the students were from Missouri. They spoke in warm Southern drawls. I fell into friendship with a girl called Rachel who had applied for the summer school as part of her pursuit of J.R.R. Tolkien; therefore posed no threat to my relationship with Jane. It was her first time out of the States, but she was a thorough Anglophile.
‘Mizzou has hardly any history, you know? Literary history I mean,’ she said as we walked with our group through the persistent Mancunian drizzle towards our first class. ‘You walk down a street here or, like, in London and you’re walking where Shakespeare walked or Dickens!’
Part of me understood her enthusiasm. In England we could lean against a wall and imagine our literary heroes leaning against the same wall hundreds of years previously. And perhaps something of them would rub off on us.
But two weeks passed and I still didn’t feel a connection with Jane. Apparently simply being in England was not enough to transcend time and bring me closer to her — she was just my imaginary friend on the page.
When classes ended we were given a free weekend to travel. Rachel and the other Americans had already planned their literary pilgrimages. Rachel was going to Oxford to visit Tolkien’s grave. Ben was taking the train to Cardiff for Roald Dahl and, since he’d be in the area, the Doctor Who Museum. Ellen was going to the Lakes District in search of Wordsworth and his daffodils. In desperation, I booked a train ticket to Winchester, the town where Jane had moved on the advice of her doctor and where she later died, aged forty-one.
I arrived in Winchester early on a Saturday morning. The town was sleepy and green — a comfortingly accurate reflection of Highbury and Longbourn (and Midsomer Murders, I couldn’t help thinking). From the train station I went first to Jane’s house. You could hardly tell it was a tourist attraction. A modest square house, bricks painted pale yellow, curtained windows. I stood out front for a few minutes, staring at the plain oval plaque, the only thing marking the significance of the site for literary pilgrims: ‘In this house Jane Austen lived her last days and died 18th July 1817.’ I willed myself to feel a shiver of contact with Jane, to feel close to her, but my eyes dropped to a sign below the plaque: ‘Private residence, no tours, no visitors.’
I don’t know what I expected to happen. Did I want some kind of religious experience with this long dead author? Was I hoping her ghost would fly out of a window to greet me and we’d hang out?
Disappointed but not entirely defeated, I headed towards Winchester Cathedral where Jane is buried. How did the inhabitants of the house feel, I wondered as I walked, living in the house where Jane had died? Clearly they weren’t pleased with their private home doubling as a tourist attraction. But did they ever imagine the famous author who had lived and died in their house? Did they think of her when they buttered their toast in the morning or brushed their teeth at night? Would I feel closer to Jane if I lived in her old house?
Winchester Cathedral was almost empty when I arrived, just a few tourists reading brochures. As I stepped inside I tilted my head back to examine the ornate roof bosses, decorated with angels and animals. Looking down, I saw Jane there beneath my feet! I was standing on her grave. I sat down cross-legged beside it and gazed reverently at the carved words on the stone. This was it. This was the main site on my literary pilgrimage — the Holy Grail for Janeites. Surely, I’d feel close to her here.
‘In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngeft daughter of the late Rev GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County, fhe departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illnefs fupported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian.’
I read the dedication twice. I even ran my fingers over the engraved words. (Perhaps I imagined that Jane, despite being dead, would be reaching out to me on the other side of the stone — something like Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.) But then nothing happened. I felt nothing. Or, rather, all that happened was that my butt became sore from sitting on the cold stone, and I lost feeling in my legs. I pulled myself up and hobbled out of the cathedral feeling foolish and thinking only of how strange the engraving looked with the occasional f instead of s.
Cosima McGrath is a writer and editor from Brisbane. She works for Griffith REVIEW and is an editor for Bumf. In July, she will examine the way avid readers and aspiring writers encounter their literary heroes on the page and in real life.