If any of you read my post about audio books, you may remember I was lying in bed with a virus, enthralled by Ian McEwan’s reading of On Cheshil Beach. Since then, I have been overseas and, much to my surprise, found myself walking along the very same Cheshil Beach in Dorset where the novel’s young, newlywed Florence made her escape from the bridal bed. It was an exhausting trudge through deep shingle for eighteen miles (I only made it for a few of them), but exhilarating, not just because of the view and the weather, but because McEwan’s story has written the place into the literary landscape and universal consciousness.
Although I did not plan my recent trip as a literary pilgrimage, that’s pretty much what it turned out to be. Driving from Scotland to the south of England, there are ghosts of writers everywhere, but it was one of my favourites, Jane Austen, who seemed to pop up at every corner. I first came across her in Bath at the Jane Austen Museum, housed in Gay Street a few doors down from where Jane lived for a few years. From there it was a short walk to the Royal Crescent that overlooks the city. I walked along the curved frontage of the terraced houses, swept along, ‘all eager delight’, like Northanger Abbey’s Catherine on the way to the ball.
I was distracted from Jane Austen for a day or two when I arrived on the south coast and found myself on Cheshil Beach. But at nearby Lyme Regis I picked up her trail again. It was in the harbour (The Cobb) in this Regency seaside resort that Louisa Musgrove had a nearly fatal fall in Austen’s last novel Persuasion. I had already been to Belton House in Lincolnshire, one of the stately homes used in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, and seen the ornate desk where Darcy (Colin Firth) penned the letter to Elizabeth Bennet. But now I was about to see a very different desk, a tiny three-legged one belonging to Jane Austen.
By this time I was in the nearby county of Hampshire. I had arrived on Open Day at Chawton House, the home of Jane Austen’s brother Edward, which now houses a library of manuscripts by early English women writers. When Austen’s family fell on hard times, it was Edward, who had been adopted by rich childless relatives, who found a place for them to live on the Chawton estate he had inherited. Jane, together with her mother and her sister Cassandra, moved into a cottage on the estate, and it was here Jane spent a happy few years writing her best work before she became ill and moved to Winchester, where she died.
It made sense to visit Chawton House while it was open to the public, and exciting to follow in Jane’s footsteps along the road to her brother’s house, walk up the driveway that would have been so familiar to her, up the sloping lawn and the flight of steps into the mansion. But it was Jane’s cottage that I really wanted to see.
I went back there two days later when the crowds had gone, and immersed myself in the daily rituals of her life. There was the well next to the bakehouse, where the women baked bread and washed their clothes (and the pig!); the humble donkey carriage they used for trips to Alton; the cheerful kitchen with its cooking range; the sunny bedroom where you can see Jane’s lacework and the patchwork coverlet she made with Cassandra and her mother; and the dining room, with the tiny pedestal desk under the window, just big enough to fit a book, a pen and inkwell. She would write here after breakfast and dinner. Before breakfast was the time for daily piano practice. Cassandra took on most of the household duties to give Jane time to write – good on you, sis! In glass cases are Jane’s cup and ball – she was a proficient player – and the books on manners she presented as gifts to her nieces. I could feel the happiness and order that radiated from every corner and no doubt contributed to her prolific output during her eight years here. It was in this cottage that she finally achieved success with Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma.
I left the house with a lingering look at that tiny desk, resolving to maintain that simplicity in my writing life, resume my piano practice, take up baking bread again and going for long walks. Not much has changed in my life since I got back to Melbourne. My desk, which I am thinking of replacing with a bigger one, is chaotic with papers and I don’t know what, the piano is gathering dust and my walks around the suburbs are short and irregular. But I have bought a cake tin and made a Madeira cake. Next comes the bread. No pig to wash or patchwork to sew, so there’s plenty of time to write.