Feature

This week’s travel dream: Searching for Jane Austen

Trying to retrace the novelist's footsteps through rural southern England will keep you on the move for days.

Jane Austen really got around during her short, quiet life, said Zofia Smardz in The Washington Post. If you try retracing her footsteps through rural southern England, as I recently did, the “ever-elusive” novelist will keep you on the move for days, and remain just far enough out of sight that you had best be prepared to enjoy the passing scenery. “You think, if I can only see where she lived and worked and danced and played, I’ll get inside her head”—and capture the source of the genius that inspires so many other pilgrims fully 200 years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice. But she’s very good at hiding.

My husband and I do catch a glimpse of her at Jane Austen’s House Museum in the tiny hamlet of Chawton. Austen was born not far away in Steventon, where you can still visit the 12th-century church where her father served as pastor. But only when I stand in front of the tiny table on which she wrote or polished all six of her novels does her ghost semi-materialize. “She wrote on this? With a quill pen?” I think. “I’d be forever knocking the inkstand to the floor.” I feel her presence again when we peek into the small bed chamber the 30-something Jane shared with her sister, “but she’s gone again as soon as I step outside the room.”

Near misses become routine in our hunt for Austen’s ghost. At Winchester Cathedral, we’re wowed by the church’s size and its impressive shrine to Austen, but the public is barred from visiting the “scruffy” house nearby where she died in 1817, at 41. In Southampton, the plaques that mark old Austen haunts sometimes adorn modern high-rises and shopping centers. Surprisingly, it’s the town Austen liked least that ends up charming me the most. Jane’s family was struggling financially when she passed her 20s moving from house to house in historic Bath. But Bath’s “graceful limestone buildings and crescent-shaped streets” simply feel authentic. Standing in the middle of the Assembly Rooms ballroom, I can hear her description of it from the novel Persuasion. She once danced here, “under these very chandeliers.”Rooms in one of Austen’s Bath homes are available from $247 a night through bathboutiquestays.co.uk.

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