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Jane Austen: Winchester's literary legacy

© By Tess Bridgwater

  I spent my 1950's high school days in Winchester in southern England, now, better known for its connection to Jane Austen. Once capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and ruled by Alfred the Great, a scholar and writer himself, the city with 900 years of history, offers historical and literary legacies that I took for granted. Determined to make up for this omission, I trekked in Austen's footsteps, Jane being the inspiration for many contemporary writers.
     The Austen's were well known here where her father was rector of a large parish while two brothers became admirals under Lord Nelson. In the early 19th century in Chawton, a tiny village 17 miles north of Winchester, a genteel young lady initiated her writing career that transformed her into one of the most popular writers in history. However, like many writers, Austen struggled to get work published with no idea that her romantic scribbling would hold readers and TV viewers spellbound into the 21st century.
     On a late fall afternoon, I follow her trail to Chawton where Austen lived with her mother and sister during the last seventeen years of her life and where she completed most of her novels. If in a hurry, it's only few minutes on the motorway, but try to take the old King's Highway through picturesque market towns and villages in the scenic upper Itchen valley.
     I amble along a peaceful country lane accompanied by the crunch of footsteps on fallen leaves, one car visible in the isolated village. The cosy Georgian redbrick cottages hidden behind trimmed hedges and shrubbery have been here as long as the comfortable farmhouse where the Austen Family lived from 1809 - 17 after brief sojourns in Bath and Southampton.
     Jane's father was rector at nearby Steventon where she grew up with five brothers and sister, Cassandra. When Edward inherited the Chawton Estate from distant relatives, he offered mother and sisters a comfortable home in the village. The 17th century farmhouse with a large garden overlooking the village green is furnished simply but elegantly. There are a few original pieces of furniture including a small octagonal table where Jane wrote in a favoured sunny spot by the front parlour window. Here, she worked on Sense and Sensibility and reworked Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813.
     Caught in a time warp, I expect to see D'Arcy and Mr. Bingley stroll past. The house is a museum that contains interesting family memorabilia including family letters, silver, jewellery, a lace collar sewn by Jane and a copy of her will. With the current popularity of her books, there is a huge increase in visitors from around the world. The house and village remain unspoiled.
     In May, 1817, Jane's health deteriorated and Cassandra took her for treatment in Winchester, one of the few places outside London with advanced medical facilities.
     I stroll through the ancient archway to Cathedral Square with the magnificent gothic cathedral, a place of worship for 900 years. It glistens in the sunshine, a burial place of kings and saints and Jane Austen. The Cathedral Close, a sunny flower-filled corner with a 15th century Deanery, is an oasis of calm.
     I turn into College Street, a tiny lane bathed in history past the cobbled courtyard and medieval buildings of Winchester College, founded in 1382. It's the oldest continuously operated school in England. A group of mud splattered rugby players dash by to spoil my reverie.
     Cassandra and Jane rented rooms here in a solid white Georgian house at 8 College Street, where Jane spent her last days. Today, it remains a private home. Here, she completed the last novel, Persuasion. Thought to suffer from either Addison's disease or lymphoma, (both now treatable) sadly, she declined and died six weeks later on July 18, 1817, relatively unknown at age 41.
     Two doors away, the oldest bookstore in the city, Wells Bookshop at 11 College Street, in business since 1757, supplies schools around the world. Victorian novelist, Charlotte Yonge, and Rev. John Keble who wrote many hymns for the Anglican Hymnal, were customers and Jane surely visited this literary haunt with its oak panelled interior and tiny book-lined rooms. An inventory 30 years after Austen's death, remarkably revealed not one book was in stock, an error they hastened to correct. Now, they carry a large inventory of Austen books to supply to fans around the world.
     Jane is buried in Winchester Cathedral, one of the last to be buried there, probably because of her family's close ties with the diocese.
     My final stop in search of Jane takes me down the long lime walk into the cathedral built between 1079 and 1525, one of the most magnificent in Europe. The nave is the longest with a towering sculptured roof, a twelfth century font, wonderful stained glass windows and centuries of liturgical treasures. Norman king, William the Conqueror, ordered its building to replace the Saxon church on site. For centuries, it was the burial place of saints, kings, bishops and writers.
     In the nave, I gaze upon a simple slab, the tomb of Jane Austen. Strangely, there is no mention of her literary genius which was recognized and blossomed after her death. A memorial plaque was added in 1872. Astonishingly, the cathedral has no government financial support, and thereby relies heavily on visitor donations to support its maintenance, an incredible 4,000 pounds ($9000) per day.
     The city has cast off its staid image. Antique shops are replaced with Telecom stores and dining from historic pubs with quaint names such as "The Bishop on the Bridge" to pizza parlours and upscale wine bars. Accommodation abounds from vintage, luxury hotels to bed and breakfast cottages along with great shopping, recreation and entertainment. A bustling commercial and industrial base co-exists with wonderful glimpses of the past.
     Winchester survives and thrives into the 21st century, adjusting to change. It's easy to get around, pedestrian friendly and surrounded by attractive countryside, with picturesque market towns and villages, many with historic associations. Transportation is excellent with passes for seniors and a runabout bus around town for only 20p, and although traffic has increased tenfold, crawling around the perimeters at snail's pace, the courteous Winchester folk take it all in stride with only the occasional honk of a horn.
     Large modern housing and shopping areas on the edge of the city keep pace with the population increase and far from being a backwater stuck in a time warp, Winchester, on the M3 from London to the West Country, is a popular commuter community.
     Besides Austen, Winchester enjoys a vast literary legacy including John Keats, John Keble and other icons inspired by this attractive part of England. Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, attended Winchester College, and placed his Barsetshire stories in a cathedral city that resembles Winchester. Popular contemporary novelist, Joanna Trollope, a descendant, also sets her novels in southern England. Winchester attracts writers to its prestigious annual Writers Conference each June. The Tourist Office provides self-guided walking tour booklets, and it offers accommodation reservations for 5 pounds, payable by credit card.

Tess Bridgwater is a travel writer who lives in southwestern Ontario, not far from Oxford County. She writes for the Record and other publications in Kitchener/Waterloo County, national magazines and is a member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.

Photo Credits
Courtesy: Visit Britain

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Austen's house: open daily, March - November, 11 am - 4 pm:
City of Winchester: www.winchester.co.uk
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Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winchester,_England
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