The best-known novel by Jane Austen, who for many stands second only to the Bard himself as England’s greatest writer, is about to celebrate its 200th anniversary. Earning the author just £110, Pride and Prejudice was published on January 28th, 1813, and read for the first time by a modest circle of men and women.
It has since become one of literature’s most revered works, and today enjoys unprecedented popularity and interest. From the BBC’s 1995 adaptation starring Colin Firth to 2005’s Keira Knightley-led film – not to mention zombie and Bollywood retellings, Bridget Jones associations, and a murder mystery sequel – the book’s fame is a truth universally acknowledged.
Ardent Austen fans such as myself will require little inducement to take a tour themed around the writer and her works, yet there could scarcely be a better time to do so.
Bath is a natural starting point: a city where Austen lived for five years, it is marking Pride and Prejudice’s bicentennial with a number of events, including a 24-hour readathon at the Jane Austen Centre, discussions of the book taking pride of place at the Bath Literature Festival, and the 10-day Jane Austen Festival in September.
Bath, which last year marked its 25th year as a Unesco World Heritage Site, has an abundance of handsome Georgian buildings, and sauntering around it conjures something of the atmosphere of two Austen novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were both set here.
To really get myself in the mood, though, I make my way post-haste to the Jane Austen Centre. Austen lived on Gay Street, a few doors down from the centre, between 1801 and 1806. The quaint museum tells the story of her life in the city – not all of it happy – and displays correspondence she kept at the time. The period dress and furniture on show give a real feeling of stepping back two centuries, though the highlight is the Regency tea room, where the white-aproned waitresses, Bath buns and “Tea with Mr Darcy” are an excellent start to the day.
North of here is one of the most impressive examples of Georgian architecture in the city: the Circus, a stunning ring of houses blushing ochre in the morning sun, and hardly changed since Austen’s time.
Leading out of the ring to the east is Bennett Street, on which can be found the Assembly Rooms. Here Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland and Mrs Allen “squeezed in as well as they could” after arriving late to a ball. It has been faithfully restored to the splendour of Austen’s time; she would have spent many an evening here. Having sought out the octagon room, I try to picture Anne Elliot’s awkward conversation with Capt Wentworth in Persuasion, their first meeting after an ill-fated day in Lyme.
Another, more remarkable venue for social gatherings in Bath was the Pump Room, which appears in both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and was the heart of that era’s high society. I reach it by passing through Union Street, where after “so many, many years of division and estrangement” Anne and Wentworth are finally bound together at Persuasion’s climax.
Entering the grand, honey-coloured building, the pump attendant, dressed in frilly Regency attire, recommends the hot, bubbly water; Bath’s thermal springs were valued for their healing properties in Austen’s time, but I can’t help thinking something tasting so much like rotten eggs mustn’t be all that good for me.
There is pleasant period music blended with teatime nattering in the light-filled hall, while the Roman baths can be spied from the windows (these had not yet been excavated in Austen’s day).
There is much more to see in Bath – not least the breathtaking Gothic wonder that is Bath Abbey. But after an hour of solemn reflection inside, I’m keen to push on, particularly given that the trip to another Janeite beacon is a not inconsiderable three hours’ journey north.
Driving through the rugged countryside of Derbyshire reminds me of Elizabeth Bennet’s tour through the same county with the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice. The journey leads her to the enormous stately home of Pemberley – Darcy’s house, and her future abode. My own destination is Chatsworth House, upon which Austen is believed to have based Pemberley, and was employed as such in the 2005 film.
Certainly my approach recalls Mrs Gardiner’s description of the grounds as “some of the finest . . . in the country” – the 1,000 acres of sprawling parkland are staggering at first sight.
As the proud, majestic house emerges into view, another depiction rings true: “It was a huge, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground . . . in front, a stream of some natural importance.”
The ancient seat of the prestigious Dukes of Devonshire is a marvel inside. With inconceivably high ceilings, rich red and gold furnishings, paintings full of import, and ancient finely crafted furniture, it is possible to comprehend how Darcy’s home might have moved Elizabeth so during her first acquaintance with it: “At that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”
Chatsworth House will commemorate Pride and Prejudice’s 200th anniversary with “A Georgian Summer”, including an exhibition and events in the gardens.
A last stop on an Austen tour should take in a site of rather less grandeur than Chatsworth. The house in which she lived until her premature death at the age of 41 is a two-hour drive east of Bath. It is nestled within the charming Hampshire village of Chawton, where Austen spent her last eight years. The 17th-century cottage is now a museum, preserved immaculately since Austen, her sister Cassandra, and mother lived there.
Comely but modest, it reflects the financial constraints placed upon the three women after the death of Austen’s father.
But Chawton also represents a tranquil environment that afforded Austen the space to produce some of her most important work.
Whether owing to the traumatic death of her father, or the oppressively social nature of life in Bath, Austen’s literary endeavours had ground to a halt before she came to Chawton. Yet once here, she wrote with renewed vigour and refined her earlier efforts, living to see four of her novels published.
In this house there are objects that any Austen fanatic will savour: aged bookshelves stocked with first editions; the piano she practised at daily; and the very desk that bore witness to her masterful writing.
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW . . .
For the true country-house experience, treat yourself to the Bath Priory’s elegance, from £310 a night.
Tel:0044-1225-331922 or see
Ryanair has flights from Dublin to Bristol, which is a 30-minute drive from Bath; trains also service Bath Spa station.
Walking tours are available at the Jane Austen Centre, taking you around many of the relevant locations. Tel: 0044-1225- 443000 or see janeausten.co.uk