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