Thursday, February 14, 2008

Becoming Jane

We returned yesterday from England. Did you miss me? I know, I didn’t even tell you I’d be gone. It was a last minute decision. We had been invited by friends Pauline and Steve from Santa Fe to join them in England for a few days. We had debated and waffled but Pauline pointed out a couple of flight options that would deliver us to Bristol, the closest airport to the Cotswolds, where their rented cottage was located. We booked the tickets one week before our departure and threw a few things in a suitcase, leaving behind the unfinished business of an apartment in complete disarray. I figure disorganization will still be waiting when we return, so why not take advantage of well-placed, welcoming friends?

Well-placed in the Cotswolds translates to a stone cottage on the edge of a postcard-like village with rolling hills dotted with other picturesque villages, horses, and grazing sheep. A short walk to the town of Nailsworth brought us to cute shops, nice cafes and a couple of good eateries. The primary activity in these parts is walking, and public footpaths ribbon their way across swaths of farmland, through woods, across wind-swept hilltops and between towns. Any hint of fair weather and everyone is out walking. We were guided by Pauline on a few short walks; she and Steve are very much into what the Italians call “il trekking”, and enjoy spending hours making circuitous hikes. I, unfortunately, can’t keep up with that kind of pace, so they slowed down and scaled down for us, in order to give us a taste of the activity and scenery. One such walk began with a pub lunch where a trail leads to the alleged source of the Thames. I say “alleged” because when we arrived there was a stone marker and other walkers with the same goal, but no water bubbled forth from the spring that is supposed to be the starting point for the famous river.

The path along an old canal was muddy, and my shoes quickly became caked and the hem of my jeans hopelessly dirtied. That’s when I started thinking of lines from Pride and Prejudice: “six inches deep in mud, I’m absolutely certain!” When we encountered our first stile, a sort of wooden ladder to allow you to cross over a stone wall, I knew I’d be immersing myself in the book and movie that I hold dear. Walking across the fields like Elizabeth Bennet did so often, like Jane Austen herself had done so frequently, was rather exciting. I mentioned this to Pauline who exclaimed, “I didn’t know you were a Jane Austen fan! We’ll have to go to Adlestrop!”

Adlestrop is a Cotswolds village where Jane’s cousin, a rector, resided and where she had visited on several occasions. We strolled the tidy, cottage-lined streets and visited the church he pastored. We glimpsed the parsonage across the street and walked a little bit of the footpath that ran between them to the fields beyond, where Jane Austen would walk to a neighboring town. I have to say that Pauline and I both felt a little giddy. Bryan and Steve humored us, biding their time until they could drag us off to the tea room for cream teas, where we discussed Jane Austen’s wit, which books we favored, and how her social commentary is so endearing. We’d unwittingly found a theme for the four-day visit.

The city of Bath had already been our list for a visit, but with the Jane Austen theme going, it was a must-see. To prepare, we watched the BBC video of Persuasion. Pauline formulated a tour to hit the highlights. We arrived to find a still-fashionable town with lots of activity centered in the historic core, much as it had been when Jane Austen lived there and used the city as the backdrop for two of her novels. We started at the gleaming Gothic Bath Abbey and worked our way around town. We saw a house where she lodged on a visit, as well as the home where she resided for four years, until her father’s death.

In the Pump Room we “took the waters” as millions have done before us, the mineral-rich sulfurous glass said to be very restorative. The Pump Room was an important gathering spot in Jane’s day. Pauline and I crossed the elegant room, gazed upon the stylish fountain spouting the famed water and ordered a couple of glasses. We toasted and sipped; we both cringed. It was warm and very metallic tasting. But the room was gorgeous and, except for a café occupying the middle, it was what we’d seen in the movie. Out the windows we could see the ancient Roman baths below.

The Assembly Rooms were next. In Jane’s time the Assembly Rooms were a major source of entertainment, offering concerts, dances, and lectures. Pauline told Steve, “This is what they did for fun before TV.” The exterior is rather plain, but the interior is gorgeous, containing three warmly-painted halls illuminated by crystal chandeliers. I could imagine being in a ball gown dancing to orchestral music…and I rarely put on a dress.

We walked the promenade in front of the Royal Crescent, a very fashionable address in the early 1800s, walked in the garden near Jane’s residence, and along a canal, knowing that Jane Austen herself had trod these same streets. It was really quite thrilling. Bryan and Steve even caught the contagious spirit of it all and enjoyed the atmosphere, too. Thanks to Pauline’s knowledge of the city, we located all the scenes used to film Persuasion. The Jane Austen Center contains a museum and a nice gift shop, as well as well-informed staff and we wrapped up our day buying pretty books and postcards.

It wasn’t until we hit rush-hour traffic to get home that we were forcibly reminded of the 21st century. Watching period-set movies, strolling three hundred year old streets, and quoting brilliant literature had allowed me to become Jane…at least for a day. And what a beautiful day it was.


Texas Espresso said...

I am so jealous - that sounds so fun! I would love to do a Jane Austen tour. hehe Masterpiece Theater on PBS has been doing the complete Jane Austen series and I am just dying for the 2nd part of Pride and Prejudice to be shown! I hadn't seen that version. I bet the men had a great My Italian would go but inside he would cringe the whole way thru. hehe

Thanks for sharing!

PS - cant wait to see cool pics of your new apt. hehe

Beatriz Macias said...

Thank you for sharing. I just watched "Becoming Jane" and I was very inspired to find more about the famous author. I have to confess that I have never read any of her novels, but I have seen many of the films. I want to correct this shameful fact now, any suggestions?

Valerie said...

Hi Tex! Actually, the guys got into it and enjoyed the hunt, especially in Bath. Enjoy the P&P series - it's fabulous!

Beatriz - I'd start with Pride and Prejudice, as it's not only her most famous novel it is so beautifully written. It's a great introduction to her works. I heavily favor Persuasion as a runner-up, but I'm sure every Janeite has her own personal favorite.

Beatriz Macias said...

Thanks, I will try and get my hands on either one. I will let you know how it goes.

Pauline Kenny said...

Hi Valerie! We had a wonderful weekend with you guys! Next time we will go to Steventon where Jane Austen was born and Winchester where she died. How could I have known you for all these years and never found out we had Jane Austen in common?

Valerie said...

Beatriz, let me know what you think of it when you've read it!

Pauline, probably because the Jane Austen section of your home library was up above my head! :)) Next time! Can't wait!