I’m heading down to Winchester for a couple of days for a poetry festival. I was going to bring something by Jane Austen (she died in Winchester, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral) but then I came across a second-hand copy of My Dear Cassandra – a selection of extracts from Jane Austen’s letters, that’s slim enough to slip into my handbag.
I do like Winchester. A historic city, with a beautiful cathedral, lots of lovely old buildings. Some of the shops on the high street still have old metal signs hanging outside – a big boot for a shoe shop, parchment and quill for a stationers. Then there’s the statue of Alfred the Great, a medieval version of the Round Table, a butter cross – and Montezuma’s, a shop that sells delicious chocolate.
There are lots of poetical events going on this weekend – including a lady cycling around the town, stopping to recite poetry at slightly bewildered shoppers. I go to a very interesting workshop on self-publishing, and an evening event with poet Christopher Reid. Given that he’s probably best known for A Scattering, (a book of poems about his wife’s death), it’s a lot more light-hearted than I was expecting, He’s discussing things which inspire him, and he’s brought along a beautiful quilt which his wife made for him from second-hand silk ties. He also shows a classic Goon Show sketch – What time is it, Eccles?
There’s also a guided tour of Winchester, discussing its literary links – but that’s fully booked. Apart from the Austen connection, Watership Down was set nearby, and Keats composed his ode To Autumn (“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”) while walking here. Next day I get a leaflet with details of the route – but it runs beside a river, and the weather is not looking promising, so maybe not this time. Instead, my sister and I head off to nearby Alton, and Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen spent the most creative years of her life.
It’s the right choice – by the time we reach Alton, it’s pouring down. Luckily, just across the road from Chawton is a little coffee shop, appropriately named Cassandra’s Cup. We head inside for coffee and cake, and chat until the weather clears. I’m also tempted by some raspberry and lavender jam.
Lavender seems to be a recurring theme today. Once we get inside Jane Austen’s house there are little bunches of it on the furniture, and you can make your own lavender bag in one of the outbuildings.
The house has been restored to how it would have looked when Jane lived there. The sitting room door still creaks – Jane liked it that way, as it warned her when people were entering, giving her time to put her writing away. (Cassandra would most of the household chores, allowing Jane more time to write). Her writing table is so small – when I think of the hours of enjoyment I’ve had from the work she produced on it…
There are some of her letters on display – such tiny writing! – she then turned the letter upside down, writing again between the lines. Common practice back then, as postage costs depended on the size of the letter, and it was the recipient who paid – but I don’t think I could write that small, legibly, with a quill pen.
The bedroom the two sisters shared is so small – if the room my sister and I shared for so many years had been this small, I doubt that we’d still be friends now. The library has more books about Jane Austen than I ever knew existed, and copies of her works in all manner of languages.
It’s a good thing we came early. This little house is now full of visitors – five of the women (and one brave man) are in period costume. Nice to see men here – I’m always trying to persuade more men to read Austen. Her work isn’t simply romantic fluff – she has such a wonderful way of observing people. Mr Collins has to be one of the most memorable characters in literature – deliciously grovelly.
And the museum isn’t just for the ladies – two of Jane’s brothers were in the navy, so there is naval memorabilia as well (brother Frank was disappointed to miss the battle of Trafalgar).
It’s quite sunny now, so we go out into the garden. It’s smaller than it would have been in Jane’s time, but thanks to a high hedge (and the fact that a bypass takes most of the traffic away from the village) it’s still very quiet. Jane’s little donkey cart is on display – it must have been fun, going for a ride around the grounds. The garden also has some activities for children, such as word magnets, and signs with information about the birds which live here. I could sit here and write all day.
Then there’s the gift shop. More Mr Darcy merchandise than anyone could ever need. Most of it looks like Colin Firth (from the wonderful 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) – he must just cringe at some of it. (Personally, I always preferred Mr Rochester – he has more of a sense of humour).
And what about the book? Published in 1990, selections chosen by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.
There are extracts from Jane Austen’s letters, mainly to her beloved sister Cassandra, but also to other relatives, friends – and even an unco-operative publisher. There are relevant passages from her novels, and illustrations from the period, so you get a better idea of what the clothes, the carriages, looked like.
There is talk of balls and bonnets, buying fabric for dresses. There are descriptions of visits to Bath and Lyme Regis (later to feature in Persuasion), and of going to art exhibitions, trying to find portraits that look like her characters. She gives advice to her niece Fanny, who also wanted to be a novelist.
(I love where she describes Pride and Prejudice as “My own darling child” – I felt the same way when I first had a poem published.)
I always wondered what Jane Austen would have been like to meet in person – these letters show her to be just as mischievous as Elizabeth Bennet. And a moving letter written by Cassandra after Jane’s death shows that she was a beloved sister.
There are probably more complete books of Jane Austen’s letters, for the academically inclined – but for the average reader, this is a treat.