“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”
Jane Austen's Emma
My sister, Lindsey and I were still scratching our heads at the real life implications of the recent Brexit vote to extricate Britain from the European Union the day we took a trip to Hampshire together, to the cottage home of Jane Austen.
I didn't intend to spin a political slant on such a pilgrimage into the home of one of literature's all-time female greats. And yet, thinking about the Jane Austen Home and Museum on my return to the States, its quiet (on the surface) domesticity and Englishness-to-the-core, led me on a path of contemplation as to the state of the nation (UK) today.
Jane Austen's peak writing period had taken place in late 18th Century Britain. The sun never set on the British Empire during her lifetime and the rapid development of mechanization and mass production of the Industrial Revolution was part and parcel of Britain frantically colonizing countries around the world.
Literary critics have written much about Jane's role in imperialism, support of the empire's culture, her adoration of language and tradition and dislike of change brought about by outsiders. Would she have voted "out" in the Brexit referendum? Likely, yes, in context of her time period.
According to the Jane Austen Society of North America, in Emma and Empire, A Post-Colonial View: "Austen’s typical fairy tale structure of well-deserved conquests of the heart at the novel’s close parallel a social and political order based on Empire-building, conquest, and political power".
With singular focus, modern-day Brexitors have, in contrast, threatened the dissolution of the entire European Union. By turning the clock back to the 'good old days' of British resolve, character and guts, real life implications will take at least two or three years to evaluate and hopefully threats of an economic earthquake will not ensue.
Brexitors have grasped this opportunity as an excuse to fix all the woes of contemporary Britain — its Post-Imperialistic overcrowding and current collapse of the flooded welfare system. Waiting and watching will be interesting indeed.
“Time will explain.”
Jane, tucked away in the village of Chawton, had written from her early teens. She penned Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey in her early twenties, though it was at Chawton, after she and her mother and sister and a family friend moved into a cottage in the village estate owned by her brother, that she rewrote these first novels for publication.
The village, named in the Domesday Book, has the same number of residents today, as it did in Jane's day. Jane spent her last eight years in this unpretentious cottage. Her genius flourished as she revised her manuscripts, wrote three more and started another, which was unfinished, at the time of her death, aged 41, in 1817.
After Jane's sister, Cassandra passed in 1845, the house was neglected at first and later divided into three cottages, a working mens club and reading room. It was purchased in 1948 and made available as a museum in 1949 The museum reflects the Austen's comfortable home, while telling the story of their lives and Jane's work.
Much to the amusement of a German visitor, the only other person in the museum when we arrived, Lindsey and I donned the dress-up gear in the kitchen — neither of us are able to resist a spot of theatrical outfitting and a floral frock!
Jane's tiny writing table, positioned by a front window, was all the space she required to pen her marvelous works. A creaky door into the parlor alerted her to visitors, so that she was able to lay a clean sheet of paper over her writing for required literary privacy.
“Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.”
Pride and Prejudice
I thought about all the major events that have impacted Britain since Jane's day. And yet it remains. Staunch and solid.
Jane's storms-in-a-teacup period sagas epitomized the goings-on of an empire. Fascinating to think of the power of the word conjured in such a peaceful spot. "From a small table in a modest dining room in a cottage in a Hampshire village, the words of Jane Austen have been heard the world over".
Jane and her sister walked for miles. Lindsey and I took a stroll from Jane's house to her brother, Edward Austen Knight's grade II listed Elizabethan manor house, Chawton House, now The Center for the Study of Early English Women's Writing.
St. Nicholas Church has been enlarged and improved following a fire in 1871. Jane worshipped in its original structure. Her mother and sister are buried in the graveyard, Jane, herself, in Winchester Cathedral.
I love an English country cottage, pre-Brexit, post-Brexit, whatever the future holds.
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”
Tea time in Jane's day was a highlight, whether taken in company or at home, as a staple ritual of English life. Thankfully, tea time remains as constant today — keeping Britain on track, despite threats to the contrary.
Lindsey and I love a tea room, as you know, if you're a regular reader. Taking tea with one of my sisters is the best. News that our sister Kerry is moving her family back to the UK from Australia, even in these post-Brexit times, means many more shared tea time for we three sisters, who haven't been at the same tea table all together in 14 years.