Jane's fading again. I wander down the upstairs hall thinking, "Where are you?" Wait. That patchwork quilt on the glass-enclosed bed in the former guest room — it was made by the three Austen ladies, the sign says.
Aha! Another something that her hands touched. She semi-materializes again, but she's gone as soon as I step outside the room. Sigh.
We duck into the kitchen, where I try scratching out a few words with a quill pen — kind of tricky! — set out on a table while Deborah makes some sachets from the dried lavender in a bowl. I guess all museums these days love this interactive stuff. The visitors sure do: A group of girls is busily trying on all the period-style clothing laid out on a bench, giggling nonstop.
OK, enough of this homebody stuff. Jane and Cassandra spent hours every day roaming the countryside around Chawton. It's a lovely sunny day — in England! — so we set off on the "circular walk," a four-mile tramp across swampy fields of grazing sheep and through the woods to and from the village of Upper Farringdon, where the Austen ladies would visit friends for tea.
The route winds past Chawton House, brother Edward's castlelike manor (now a library of women authors), and Chawton Church, where the Austens worshiped (and Mom and Cassandra are buried). We check it out, but alas, this isn't really Jane's church — a fire gutted most of that one in 1871; this is the rebuilt version. See? It happens over and over. Layers of time between her and us.
Her corner of Hampshire — a.k.a. "The Neighborhood" — is so altered: The assembly rooms at Basingstoke (the Meryton of "Pride," some think), where she danced away so many evenings — demolished. Manydown, the house where she flirted with her Irish puppy love, Tom Lefroy — gone. The Wheatsheaf, the inn where she'd walk to pick up the family mail — part of a Premier (think Holiday) Inn.
Even when something's still around, you can't be sure, 100 percent, of an Austen connection. Take The Vyne. My guidebook says Jane attended balls at this lovely old Tudor estate that once belonged to Henry VIII's Lord Chamberlain.
But try telling that to the guides at the house museum. "Oh, you hear different stories," says one. "Some say she did visit, some say she didn't."
Or "she did come here, but she didn't like it," says another. "We think she makes a reference to the house in 'Mansfield Park,' " and she (mis)quotes a description that I spend hours later trying to pinpoint in the book. (Found it, I think: "The house . . . is a large, regular, brick building; heavy, but respectable looking. . . ." As they say here, spot on!)
A third seems exasperated by the very question. "Well, if she did visit, it's just because it's a big house in the area," she says dismissively. "I mean, she got around, didn't she?"
Well, yes, she did. She certainly did.
Searching For Austen Markers
"You know, if she'd been famous when she was alive, she'd have more than just plaques to mark her life," my perceptive husband calls after me as I charge up the High Street in Southampton, searching for the next marker on the city's Jane Austen Heritage Trail. Southampton claimed the author for a few years (1806-9), so we're spending a couple of hours tracking down the Jane places.
Such as they are. You could say that this sprawling southern port city ain't what it was in the Regency era. Then, it was a seaside spa for the moneyed-and-landed set, all graceful gardens and water coming close up to the medieval stone walls.
Today? Well, the walls still ring the Old Town, with gaps. But the water? I can't even see it from the Water Gate. Which once stood beside a quay where Jane and her family boarded a boat one day for a trip to the island of Hythe. Now the tower's totally landlocked, separated by a broad, broad boulevard from the piers where gigantic cruise ships dock.
No, the town Jane knew is mostly a bunch of blue plaques. An ultra-modern shopping complex crouches on the site of the Spa Gardens, where she took daily walks. A faux-medieval pub claims the spot of her house on Castle Square. The Theatre Royal, where she saw a pair of plays, has morphed into a hideous high-rise.
I've just about given up hope of really sensing her anywhere. But the Dolphin Hotel, where she supposedly celebrated her 18th birthday in 1793, is still standing. Which is why I'm charging up the High Street toward a low-slung beige building with large bay windows.
"At last, you can enter a building which Jane actually visited!" announces the trail plaque on the wall, reading my mind. I march in to the dark, wood-paneled lobby, where a line of men in business suits is waiting to check in, and straight up the broad staircase. And there, at the top of the landing, is the ballroom. The room where she partied. The door's locked, but I can peer through the glass at the modest-size rectangular room carpeted in blue.
Wow, it's not very big, I think.
But I guess Jane's whole world was smaller than ours. Yet grander.