I’ve been doing a fair amount of culture-tourism recently. I went to the South of France to look French painters since Cezanne. And a trip to Amsterdam to see “All the Rembrandts” at the Rijksmuseum. [Just a note: if you imagined that this meant all the Rembrandts in the world, no it was All the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum. And very fine they were too.] There is more to come. As I write this I am preparing to visit Copenhagen, to see the opera Nixon in China. And I have just returned from a tour of Jane Austen’s Kent.
So I am asking myself, why am I visiting all these places associated with art? If it enhances my enjoyment, how does it do that? What am I doing? What do I get out of it?
Am I a Jane-ite?
You could probably describe me as a Jane-ite. No, Sarah, that does not mean we dress up in Regency dresses over push-up bras. Nor does it mean I know all her novels intimately.
It does mean I am an enthusiast, that I enjoy reading and rereading her novels and think she’s pretty damn good.
And it means I belong to the Jane Austen Society South West Branch and that I have just been on a tour with the branch to Kent.
Jane Austen’s family
This was a four-day trip, including travel from Exeter. We visited Tunbridge, Goodnestone Park, Godmersham Park, Maidstone Records Office, Box Hill and Great Bookham. We had talks, guided tours, readings and lots of beautiful gardens.
I have mostly learned about Jane’s extended family, and their management of the connections between them. This was largely to ensure that any property remained within the family. You may know that one of her brothers, Edward, was adopted by the childless Knights and inherited their large fortunes. Jane benefited from visits to their houses in Kent (Goodnestone Park, Godmersham Park) and was accommodated with her mother and sister after their father’s death at Chawton, Hampshire by the same brother. It seems that this Edward was an all-round nice guy, much loved by everyone. His daughter Fanny Knight was a favourite of Jane’s, and of whom more in a moment.
Box Hill was the scene of the picnic in Emma, the place where our heroine was very rude to poor Miss Bates, who talked too much and not very intelligently. The view from Box Hill (now a National Trust property) is spectacular. It’s a memorable pace to be humiliated.
Great Bookham was the home of a cousin of Jane’s mother, also called Cassandra Leigh. She was a writer, especially of lamentations. She was also a friend of Fanny Burney who lived for a short while in the village. Jane is known to have visited the Cookes, as her cousin became on her marriage, and to have seen them in Bath and perhaps at Steventon as well. These families kept close contact.
So what have I gained?
In the first place, I experienced the very good company of people who like to talk about Jane Austen and things associated with her, people with enthusiasm to match mine, and knowledge to exceed mine.
It also broadened my understanding of Jane and her life, and that of other women at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. My sense is that this kind of knowledge is a little like that recommendation to writers, to know everything about their characters, even if they do not use it in their fiction.
And I have gained more knowledge about that period, from visiting the grand houses, and the web of relationships that the gentry maintained. Among the most enchanting things we saw were examples of Fanny Knight’s diaries, which she kept up for decades, always in the same format. There are 69 of them. And Godmersham Park is familiar to anyone who has looked at the £10 note.
And I read Sanditon
Sanditon is the unfinished final novel by Jane Austen. She had completed only 12 chapters when she left off writing and succumbed to her final illness. The heroine Charlotte had yet to show herself worthy of Jane Austen’s attention.
The novel focuses on hypochondria and speculation in the infant health industry. It begins in this way:
A gentleman and lady travelling from Tonbridge towards that part of Sussex coast that lies between Hastings and East Bourne, being induced by business to quit the high road, and to attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent half rock, half sand. (155)
The gentleman is Mr Parker and he has invested all his time and money in promoting Sanditon as a place of excellent health. Sanditon is a resort for the health of moneyed peoples. He has much to say on the subject.
Such a place as Sanditon sir, I may say was wanted, was called for. – Nature had marked it out – had spoken in most intelligible characters – the finest, purest sea breeze on the coast – acknowledged to be so – excellent bathing – fine hard sand – deep water ten yards from the shore – no wind – no weeds – no slimey rocks – Never was there a place more palpably designed by nature for the resort of the invalid – the very spot which thousands seemed in need of. – The most desirable distance from London! One complete measured mile nearer than Eastbourne. [and so on] (159-161)
The man is an enthusiast, and attracts with his approach all kinds of people to the new resort. We do not know how things turn out. But Jane Austen’s writing is as attractive as ever, and her characters boldly drawn, especially the self-indulgent who are either lazy or hypochondriacs.
Sanditon by Jane Austen, Penguin Classic edition, with Lady Susan and The Watsons (1974). 60pp