Now and then, fate raises her delicate hand and gently ushers you somewhere you didn’t expect to be.
And so it was a few weeks ago when holidaying in the UK.
It was meant to be a couple of days walking the North Downs Way in Surrey with old friends. And since my pal, Tom, organised the whole thing, Mrs B and I didn’t look too closely at the maps.
So the sudden appearance of an iconic site from Emma took us somewhat by surprise. Nor was it the only Austenesque location on this trip.
It all began on a bridge over a motorway and a sign bearing familiar names:
Westerham (pronounced Westrum, apparently) appears in Pride and Prejudice. Mr Collins’s first letter to Mr Bennet begins:
Hunsford, near Westerham, Kent, 15th October
(Which is why Westerham enjoys a few mentions in my Charlotte Collins Mysteries.)
And Mr Bennet invokes the name of Eastbourne to Kitty after the “incident” in Brighton:
“You go to Brighton. I would not trust you so near it as Eastbourne for fifty pounds!
My smile at the literary connection was nothing compared to the one on the following day’s walk after encountering this:
A jaw-dropping moment for any reader of Jane Austen. Box Hill, scene of Emma’s famously injudicious comment to Miss Bates.
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.
We were, unfortunately, a small party and utterly bereft of anything approaching a picnic. One might almost say it was badly done, indeed!
This is the view:
One group of young ladies sat below enjoying a picnic, but I didn’t ask if it was all in tribute to Austen (middle-aged Englishmen are genetically incapable of such social interaction).
A day or two later found us visiting my family in Wiltshire, where I grew up. And we popped across to nearby Bath for a quick trip.
I clearly made a poor impression on this lady:
She later wrote in her diary:
A Mr Brownlow called. His appearance and conversation was tolerable for a man on the wrong side of
However, it seems I was not handsome enough to tempt her.
A trip to Bath normally involves chasing down references from Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. This time, we decided to get all biographical and follow-up on mentions in Jane Austen’s letters.
For example, Jane wrote in a letter to Cassandra from 1805:
Mary Cooke did walk with us on Tuesday, & we drank tea in Alfred St
Let us pass swiftly over our forlorn attempt at historical reenactment (it’s not even tea):
Then we were too late to make use of the next opportunity, highlighted in a letter from 1799:
…there is a public breakfast in Sydney Gardens every morning, so that we shall not be wholly starved.
We did, however, take actual tea in the Upper Rooms (the Assembly Rooms), following footsteps outlined in an 1801 missive:
Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the upper rooms at Bath! – After tea we cheered up.
And, yes, we did cheer up.
Oh, and behind the Upper Rooms lies a street with a familiar name (albeit with one too many Ts):
Bath bursts with Georgian/Regency treasures and traces of the past. Take Milsom Street, for example, as mentioned in Persuasion:
…in walking up Milsom Street she had the good fortune to meet with the Admiral
This sign hints to an earlier purpose for one of the buildings:
We ended our short trip on more familiar territory, as mentioned in a 1799 letter…
I have never seen an old Woman at the Pump room
A columned extension just outside the Pump Room provides cover from wind and rain, which, incidentally, is exactly what happens in a pivotal scene in Cake and Courtship. (Thus allowing me to claim all trips to Bath as book research, rather than an excuse to enjoy the coffee shops and bakeries there.)
A few days after our short UK trip, I found myself returning unexpectedly to the UK to babysit my sister’s house and pets. She lives near Devizes, where Jane Austen once stayed. As she wrote to her sister in 1799…
…we had asparagus and a lobster which made me wish for you, & some cheesecakes on which the children made so delightful a supper as to endear the Town of Devizes to them for a long time
Now, the tale of how I attempted to track down a piece of Devizes cheesecake is a long and tortuous one, involving the entire population of an old people’s residence, a confused hairdresser and a large number of bewildered bakers.
To cut a long story short, they don’t make the cakes anymore. So I improvised:
And that was the last of my Austenesque interactions before returning home to Vienna, where there are absolutely no historical connections to Jane Austen whatsoever. Other than, perhaps, a shared interest in cake, as espoused in an 1808 letter to Cassandra:.
You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me