I first read Pride and Prejudice on an unusually wet summer holiday in Devon, with the sound of the rain scudding down the side of the caravan. Everyone else thought it a disastrous holiday. For me, at fourteen, I had had an extraordinary awakening to the potential of human emotion. No other read has ever matched that, except perhaps Persuasion a few years later.
The experience of love is at the centre of our psyche as human beings and falling in love is one of the most exciting and joyous (as well as potentially painful) of human experiences. Jane Austen has an exceptional ability to capture this experience on the page, but with peculiarly English restraint and self-control.
But Austen does not stop at our hearts. She delights our minds too. Her social satire cuts through folly like a knife but with such affection and good humour that we laugh without guilt, perhaps the more indulged by the way we are allowed to align ourselves with her (on the whole) rather intelligent and all-seeing characters.
Quietly, but persistently, she presents an image of women as economically compromised, but nonetheless, emotionally strong, intelligent and equal to men – perhaps with greater effect than more explicit campaigners of the time, such as Mary Wollstonecraft.
- There are a lot of books which are Austen related. Why a travel book? Have you been think about it for a long time?
Funnily enough, I really can’t quite remember where the idea came from. I love writing and my partner has been encouraging me to write a book for a long time but I think he was hoping I would write something more along the lines of “Fifty Shades of Grey”! Jane Austen is obviously a particular passion of mine – not quite what my other half expected I think. Growing up in the UK I have been lucky to visit some beautiful places and I have often wanted to tell anyone who might listen about them. Somehow all these things came together in The Jane Austen Travel Guide.
I tried really hard to give Jane Austen a direct voice right through the book so it is full of quotations from her letters and novels. I wanted the book to remind readers of favourite things they already knew about her life and to give them the joy of discovering new things. We know from her brother Henry, that she was very fond of the travel writer William Gilpin who was partly responsible for the Eighteenth Century obsession with the Picturesque (remember Tilney’s attempts to educate Catherine Morland on the finer points of appreciating the picturesque) and certainly for the fashion for touring the Lakes and the Peak District (as followed by Mr and Mrs Gardiner). Travel is central to the plot of almost all Jane Austen’s novels, but mostly it is less about the landscape itself and more about broadening social horizons – or in the case of the likes of Lydia Bennet or Julia and Maria Bertram, totally escaping normal social boundaries. Interestingly, Austen’s heroines are never in control of their own movement: Catherine Morland and Elizabeth Bennett are invited to join a trip planned and controlled by someone else. Elinor and Marianne, Fanny Price and Anne Elliott are all displaced by financial problems forcing them to uproot. This reflects Jane’s own experiences. Whilst she enjoyed visits to family in Kent and London, her letters often refer to her dependence on the arrangements of others in her travel plans. And despite our modern obsession with Bath as the mecca of all things Austenesque, Jane herself was reportedly devastated when her family decided they should move there entirely as part of her father’s retirement plan. Still unmarried at twenty-five, she had no choice but to go too.
What is perhaps most striking, is Austen’s connection to place. The most famous example of this is the importance of the beauty and order of Pemberley in Elizabeth’s realisation of her attachment to Darcy. Similarly, a conversation about their shared appreciation of the charms of Lyme Regis reveals how closely the feelings of Anne and Capt Wentworth still lie. Then, there is Mansfield Park where place explicitly reflects a whole way of life, even a whole moral outlook. Mansfield is tranquillity and peace where Portsmouth is all muddle and arguments, Mansfield is fresh air and good health where Portsmouth is foul smells and suffering, but Portsmouth encourages action and initiative where Mansfield nurtures indolence and self-indulgence. So the aspiring middle classes are placed against the complacencies of the landed gentry. Northanger Abbey, of course, has great fun with the misguided influence of place on a Catherine’s perception of the world around her. Perhaps I, too, should not take any of this too seriously.
- Which of the Austen's books did you find more helpful when writing your travel guide?
Since I was already very familiar with the novels, the greatest revelations for me came from reading her letters. There were amusing anecdotes, like her melodramatic account of nearly being “murdered” in Ashe Park Copse near her childhood home and then there were very moving things I discovered, for example, at the end of her life when she was very ill, she missed walking the countryside terribly, but instead of complaining, with typical Austen optimism and pragmatism she announced her plans to ride the donkey instead.
- Among all the possible travels, would you suggest a favourite one?
Every place is so different and captures such a different aspect of her world and personality that it is difficult to compare. Bath is obviously a stunning, magical experience of Georgian England, while seeing personal belongings like the Topaz crosses at Chawton House is deeply moving, but I think it is the seaside town of Lyme Regis that steals my heart – it has such an intimate atmosphere and the Cobb itself is such a romantic windswept place, you can feel the ghosts of her characters brush past you on the streets.
- Are you planning to travel "with another writer" in the future?
There are many writers with a strong attachment to some beautiful places. Hardy and the Bronte sisters immediately spring to mind. I would love to write a Dickens related guide but given the extent of his writing that is a major project. Theatre is my other love and I have started to write a guide to the London theatre scene. Shakespeare and the World of Elizabethan England also particularly interest me.