14 February 2014

An Abiding Passion

Mr Darcy wrapping paper from Jane Austen house

In addition to the I Love Mr Darcy wrapping paper pictured above, there were three important things I brought back from Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Hampshire, when we visited a couple of weeks ago on a drizzly grey unpromising day - much like the one outside right now - to find welcome respite in the solid and genteel red brick house, which was the author's home for the eight years before she died.

The first was that sense of excitement tempered with frustration when attempting to infer, imbibe and inhale a life whose artefacts and props are situated all around.  Everything was tantalisingly close - there was the very table she wrote at, there were the letters penned with quill in her assured script, there was the quilt sewn with her mother and sister from scraps of fabric salvaged from their dresses.  And I waited and hoped, merely by dint of walking the same floorboards, that the spasm, the jolt, the judder of inspiration and genius would manifest itself in my own cells.

The second was a reminder about discipline.  Jane's day habitually went something like this: piano before breakfast, writing throughout the morning, a two-hour walk in the afternoon through the gently undulating countryside, then sewing and conversation - if not the occasional writing - in the evening.  Of course, any artist worth their salt understands the need for discipline and the necessity of 'showing up at the page' (as Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way would have it.)  Indeed, Jane's own prescription for dogged perserverance is clear.   'I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am', she said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra.  But as I placed a hand around my own throat to drag myself away this morning from a discussion about the benefits of kiwis and cucumbers on Spanish internet television, (ostensibly both educational and linguistically stretching) I envied her life without saturation levels of distraction. 

The third was a lesson about passion and commitment.  No, I am not necessarily referring to Mr Darcy, or the need to marry for love - although those themes may be appropriate for Valentine's Day.  This very day, a ring once owned by the author has been returned to the Jane Austen house in Chawton.  Bought at auction last year by the American singer Kelly Clarkson, its export from this country was prevented, allowing time for sufficient funds to be raised to buy it back.  As far as we know, it was not a ring given to Jane Austen from a suitor, but the determination shown by admirers of the author to keep the piece of jewellery here - not to mention a sizeable donation by an unknown benefactor - are testament to the esteem in which she is still held.  It is appropriate that, as far as possible, her objets should be kept at the very spot where Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion were birthed, and Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey were revised.  This is the work of the Jane Austen House Museum, which receives no regular government funding, but relies on donations, public admissions, and sales from its shop.  Their passion for and abiding sense of  Jane Austen as a pioneering writer, as a keen observer of mores, as a woman breaking new ground, linked with the absolute necessity of keeping her actual bricks and mortar home open and available to the public, can only be celebrated.