On the trail of Jane Austen

 photo of Bath Spa train stationRecently I spent some time in Bath in the United Kingdom (while I was there the ‘United’ part of the Kingdom felt a bit splintery, but that’s another story). Bath is the land of Jane Austen. At least that’s what we are made to feel and believe.  To the hapless traveler it might seem that Bath was the setting of the entirety of Austen’s life and all of her books. She is present in the hearts and minds of the people there, as the saying goes, and is somehow omnipresent in the town. The highlights of Austen’s world to today’s traveler remain the Pump Room (where tea is a delight), the Baths (which my Bathonian friends remember swimming in as children….. I suppose that ‘back then’ no one cared that the exposure to the open sky grew algae and turned the water green), and the Jane Austen museum.  I loved Bath. The town, the people, the atmosphere. However I did wonder about pilgrimages to places where authors have written their great works. Do you understand Austen or her books better after visiting the places she walked, and the places which inspired her?  A terrible confession. While I was there, and in the midst of enjoying my trip, I thought No, this doesn’t add to my reading of her books. There were certainly interesting tidbits about her life presented at the museum, but I am also a student of history and those would have been interesting regardless of the specificities of their connection to the famous author. A worse confession. Now that’s I’m home and have a little literal and figurative distance I’ve changed my attitude. I think it comes down to this. When I read I love the images the author creates in my mind. Is it exactly what the author saw No, after all, do we all see the same shade of blue? When I was in Bath I felt that I was in the middle of a scheme to make me see Austen’s shade of blue. “This is how….” the buildings looked, the streetscape felt, the clothing blew in the wind. Now that I’m home, the memory of those places and experiences fade into my own  inner landscape and I’m sure that the next time I read one of  Austin’s books I will unwittingly incorporate parts of her (real) landscape into my internal one. That ,I’m okay with.  I still want to visit where Tolstoy lived and wrote and this fact gave me pause while in the UK. Why, when I wasn’t certain about walking in the footsteps of Austen while in Bath? To me, visiting Tolstoy’s estate is where he was formed. It is not at all a visit to the scene of his books – there is no Napoleonic battle in the distance, or meeting of the Moscow Masons, or music of a Petersburg ballroom. It is a chance to meet the man, not his books as written. Bath blurred that line. It is where Austin lived for some time and where she visited periodically but in the main it is presented as where parts of her books are set. Fiction and reality coming face to face!End result, I’m going to fit an Austen book into my reading schedule sometime soon, and I’m getting ready to bite into a very traditional English scone for breakfast, complete with tea straight from the shops of London, so I’ve clearly been swept up into the Austonian fervor. I suppose I should simply enjoy. (And perhaps start planning my next trip, this time with book in hand, ready to wallow in the atmosphere, while reading…. maybe Sense and Sensibility?) Or perhaps I will take this newest edition of Pride and Prejudice along. Text, Jane Austen, accompanying recipes, Martha Stewart.  

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