A Pilgrim’s Tale

Recent London adventures: Noel Coward Theatre, Bond in Motion exhibit at the London Film Museum, Christmas tree lighting on Regent Street, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, City Hall for Mayor’s Questions

The definition of a pilgrimage (according to good ol’ Wikipedia) is a journey of moral or spiritual significance, typically to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs. Many religions also attach spiritual significance to specific places, for example, the place of birth or death of a saint or the location where a deity was housed. Pilgrims take these journeys to be healed or to have questions answered or to achieve a spiritual benefit.

I never really put much thought into the idea of a pilgrimage until last Saturday when I took a day trip by myself to Winchester and Chawton. Winchester is a town about two hours southwest of London, Chawton a little farther than that, both in the county of Hampshire. I woke up at 5 am on Saturday (which I learned was about an hour earlier than I really needed to – and  for those of you who know how much I love to sleep, you will know how very disappointed I was at that missed opportunity). I packed myself a lunch because I didn’t know if I’d have time to stop and eat (again – my eagerness overestimated the amount of time I’d need), and I headed out into the darkness to catch my coach at the Victoria Coach Station. (I had spent the entire previous afternoon riding the Tube and walking to the coach station to make sure I wouldn’t get lost.)

It was when I was sitting on the coach, Winchester bound, that I realized what this trip meant for me. Because, what was waiting for me at the end of my coach ride? Why did I choose this destination, of all of the places in England I could visit?

Jane Austen, that’s why.

(If you couldn’t answer that question by now, shame on you. Go back and reread my previous posts, specifically “Why I’m Here.”)

After Jane’s father died while the Austen family was living in Bath (and then briefly in Southampton), her brother Edward (who was adopted by a rich uncle, just like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park) offered one of his cottages to Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother. The cottage, which was part of a larger estate, is in Chawton, which is really more of a village than a town. After all of these years, that cottage/house/estate has become the Jane Austen House Museum, complete with artifacts that belonged to Jane Austen and her family. I can’t be in England and just not have a look around Jane’s house. Pure foolishness. Immediately after descending the coach in Winchester, I easily found the bus station and the correct bus to take me to Chawton. (The driver was so kind, too. He asked if I was on my way to see Jane and when I said yes, he joked, “Well, I hear she’s in today. Let’s see if we can get you to her.” All of the locals I encountered were extremely nice and helpful.) Once there, I saw her writing desk (the one that held EVERY SINGLE ONE OF HER MANUSCRIPTS that all would eventually be published into novels), and the first ever published edition of Mansfield Park, as well as all of the costumes from my favorite movie adaptation of the same novel. There were displays of her letters, the few pieces of jewelry she owned, her needlework, the silver pot with the family crest, and so many other seemingly simple pieces that were part of her daily life.

Jane Austen's writing desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk

But, can you believe it, Chawton was only my side trip. The main point of this adventure was to walk into Winchester Cathedral, calmly ask the front desk for a ticket in exchange for my £6, and walk with as much self-containment as is physically possible to the grave of Ms. Jane Austen.

I’m not comparing my love of (cough cough, obsession with) Jane Austen to a religion. But as I was sitting on that coach early Saturday morning, not quite sure what to expect that day, I realized just how much this trip meant to me, just how much I needed to find my way to Winchester.

I was raised Lutheran, and we don’t put as much emphasis on saints as Catholics do, but if there was anyone in the world who I would like to raise to saintly status, it would be Jane. (That sounds somewhat like I’m breaking the first commandment, but it’s not like I’m calling her God. She’s just the goddess of literature. That’s different, right?) In one of my previous posts (and just in general conversation with anyone who will talk to me), I explained the depth of my admiration of Jane Austen and her work. Some of my friends (i.e. all of them) grew up reading Harry Potter, so much so that it has affected their lives in very personal ways. That’s what reading Jane Austen novels did to me. She is as close to an idol as I’m going to get – my inspiration, my aspiration, my literary role model. This was my trip to where she died, where my chosen saint is buried. This was my pilgrimage.

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Winchester Cathedral

In Winchester Cathedral, as it is in most other cathedrals, the graves are scattered throughout the building, which means that they are right in the middle of where people walk. When I finally approached  Jane’s grave, I saw two young women standing on it, and my immediate and natural response was to literally shove them and say, “Get off!” (I mean, their feet were trespassing on where Jane’s brilliant mind is resting! How else would you expect me to react?) I didn’t, of course. I respectfully waited for them to wander off so I could view the words on the stone myself.

As I was there, a male choir was singing in the central part of the cathedral, which happens to be right next to where Jane is buried, so I got an epic welcome to the grave. It was like in movies when the music tells you that something major is about to happen. Because the music was enjoyable and I really had no desire to read a bunch of other names on tombstones I wouldn’t recognize or care about, I loitered about Jane’s grave for a long time, long enough for five different tours to pass by. Each tour guide had something different to say about Jane, and to my great satisfaction, all of their facts were accurate. I even learned something new about her.

Me next to Jane Austen's grave

Me next to Jane Austen’s grave

When it was time for me to leave (not because I wanted to, but because people were starting to give me weird looks…I literally just sat next to her grave for the better part of an hour), I made a (silent) promise to Jane that I would never sacrifice my dreams of being a professional writer. I told her I would make her proud, that I would never stop writing. (Now you think I’m crazy because that sounded crazy, but I swear, her spirit can hear me! Okay, maybe I’m a little crazy, but all good writers are.) As I walked away from the grave, I could feel in that moment that I was united with Jane Austen, that we were somehow connected in a way that I couldn’t quite explain at the time. But it was as if a string attached me to her, and no matter where I go in life, that string would never break.

I completed my pilgrimage with a quick look at the last house Jane ever lived in and then strolled down the main street of Winchester as I waited for my coach to pick me up. Winchester had their Christmas lights and tree up, and there was some sort of market going on that night, so I had some tea and crumpets (for the first time ever…delicious sponges from heaven) and spent the night walking by all the pretty shops and reveling in the beauty of the night.

I don’t quite know what I was looking for in this trip. I wanted to see Jane Austen sites, but I think I was looking for something deeper than that. Whether it was guidance or answers or assurance that I was making the right decisions, I needed something. I’m not sure exactly what answers I got from my pilgrimage, or even what questions I asked. What I do know is, Jane was there for me, ready with her quill posed and her wit on the tip of her tongue.

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