TONY GRANT WAS KIND ENOUGH TO LET US REPRODUCE HIS BLOG POST...
We have had to bend our policy on providing exclusive content - but we don't think Jane would mind!
To Cassandra Austen, Thursday 6 June 1811:
“I had just left off writing & put on my Things for walking to Alton, when Anna & her friend Harriot called in their way thither, so we went together. Their business was to provide mourning, against the King’s death; & my mother has had a Bombasin bought for her.-I am not sorry to be back again, for the young Ladies had a great deal to do-& without much method in doing it."
To Cassandra Austen, Sunday 24 January 1813:
“When my parcel is finished I shall walk with it to Alton. I beleive Miss Benn will go with me.”
To Cassandra Austen, Tuesday 9 February 1813:
“My Cold has been an Off & on Cold almost ever since you went away, but never very bad; I increase it by walking out & cure it by staying within. On Saturday I went to Alton, & the high wind made it worse- but by keeping house ever since, it is almost gone.”
To Cassandra Austen, Sunday 8 - Monday 9 September 1816:
“Our day at Alton was very pleasant”
I would like to reiterate that last sentiment. On Sunday 17th June 2018, our walk to Alton was very pleasant.
Caroline Jane Knight is Jane Austen’s fifth great niece, descended from Jane’s brother, Edward, who took the name of Knight. Caroline launched the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation on April 16, 2014, in the Holywell Music Room of Oxford University. Her initial idea was to ask fans, writers, actors, producers and anybody who has profited from Jane Austen to donate money to support literacy programs around the world.
I first knew about this particular fundraising walk when Caroline posted information about it on the ‘Jane Austen and her Regency World’ Facebook site. I have been writing about various aspects of Jane Austen’s life for many years online. Having been a schoolteacher for over forty years, I know that good resources are necessary for teachers and pupils to develop learning. My interest in Austen and my interest in education were combined in this charity walk.
Caroline set me up with a donation page and I advertised the page on my Facebook and on other sites. I had a great response from family and friends. Perhaps I was a little proactive in trawling through my email list and firing off begging emails to all and sundry, but hey - what are email addresses for? I hope everyone will still talk to me!
The money donated will be used in conjunction with an organisation called Worldreader to supply e-readers and a digital library for Suhum MA Experimental C School in Ghana. Michael Sem, the project manager and primary 3 teacher, will be facilitating the implementation of this new technology.
Ruth Sorby from Worldreader took part in the walk. We discussed the profound impact the e-readers will have on the children and teachers at the Suhum school. E-readers and digital libraries can create enormous leaps in learning, particularly in schools where there is a critical lack of much-needed resources. It is a very good cause to get involved in.
On the Sunday morning of the walk I arrived early because I had heard a new statue had been placed in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church in Chawton. The rain had stopped and the cool clean air felt refreshing as I strode along the road from ‘The Greyfriar’ car park, next to Jane's cottage. It is a leafy walk along the old Gosport Road, with some beautiful thatched and clay tiled cottages on the right, many with climbing roses and gardens brimming with hollyhocks and geraniums. Beautiful examples of English country gardens.
Cars were pulling up in this stretch of road as I strode along and white flannelled individuals emerged to make their way to the cricket pitch nearby for a cricket match that day. I passed the flint walled primary school. Caroline was later to tell me that she herself had attended Chawton Primary School as a child. I admitted to her that I had always liked the thought of being a teacher there – alas, too late in life for me now! I arrived at St Nicholas in the grounds of the Great House where Caroline’s ancestors had lived. The statue of Jane stood on a pristine white stone plinth. It is dark bronze and shows Jane as a young woman. She is in motion with a twisting movement and a certain vitality in her body. A lady of action.
I took some pictures and hurried back down Gosport Road to see who else had arrived for the walk. Caroline and her father, Jeremy, were just pulling up in a car. They emerged both dressed in 18th century attire, Jeremy looking very smart in a top hat and tails and Caroline in an elegant light blue silk gown. She wore an ostrich feather in her hair. I smiled and made myself known to them.
Within minutes other people arrived, some in 18th century attire and some in their everyday attire. I wore a polo shirt, trainers and walking trousers. Many knew each other already from contacts in the Jane Austen world but everybody was so welcoming. I was greeted warmly and in a very friendly fashion - I think I had conversations with almost all the people on the walk over the course of the morning.
As we walked along I had a chat with Caroline and asked her how the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation came about. She told me about her youth and the shock of having to leave Chawton Great House at the age of eighteen. She rejected her background and spent a few years trying to discover herself. She told me that for a while she lived in a flat over a jeweler in the Wimbledon Village High Street. I know the jewelers. I live near Raynes Park at the bottom of the hill from Wimbledon Village. Some time in the past we may have passed each other in the street!
During this time she kept her illustrious ancestry a secret, not telling anybody of her background. She moved to Australia and became a successful businesswoman - having met her, I can confirm she has not only a great sense of humour and a warm effusive personality, but also a certain steeliness and determination about her.
The foundation came about when her father, Jeremy, suggested she attend a celebration for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 2013. Caroline saw the power for good Jane’s legacy could achieve and she formulated an idea for the foundation.
Walking to Alton along the road from the cottage in Chawton was a relaxed affair. The distance to Alton is a mere two miles and we followed the route Jane and her family would have walked. Just the thought of walking in Jane’s footsteps has a certain frisson, a certain excitement about it.
I spoke to a gentleman who introduced himself as ‘Lord Cheltenham’ but he was very sociable and amiable nevertheless. Sophie Andrews, the creator and editor of ‘Laughing With Lizzie’, and her friend, both elegantly dressed in Georgian attire, were accommodating to my requests to pose for pictures.
Joana Starnes, author and editor of ‘All Roads Lead To Pemberley’, put up with my meagre Austen knowledge until I discovered her identity and realised that Joana is, by far, more knowledgeable about Austen than myself.
Onwards we walked, and the rain stayed off. Jeremy Knight was approaching people we passed by and suggesting they put money into his collection tin “for a very good cause.” He was so keen and quick to engage people that he left very few targets for the rest of us to approach! It became a skill to point out people and get to them before Jeremy could – it was all a very pleasant and light hearted of course.
Caroline had coerced a friend to film the walk. At one time during our march I spotted this gentleman, squatting on the road, his gaze looking down between his legs at his camera resting on the ground. I presumed some terrible accident had occurred, then suddenly I realised what he was doing - filming me from a low angle.
Our destination in Alton was the Swan Inn. The Swan is an 18th century coaching inn and it was the place that coaches stopped at in Alton to deliver the mail to the local people. It was also where mail was collected from local people to be distributed around the country. Walking to the Swan was one of many reasons Jane Austen walked to Alton - she collected her mail and posted her own letters here. Alton was also where she would shop, buy dress material, and visit friends. When the Austen’s decided to leave Southampton, living in Alton was the first place they considered moving to before the cottage, provided by Jane’s brother Edward, was decided upon. Jane’s mother was tempted by an acceptable rent for a property in Alton.
Jane writing from Southampton to Cassandra, on Saturday 1 - Sunday 2 October 1808, referred to her mother’s preferences.
“In general however she thinks much more of Alton, & really expects to move there. Mrs Lyell’s 130 Guineas rent have made a great impression……….I depended upon Henry’s liking the Alton plan, & expect to hear of something perfectly unexceptionable there, through him.”
The cottage in Chawton must have been free of rent, as it was owned by Edward. That was the deciding factor I am sure.
While walking to Alton I asked Caroline what she thought about all the things that go on in the name of Jane Austen. I told her that I think Jane Austen is a great author and I love reading her books, however, to me she is one author among many that I enjoy reading. For instance I think Virginia Woolf, who was so inventive and groundbreaking in her novels, is just as good a novelist. Caroline thought I was making the mistake of thinking there was one Jane Austen. She said there are two, the author and family member and then there is the Jane Austen that has been created by film and TV. I think I agree with her.
We entered the Swan Inn. The manager was very accommodating with so many people all of a sudden descending on his establishment. The ladies dressed in their wonderful costumes stood at the bar and Caroline insisted on buying us all a drink before we set off back to Chawton.
Then we were on our way back, retracing our steps. The weather remained kind to us and the journey back was just as amicable with much amiable company. One young lady dressed in a white gown emblazoned with lemons and golden tendrils of hair draping her lovely face like coiled springs told me about her occupation as a ‘re-enactor’ and although today she was dressed as a Georgian lady, her main occupation was as a Greek goddess. Yes, I could see that, without a doubt. We talked about museum education - working with children in museums and galleries has always been an interest of mine.
With another finely dressed lady, I discussed pensions and life after work. She had a handsome dog with her that was dressed in the coat of an admiral of the Royal Navy with epaulettes and gold braid. On the way back from Alton, the dog had changed its attire to that of a hussar.
I spoke to Alison Larkin on the way to the Great House. She told me who she was and about her award-winning audio book narrations of the complete novels of Jane Austen. Alison personified the enthusiasm and passion there is for Jane Austen among Janeites. There is a love for Jane and her work that is tangible.
Once back at Chawton, we walked on to the Great House for the final photo shoot, first at the statue of Jane in the St Nicholas churchyard, then at the graves of Cassandra Austen, Jane’s mother, and Cassandra Elizabeth Austen, Jane’s sister.
As we exited the Great House onto the front steps, Caroline announced that we had made over £3000. A few whoops and some hand clapping went on - there were smiles all round. Caroline’s parting shot to me as I drove past her and Alison Larkin on my way home was, “Wear a top hat next year!” I replied, “I’ll think about it.”
© Tony Grant - retired teacher and blogger.
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Image credits: Tony Grant