By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 22 2015 01:00PM
Our first president traveled widely in his efforts to shore up the foundations of our fledgling republic. “Driven by duty to present himself to the citizens of the shaky new union, he spent the night in so many inns and private houses that ‘George Washington Slept Here’ became a real estate cliché,” Timothy Foote wrote in the December 1999 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.
Jane Austen, a loyal Englishwoman born in 1775, probably didn’t think much of Washington, who led the American colonies to independence from Britain during her early childhood. But the latest bit of Austen news put me in mind of that old Washington-slept-here cliché, evoked to increase the perceived value of every home from Vermont to Georgia.
It seems that the church in Kintbury, a small village in Berkshire, recently stumbled across an old painting by an unknown artist showing the western elevation of its vicarage. Austen’s sister, Cassandra, was engaged to the Kintbury vicar’s son, Thomas Fowle, who died tragically before they could marry. Both Austen sisters stayed in the vicarage from time to time.
The painting has now been restored, and so – voilà! It’s time for Jane Austen—The Kintbury Connection, “a weekend of events . . . exploring Jane’s connection with the village.” Coming up on June 27-28, we’ve got talks by Austen-ish authors, a walking tour of “the Kintbury which Jane Austen would have known,” a Regency-themed church service, cream tea, and “an exploration of Jane’s association with Kintbury through dramatic readings of her letters.”
No offense to Kintbury – frankly, they had me at “cream tea” – but if we’re being strictly honest, Austen’s links to Kintbury are pretty tenuous. The index to Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence lists 21 mentions of Kintbury in 343 pages. Some of those references come in the addresses of letters Jane sent to Cassandra at the Fowles’; the rest are passing mentions, along the lines of “Martha has been lately at Kintbury, but is probably at home by this time” (Letter 24). Not sure how dramatic that reading is going to be.
Kintbury’s joyous celebration is best understood as another manifestation of the Cult of Austen. Like all those bedrooms that Washington ennobled with his snores, anywhere Jane Austen slept has an immediate cultural cachet. And no town wants to pass up the bragging rights – and maybe the tourism dollars – that could grow from that association. Save me some clotted cream, Kintbury.