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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Austen's not-so-secret London

The biographical record suggests that Jane Austen was essentially a country girl, much happier during the many years she spent in rural Steventon and Chawton than during her shorter stints in the comparatively bustling cities of Bath and Southampton.

Still, she seems to have enjoyed her periodic trips to London, where she shopped, went to the theater, escorted her nieces to the dentist, and, on one memorable occasion, toured the Prince Regent’s home in the company of his librarian. In other words: Nice place to visit, probably wouldn’t have wanted to live there.

Still, I enjoyed running across this recent piece, provocatively headlined, in part, “Our Secret Guide To Jane Austen’s London.” What Austenian secrets could Britain’s capital possibly hold, I wondered, after all these years and all those biographies?

Upon closer inspection--none: The “Secret” part is a nod to Secret London, the tourism website on which the post appears, rather than a promise of any scandalous revelations. But what the piece lacks in surprise it makes up for in coziness--the warm glow that any London-loving Janeite will feel at vicariously revisiting Austen landmarks in that most wonderful of cities.

Secret London’s fifteen-item list of “places in London where her memory lives on, along with significant London sites from her literature” ranges from the familiar--Austen’s memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey, her writing desk at the British Library, the sketch of her in the National Portrait Gallery --to the maybe-kinda-stretching-it: the flagship store of Twinings Tea (“indulge in the same teas that Jane Austen herself enjoyed”), the Victoria and Albert Museum (“explore the Regency fashion and culture that shaped Austen’s novels”).*

And if you’ve ever hankered to hear a piano quintet play excerpts from Jane Austen movie soundtracks in a London cathedral, by candlelight—well, that’s on the list, too, courtesy of an international event series whose London offerings this fall include similar tributes to the likes of Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Beyoncé.

Alas, the candlelight-in-the-cathedral Austen event took place earlier this month, and I tend to doubt that, as Secret London claims, it would have “ma[d]e you feel like you were in the Regency era.” (See under: movie soundtracks.) But if there’s ever an encore performance, I might find it a useful excuse for a return visit to London. Unlike Jane Austen, I’m not a country girl.

* Janeite pedantry compels me to point out that Charles Bingley’s sister is named Caroline, not Claire, and that the illustration captioned “Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen” is, in fact, the gussied-up version created as a frontispiece to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


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