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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Travels with Jane

Last week, I returned home from a wonderful family vacation in Ireland, Scotland and England. But, as I discovered, wherever Janeites travel, Jane Austen comes along. A few of my Austen(ish) sightings:

--In St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, I happened across the tomb of Richard Whately, the city’s Anglican Archbishop from 1831-63, and a perceptive early reader of Austen. In his 1821 review of the posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Whately praised Austen for the non-didactic subtlety of her moral instruction.

Tomb of Richard Whately, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

--While seeing friends in Reading, England, I made a pilgrimage to a bona fide Austen site I’d never before visited: the Reading Abbey gateway, which once housed the Reading Ladies’ Boarding School, where Austen, aged about ten, and her older sister spent the last year (1785-6) of their brief formal education. It doesn’t seem to have been the most rigorous of educations: Austen biographer Claire Tomalin calls the school “a harmless, slatternly place,” where the presiding headmistress was one Madame LaTournelle (real name: Sarah Hackitt), a sixty-something with a cork leg, no French connections, and a penchant for regaling her charges with stories about the world of the theater. (A Dickens character, in other words.) Nowadays, little remains of the school but a plaque commemorating its existence, but Reading’s council hopes to cash in on the Austen connection by restoring the Abbey Gateway and fitting it out with an exhibit on Regency and Victorian schooling.

Abbey Gateway, Reading

--I tried to interest my teen-age daughter in the enticing walking tours of Jane Austen’s London laid out in Louise Allen’s 2013 guidebook. Enticing only to me, apparently: my daughter bailed about halfway through the first one. But we did manage to get as far as the London home of James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, whose brief acquaintance and unintentionally hilarious correspondence with Austen made it possible, indeed mandatory, for her to dedicate Emma to the future George IV.

37 Golden Square, London, one-time home of James Stanier Clarke

--Jane Austen even popped up in my (non-Austen) vacation reading. In one book, the not-very-good Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, two new acquaintances bond over a shared love for Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. In another, the diverting-but-forgettable Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub, the protagonist bases the hit song she writes for her college band on Elinor Dashwood’s self-admonishment, “I will be calm; I will be mistress of myself.” (Sense and Sensibility, chapter 48) Amid these contemporary beach reads, I also found time for the delightful Cotillion, by Georgette Heyer, much of whose oeuvre, with its strong-minded heroines, Regency settings and marriage plots, is a not-so-veiled homage to Austen. There were more sightings, of course, from posters for Austen-inspired shows scheduled for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to Chelsea Clinton's Pride and Prejudice shoutout during her Democratic Convention speech, to a multiplicity of Austen editions in every bookstore we visited. You can’t escape Austen’s influence, at least if you’re looking through Janeite eyes. Photo credits: Whately's tomb, Reading Abbey Gate (top), James Stanier Clarke -- Rachel Yaffe-Bellany Reading Abbey Gate (bottom) -- Alastair Bellany

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