By Makayla MacGregor, ’24
There’s a village called Chawton, tucked in the rustic countryside of Hampshire and vaguely southwest of London. Blink and you’ll miss it — Chawton is small enough that it’s only acknowledged on Google Maps after a ridiculous amount of zooming in. In the village, adjacent to a house with a thatched roof and across from an archetypal English pub, is a brick home. It’s far from stately; the exterior is criss-crossed with vines and moss. The old age of the home is conspicuous; bricks not hidden behind greenery are blemished and chapped, and everything from the floorboards to the door frames are warped ever so slightly.
Somehow, this little brick home, sitting askew in Chawton, became the precedent for all of my travel that I would do in England.
It belonged to Jane Austen. All six of her most notable works were produced here. In a way, that makes Chawton the home of not just Jane, but of her most beloved characters — the Dashwood sisters, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot.
I expected Jane’s home — now a museum — to be crawling with tourists. The day I visited was balmy; the gardens were dappled with the warm September sunshine, tempered by that mild breeze that has the approach of autumn in its whisper. Yet the home was nearly empty. Most of the rooms I wandered through were eerily quiet, except for the squeaking of the wooden floor beneath my feet. Despite the history that pulsed there, and the charm of the countryside, it was by no means a tourist trap.
That made all the difference. There’s something sobering about a landmark when you’re not shoulder-to-shoulder with other travelers. If you’re trying to admire the Roman ruins in Bath, and all the while a man on your left is FaceTiming without earbuds, or there’s a herd of children on a field trip attempting to climb into the ruins, it’s a bit distracting. Not that I’m exempt from the tourist status — I’m sure whoever is standing behind me is equally (and justifiably) annoyed by my presence, and how I’m pausing to take a photo of every last detail. It’s a package deal that comes with traveling: If you’re a tourist, you’re one among many others. Still, I’ve always found the phrase “tourist trap” to have a bit of a negative connotation — as though it’s stigmatized to take a train into London for the sole purpose of visiting Buckingham Palace. The implication is that a true experience can exist only where the locals are; if you’re in a crowd, then you’re in the wrong place. But I can say without hesitation that I wouldn’t trade — for instance — my short jaunt to Venice for anything, even with being squashed by other tourists into the walls of the narrow streets, and temporarily becoming a sardine on the RyanAir flight there and back.
Yet it was Jane Austen’s house that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I stood in the garden after touring it, thinking of how she must have “taken a turn” about the yard while outlining and planning her novels. Jane must’ve sat in this very spot and watched the sky here. She probably studied this sunset, against this horizon, and laced it into her writing. One of the reasons I wanted to study in England was because I’m interested in British literature, and to amble along the paths that authors of yore once walked was nothing short of electrifying. That house in Chawton might be superficially unremarkable, but history spills into its nooks and crannies, saturating every flower, every window pane, and every bit of wallpaper. I discovered that day how much history informs my sense of awe.
So I went about recreating that feeling. I planned outings to the homes of George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and William Wordsworth. I watched the ocean spray and fizzle against the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, just as Dylan Thomas did. I sat in a lecture taking notes on the poetry of Ann Yearsley, and two hours later took a walk by her grave, which lies no more than a hundred meters from my flat.
Charles Dickens, in fact, rattled me, because his history seemed to seek me out, as opposed to the other way around (which was, in itself, very Dickensian). Just before Christmas I traveled to London to attend a choral performance of carols at St. Luke’s and Christ Church. The book I brought with me was A Christmas Carol, which I was reading not just for the holiday spirit, but because I would be taking a course titled “Charles Dickens” the following semester and wanted to familiarize myself with his narrative style. While waiting in a gallery pew for the choir to arrive, I finished the book, unaware that the very church I sat in was the same one in which Dickens was married in 1836. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this coincidence until a month later, but nothing matched that feeling of bafflement that I had unintentionally read Dickens’s work in a church so integral to his life.
Never before have I had the opportunity to so frequently be in the landscape of the literature I’m reading. Books allow you to travel, people like to say. The tundras of Alaska, exoplanets in faraway galaxies, the trenches of World War II, the Amazon rainforest, ancient China. You can go anywhere in the world so long as you have a book. That’s very true. Literature gives you the pleasure of travel. But I learned that the reverse is also true: Travel can bring pleasure to literature. The books I read for my classes at the University of Bristol easily and quickly reached my heart; nothing compares to annotating a Coleridge poem that describes a scene in the English countryside nearly identical to the one I can look at whenever I glance out my window.