The Day Returns Again: An English Literary Tour
by Susan Kostrzewa
A serene silence pervades the Hampshire afternoon, punctuated only by soft gusts of wind through elm trees and the scuffle of feet against a narrow, dusty lane. Ahead, nestled behind the dark elms, the worn stone of a Norman church peers out expectantly.
I am walking the road to Steventon rectory, a road left unblemished by time, a road well-known by Jane Austen, who lived in the area for 26 years. The echo of her here, haunting and insistent, transforms me. Eagerly, I scan the surrounding fields for her tall, slim form, striding into the distance. I am disappointed not to see her, so entrenched am I in her world.
Chasing the paths of writers Jane Austen and Agatha Christie through such dramatic English environs as Devonshire, Somerset, Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire, our six-day tour was a communion of past and present, and a hands-on education about the life and times of both literary icons.
The customized tour was arranged by The British Connection, an Atlanta-based company. Traveling by mini-bus and car with local operator Sulis Guides, our small group explored the wind-swept coastal towns, historic cities and pastoral villages that figured dramatically in both Austen's and Christie's novels. By visiting locations so well-known to the writers themselves, we experienced the most intimate of connections between reader and writer.
Modern Day Marples
We began the Agatha Christie portion of the tour by visiting her beloved hometown of Torquay, once dubbed the "English Naples" due to its balmy climate, seaside location and shimmering white villas. A wealthy and fashionable seaside resort when Christie was born here in 1890, the seven green hills of Torquay are still dotted with commodious Georgian and Victorian mansions. Fortunately, most of the sites and buildings associated with Christie's often idyllic Victorian childhood are still standing.
As we explored the Pavillion (a once-famous Concert Hall) and had tea at the Imperial Hotel (elegant setting of Peril at End House and The Body in the Library), Christie's presence was unmistakable. Gazing at the creamy stonework and Art Deco iron detailing of the Pavillion, one could easily envision an insistent Archie Christie escorting a calm Agatha Miller from a concert in 1913. His hasty marriage proposal that night was in part fueled by his impending departure for the battlegrounds of World War I.
Romance vs. Reality
Similarly, we chuckled over the sometimes humorous ironies of Christie's Victorian era as we passed the Royal Torbay Yacht Club, once a favorite haunt for Christie's father and his cohorts. Overlooking a beach called Beacon Cove where Agatha herself bathed as a young girl, the front window of the club is still a perfect vantage point from which to view the secluded beach. The thrill of that view was more significant in Miller's time, as gentlemen peered slyly through opera glasses at the supposedly private women's-bathing beach below.
Visits to the scenic towns of Paignton, Dartmouth and Cockington Village also gave us a vivid picture of Christie's life and works, but other scenes captured her presence even more effectively. Our visit to Dartmoor, a desolate tableland set dramatically in lush Devon, brought to life the image of 26-year old Agatha retreating to the Moorland Hotel at Hay Tor to write her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie reputedly took long walks along the windswept moors as she muttered aloud her workings of the plot, isolating herself from other guests. The writer used escapes like this when writing all of her future novels, though the idea was initially her mother's.
Swell Times at the Burgh
Travelers experience the decadent romance of Christie's 20s and 30s when staying at the Burgh Island Hotel, an Art Deco jewel frequented by Christie in the late 1920s. Nestled on the tidal Burgh Island off the coast of Devonshire near Bigbury-on-Sea, the 15-room hotel was once a private home owned by Christie's eccentric London theater acquaintance, millionaire Archibald Nettleford. Nettleford was famous for his wild house parties, to which Christie and her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, were often invited. The island's brooding charm intrigued Christie so much that she set two of her novels there, Evil Under the Sun and And Then There Were None.
From the gleaming, mirrored palm court to the vintage sea view rooms, Burgh Island Hotel provides the perfect opportunity to saunter straight into one of Christie's mysteries. Intimate yet isolated, the hotel has a lazy, languid feel that effectively captures the 1920s and early 1930s era. Though modern stars such as Mick Jagger and Whoopie Goldberg frequent the hotel, it is the images of such bygone legends as playwright Noel Coward and the infamous Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Wallis Simpson that seem to walk its labyrinth of corridors.
Guests are zealous to "get in the mood," donning evening dress consisting of tuxedos, flapper gowns, broaches and feather boas. One night, as we lounged around sipping cocktails under an intricate Art-Deco aviary, we giggled wickedly at the notion that we were in one of Christie's novels. Who would be left alive, we wondered, when the cold and windy night was through?
Of Heroines and Haberdashery
Rewinding another 130 years back in time, the second part of the tour devoted itself to the subtle elegance and rural charms of Jane Austen's early 19th-century England. Like Christie, Austen was very specific about the towns, streets and buildings of which she wrote, making it possible for explorers to follow the trail of both Austen and her characters to the minutest detail. Though some sites from Austen's life have been seriously altered with 200 years of "progress" and expansion, it is still possible to relive the stylized world of Regency England that Austen so incisively satirized.
In Lyme Regis, a small town settled among the cliff-lined Dorset coast, we followed the steep main street used by the Austens when visiting the then tiny port in 1804. Described by Austen as "almost hurrying into the water," the scenic entrance into town would have been even more dramatic to the Austens than to us, since the brakes on their horse-drawn carriage were less reliable than those of our Peugeot mini-van. Austen adored the area, and wrote emotionally about it in Persuasion (published 1818):
[I]ts sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sand make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; . . . must be visited, and visited again . . .
Making our way along a windy, medieval stone pier called "the Cobb," we reached the infamous "Granny's Teeth." The teeth are rough-hewn slab steps offering a perilous descent from the upper level of the Cobb to the lower, and were the scene of flirtatious Louisa Musgrove's near-fatal jump in Persuasion. The site was also used in the 1995 film version of the novel.
Unlike Louisa, I had no gallant soldier waiting at the foot of the teeth, so I grabbed onto the wall and clumsily clambered down. Though eager to imagine myself in Austen's story, getting concussed on the hard stone Cobb was hardly my idea of romance. I did, however, wonder how any Regency woman clad in flimsy shoes, a cumbersome bonnet and three layers of dresses billowing in the wind could ever find her way down the steps without tumbling headlong to the bottom.
Frozen in Time
While Lyme afforded some close encounters with Austen's real and imagined world, it was in Bath that I felt most immersed in her life. Though the bustling spa town was not particularly beloved by country girl Austen (she was forced to move there in 1801 when her clergyman father retired from the Steventon living), its stately, neo-classical symmetry proved an effective backdrop for two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Austen protested "all the hot, white glare of Bath" (sun reflected off the pale sandstone of its Georgian buildings) and the "vapour, shadow, smoke and confusion" of its busy streets, but it had been a fashionable watering hole long before she arrived. In the 18th century, Bath was an affordable substitute for London society and a haven for those suffering from gout and rheumatism. By the time Austen arrived in the early 1800s, it was slightly less exciting, being a favorite retirement community for ex-naval officers. Today, its anachronistic beauty is appreciated around the world.
Past Meets Present
We spent one whirlwind day reveling in the sites and sounds of Jane Austen's Bath, appropriately lodged in a renovated Georgian manor overlooking the city. At the elegant Assembly Rooms, we stood in the vast, lonely ballroom flanked by fireplaces and exquisite chandeliers. Bringing to mind Austen's own disappointment at the sparsely attended Bath balls of 1801, we wondered, "Where were the dancers?" Downstairs at the Museum of Costume, we looked at the sweeping skirts and empire waists of authentic Austen-era dresses.
On chaotic Milsom Street, we tried to guess in which building Austen bought her bonnets, and were shown the site of Molland's confectionery shop, from which a surprised Anne Elliot spied Captain Wentworth trudging through the rain in Persuasion. We even "tested the waters" at the Pump Room, where glasses of the Roman Bath's iron and mineral-laden water can still be had.
We were also allowed a unique entrance into the Austens' first lodging at 4 Sydney Place, now owned privately by a Mr. and Mrs. Davis. Over a glass of sherry, we talked with Mrs. Davis in Mr. Austen's former study, the original marble fireplace exuding a welcome warmth from the chill Bath night.
Later, she showed us a heavy leaden safe in the old dining room, and told us that the only way to open it was to use explosives and damage the wall. Wanting to preserve the landmark building, the Davis' have decided to leave the safe untouched. I fantastically imagined an unpublished novel hiding away in its impenetrable depths, and my mind was reeling after the visit.
Touring Montacute House, a magnificent Elizabethan mansion bringing to mind Pride and Prejudice's Pemberley, was also on the agenda. The estate was used as the Palmer residence and scene of Marianne's breakdown in the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility. Its grotesquely misshapen "Brain Hedge" provided a surreal backdrop for her frenzied decline.
Echoes of Austen
Another stately manor that had greatly impressed and intimidated Austen, The Vyne in Hampshire, was owned by a friend of her brother James. The house was handed over to the National Trust fully furnished, and remains much as it looked when Austen attended dances there in the late 18th century, vermilion silk damask walls and all.
While the Vyne's Tudor Gallery would have been ideal for a long minuet, Austen most probably danced in one of the smaller drawing rooms, with the carpets flung back for easy movement. Judging from the drafts in the larger chambers, it's no wonder the muslin-clad women preferred the more concentrated blaze of a drawing room fire.
Austen moved to Chawton Cottage, Hampshire in 1809, but her failing health in 1817 forced her to move closer to her doctor in Winchester. From the street, we regarded the window from which Austen's devoted sister Cassandra watched her funeral pass, and we too felt the loss of the talented woman who died at age 41 of Addison's Disease.
At the end of the journey, we had forged an intimate acquaintance with both Austen and Christie. In reflecting on their lives, it was inevitable that we contemplated our own.
In Christie's own words, we had "been on a journey. Not so much a journey back through the past as a journey forward--a starting at the beginning of it all--going back . . . to (ourselves)."
Specializing in everything from antiques-buying trips to World Cup soccer arrangements, The British Connection Inc offers individual and group travel programs in Britain, Ireland, France, Italy and Bermuda. For more information, contact: The British Connection Inc, 1166 Oxford Road, Atlanta, GA 30306; Tel: 800-420-2569; Fax: 404-378-5265; E-mail: BRITCON777@aol.com.
Whether the tour begins in Winchester or Totnes, a stay at the Witherington Farm Bed & Breakfast on the way to the tour features an intimate atmosphere and beautiful gardens in the country just outside of Salisbury. Tel: 011-44-1722-710222; Fax: 011-44-1722-710405.
Paradise House Hotel is a restored Georgian home overlooking the city of Bath. Tel: 011-44-1225-317723; Fax: 011-44-1225-482005;
See The British Connection listing on this web site!