ENGLAND — "Oh, no, you can't go into the field, dear. It's private. And there may be cows, and the ground's very humpy."
The nice lady in little Steventon Church outside tiny Steventon village in England smiles sweetly, even though I've interrupted her Saturday cleaning duties to ask for directions to Steventon Rectory.
That's Steventon Rectory as in the birthplace of Jane Austen. The place where the ever-elusive author (1775-1817) lived more than half her life. It's the 200th anniversary of "Pride and Prejudice" — all together, now: "It is a truth universally acknowledged . . ." — and this fairly gung-ho Austen fan has come to England to haunt her haunts.
My husband and I have checked out this little 12th-century country church (a.k.a. St. Nicholas) in rural Hampshire, where Jane's father was pastor. We've seen the Austen graves in the churchyard — chiefly that of brother James, who took over after Dad retired. We've stared at the enormous 900-year-old yew that hid the church-door key in its hollow core.
Now I'd like to get up close and personal with the site of Jane's home for 25 years. But apparently this cannot be.
"There's not much to see, really," the church lady says comfortingly. "Just this tree." She holds up a photo of a large, spreading tree in an empty pasture. "It's a lime, is that right, Anne?" she calls to another lady, who's clearing away dead flowers up on the altar and doesn't hear.
We head down the rutted dirt lane and stop at a pasture enclosed by high hedgerows. Here's where the rectory stood until James tore it down in the 1820s to build a more imposing one across the way. Oh, James, James. What were you thinking?
Ah, well. The hedgerows haven't leafed out yet, good thing. I can poke my nose into this nice big gap, if I stand on tiptoe and stre-e-etch my neck as far as I can. Yes, there's the lime tree, and beyond it, a fence around the site of an old well.
And that's it. All that's left of Jane's early home. Well, that's how it goes on a Jane Austen pilgrimage. You think, if I can only see where she lived and worked and danced and played, I'll get inside her head. Capture her genius.
Hah. That's not so easy, is it, old girl? After 200 years, there's not that much to see. And you're so good at hiding.
But it won't stop me from looking for you.
It's such a little table — maybe 18 to 24 inches in diameter. She wrote on this? Really? With a quill pen? I'd be forever knocking the inkstand to the floor.
At Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, another teeny Hampshire hamlet — where she spent the last eight years of her life — I'm gawking at a 12-sided occasional table in the dining room. This was her writing desk, and it's like a shrine, visitors crowding worshipfully around its plexiglass stall.
The varnish is worn, and there's a big crack in it. After Jane's death (at just 41), her mother apparently thought nothing of giving it away to a manservant.
After writing "Northanger Abbey," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride" in Steventon, Jane finally spiffed up the manuscripts for publication here in this plain country cottage that her wealthy brother Edward provided for her and her sister and their mother. Then she knocked off "Mansfield Park," "Emma" and "Persuasion," too. On little bits of paper on this little bitty desk.
I'm in awe, and feeling close to seeing Jane. Very, very close.
"I shall have to read more Austen," says my English friend Deborah, looking at the display about the 200th anniversary of "P and P." Which she had to read in school, she says. "And you know what that does to one."
Ah, yes. Force-feed someone the classics, and they'll reject them undigested. And yet Jane defies the general trend toward oblivion. It's a truth universally acknowledged that she's more popular today than ever before.
We wander through the drawing room, where a visitor sits down at the piano — not the one that Jane played every morning — and plunks out "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." We ogle the three-volume first edition of "Pride" (the publisher probably destroyed the original manuscript, I read). We step into the bedroom that Jane shared with sister Cassandra (no, it's not their actual tented bed).