When I came across references to this book in G.E. Mitton's 1905 biography of Jane Austen, I immediately added it to my reading list. Published in 1902, it is an account of a literary pilgrimage by two sisters, Constance Hill, who wrote the text; and Ellen Hill, who illustrated it with her drawings. The two were major fans of Austen's books. As Constance Hill wrote in a preface,
[Her] undefinable charm . . . has exercised a sway of ever-increasing power over the writer and illustrator of these pages; constraining them to follow the author to all of the places where she dwelt and inspiring them with a determination to find out all that could be known of her life and its surroundings.I have made Austen pilgrimages myself, first to her grave in Winchester Cathedral, to Bath and Lyme Regis, and finally a few years ago to her last home, at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire. I was very intrigued by the idea of such a trip in 1901, less than a century after her death, and before she became the global icon that she is today. I had to remind myself that in 1901, there were only a handful of books written about Jane Austen, including family memoirs, and an early edition of her letters. The Hills weren't the first Austen pilgrims, but they may have been the first to write about it.
Their account opens with their arrival by pony-chaise in Austen's native Hampshire, or as they prefer to call it, "Austen-Land." They follow her life chronologically, moving from Steventon, where she was born, to Bath and Southampton, then to Chawton. They include chapters on her time in London, usually staying with her brother Henry; and at Godmersham, the Kent estate of another brother, Edward Austen Knight. Along the way, they seek out the exact spots where Austen lived, or visited, or some cases, danced. They are quite bold in knocking on doors and inviting themselves in for a tour. Constance Hill quotes constantly from Austen's letters (in the 1884 Brabourne edition), as well as the memoir written by her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh in 1870. There are also frequent quotations from the novels, as the sisters look for sites of the events in the books. Like them, I have walked along the Cobb in Lyme Regis, looking for the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell. In addition, Constance Hill often cites a near-contemporary of Jane Austen, Mary Russell Mitford, whose family knew the Austens (I already have an e-version of her 1824 book Our Village - reading always begets more books).
In addition to these sources, the Hills must also have had the cooperation of some members of the Austen family. They were given access to Austen's letters in manuscript, as well as unpublished family memoirs. In addition, Constance Hill read one of the three notebooks in Austen's handwriting, which contain what are now called the "Minor Works," then unpublished. They were also allowed to handle Austen artifacts at Chawton, including her writing desk with the manuscript of The Watsons in a drawer.
I enjoyed - and envied - the sisters' travels in Austen-land. More than a century later, I could relate to their enthusiasm for Austen's books, and their excitement at visiting the places associated with her life and her stories. I was a little surprised to see her books described more than once as "racy," which made me wonder if the Hills had ever read Henry Fielding's Tom Jones or other books of that era. For me their book works best as an appreciation of Austen, and a travelogue, rather than as biography. I will take this book with me if I am lucky enough to make another Austen trip, particularly for the information they give on Bath in Austen's time.
I started off with an e-version of this book, but I was lucky enough to find a reprint by Kessinger Publishing. It includes Ellen Hill's charming drawings, as well as other illustrations. For the book's readers in 1902, this may have been their first look at Austen family portraits, or at Chawton Cottage itself. We 21st-century Janeites are lucky to have so many photos available, in books and on-line - such a wealth of information, so easily accessible, unknown to earlier readers.
N.B. I have sadly neglected my Mid-Century of Books project, so I am glad that I can fill another year with this entertaining book.