Jane Austen Bicentenary: 1817 – 2017


Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. Austenites world-wide have been in a tizzy of activity all year, organizing programs and events scheduled out past the bicentenary date.

Every site associated with her life will be buzzing this summer, converged upon by fans the world over. Joining them in their pilgrimage will be the Scot and I, who’ll be making the journey to Austen country later this month. Think of us as we’re elbowing past tourists at Chawton Cottage, shoving people off her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral so we can get photos, and squinting at maps of Bath to locate the places she lived and wrote about.


The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Northanger Abbey


Imagine what she’d make of all this brouhaha, how she’d feel knowing the passionate devotion her fans still feel 200 years later. No shrinking violet, she may still blush crimson. If she’d experienced this degree of mania in her lifetime, just think how comfortable she and her sister Cassandra would have been. Not just comfortable but wealthy, in a position to tell off her brother Henry for his stingy treatment of her. It would have changed everything.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my amazement at how many new books are still popping out about her life and work, and that a few review titles have been sent my way by publishers. Since then I’ve heard about one other, a novel this time, whose premise has left me scratching my head:


Harper Perennial
May 2017


London, 1815: Two travelers–Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane–arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters–a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.


Do I request it, do I not? It may be perfectly dreadful. I’m not a big fan of modern retellings of Austen. A literary purist of sorts, I’d rather stick with the primary texts, as well as nonfiction about her and her work. Still, every time a new book comes out related to Jane Austen I notice. I’ll think about it.

My own first experience with Austen was in college. I took a course on Victorian women’s fiction, and despite the fact she’s actually Regency, the professor stuck  Northanger Abbey on the syllabus. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t turn me into a fan. Situated alongside Bronte and Eliot, it came off a little thin, especially since I wasn’t at all acquainted with the gothic fiction Austen mocked in the novel.


The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!

Sense and Sensibility


It was Pride & Prejudice, read much later when my kids were little and I joined an online book group to keep my brain from atrophying, that eventually hooked me. From there I went on to Emma, then Sense & Sensibility. It took me a couple of years, but I got through her other books, as well. Now I adore her.

The Scot and I are so looking forward to chasing Austen, and I’ll have plenty to tell and show you when we get back. Also, reviews of those books I’ve been teasing about. Possibly others I snag in the meantime, too.

Here’s to Jane Austen and her enduring fame. Her astute observations on contemporary Regency society, deep empathy for the plight of women, champion of true love and occasionally wicked, rapier-like wit are forever fresh, no matter how many times I re-read her books.

We’re so fortunate to have had her in the world, however short a time it was.


Jane Austen: 1775 – 1817

Sidetrip to Chester, England

Lovely Chester – from Eastgate

Needing a break from the arduous task of living a semi-retired existence in Scotland, I took a few days away to re-visit a city I haven’t seen since I was a teenager: Chester, England. An all-too-brief tea stop en route from London to the Lake District my first time there, Chester is still, decades later, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen – and I’ve traveled a lot, visiting most countries in continental Europe, Ireland, and all countries in the UK save Northern Ireland.

This city had been making guest appearances in my dreams for decades. To a 16-year old Anglophile, it was heaven: half-timbered buildings, cobblestones, a cathedral, castle and remarkably complete city walls… I’d never gotten it out of my head. Given the opportunity to take a side-trip for a few days, when I saw it was only a 3.5-hour train ride from Edinburgh I knew it was time.

The risk was it wouldn’t stand up to my idealized memories. In reality, Chester surpassed them all.

Eastgate Clock (1899) – city walls.

The luxury of planning a four-day stay gave me the chance to get out and roam: plenty of time to see everything touristy, with leftover luxury time to get well and thoroughly lost. That’s when you find quaint little corners that didn’t merit even a footnote in the guidebooks; even better, opportunities to irritate the locals by showing up where they aren’t expecting tourists. Bumbling my way into a private event at a church that sure as hell looked like fair game to me, I experienced a legitimate Withering Look from a legitimate Proper Englishman. I beamed, brushed past, and diverted to take exterior photos of the architecture.

Sod off, Nigel.

St Mary’s Centre (formerly St Mary’s On-the-Hill) – with Nigel (left).

As a teenager, I recognized Chester’s distinctive Tudor architecture. I now realize how grotesquely nerdy that makes me sound. I’d pretty much figured out other kids weren’t sitting home Saturday nights flipping through well-worn picture books about Great Britain, mooning like star-crossed lovers, but I had zero interest in much else save history and literature. In retrospect, it does explain my almost exclusively sober memories of high school, but I’m unrepentant:

I’m sitting in Scotland right now, bitchez!

Streets of Chester.

Preparing for this trip back to Chester the internet – annoying little prig – showed me everything I thought I knew about the city was wrong. The buildings I’d smugly assumed were of Tudor origin are, in reality, mostly Victorian – some facades stuck onto structures destroyed by fire in the Middle Ages. A few are original to the 15th and 16th centuries, but most were rebuilt hundreds of years after.

The Pied Bull Pub – 1535

Roman Chester

I never dreamed how much Roman history Chester holds. Busy coordinating a packed reviewing schedule, I only stumbled on that little detail as I was throwing my clothes in the suitcase. Scratching the surface a bit, I saw it was massive:

Roman Amphitheatre – 1st C.

The largest found in Britain so far, Chester’s Roman Amphitheatre was re-discovered in 1929 during a construction project. It was excavated between 2000 and 2006.

A guide dressed as a Roman soldier was giving tours in the rain the day I visited. It was cold and miserable, alternating between mist and harder rain – a day much better suited to purusing Waterstones than gadding about.

The amphitheatre could easily seat 8,000 people, and around it, a sprawling complex of dungeons, stables and food stands were built to support the contests, while a shrine to Nemesis, goddess of retribution, was built at the north entrance to the arena. The unusually large and developed amphitheatre complex has led historians to speculate that Chester would have become capital of Roman Britain had the Romans successfully captured Ireland.


Roman Garden – Chester.

Relics in the Roman Garden were arranged there to create a lovely park space. It’s all original to Chester, just not original to the site.

Roman Baths – Chester, in Roman Garden.

Roman Garden – Chester.

Parish Church of St. John the Baptist

Huge fan of church and castle rubble that I am, I was thrilled when, walking through Grosvenor Park,  I saw a sign for the St. John’s Ruins. It’s another site I hadn’t seen the first time around:

St. John the Baptist – Ruins (1075)

My DSLR camera died simultaneously with finding the ruin, a sign which didn’t portend well. I took a dozen or so photos with my phone, but then a miracle happened: my camera started working again.

St John the Baptist – Ruins – divine light descends.

St John the Baptist is an active parish, just not the ruined bits. Not all the church collapsed, at least not all at once. There were a series of collapses, and subsequent repairs, throughout its history:

In 1468 the central tower collapsed. In 1572 the northwest tower partially collapsed and in 1574 there was a greater collapse of this tower which destroyed the western bays of the nave. This was rebuilt on a “magnificent scale”. There were restorations to the church in 1859–66 and 1886–87 by RC Hussey. While the northwest tower was being repaired in 1881 it collapsed again, this time destroying the north porch. The porch was rebuilt in 1881–82 by John Douglas.



The guide inside St John the Baptist related the church’s history from its Viking burial markers to how to tell if a knight’s been on Crusade from details on his effigy, everything between and after. He rattled on in the very best sense, so interestingly and quickly I wished I had a memory to speak of so I could share it.

The ceiling of the church was funded by Elizabeth I. The price? The lead on the existing ceiling, as the English were hard at work on the Spanish Armada at the time, and needed every bit of scrap material they could lay hands on.

St. John the Baptist parish church


Between the ruins and the working parish church, I spent at least an hour and a half there.

Chester Castle

I captured the castle at the golden hour of the day, the sun illuminating the side. Open only for tours two days a month, I wasn’t able to see inside. Disappointing, to say the least. Rumor has it inside lay all sorts of interesting historical artifacts, as well as paintings, etc.

Ah, well. Maybe next time.

Chester Castle (1070)

Chester Cathedral

Other charms aside, it’s Chester’s cathedral I found most bewitching. After circumnavigating it more than once while looking for the entrance, twice passing a confused Englishwoman doing the same, it was one astounding visual experience after another.

Chester’s cathedral is majestic.

Chester Cathedral (1541) – not the entrance.


The choir, Chester Cathedral.


One of several magnificent ceilings.


The Cathedrall is Large and Lofty, ye quire well Carv’d, fine tapistry hangings at ye alter, a good organ: The Bishops pallace is on the Right hand of it and the Doctors houses, all built of Stone.


Modern Stained Glass.


Cloister Garden – ‘The Water of Life’ by Stephen Broadbent

I spent four days in Chester. One day was pouring rain, limiting how much I was able to get out and about. Turned out, three days were exactly enough. I left knowing I hadn’t seen everything, but content I’d seen enough.

From a guidebook I bought at Waterstones, I learned just enough about the history to know how much more I want to know. Serendipitously, there’s a plaque inside Chester Cathedral dedicated to an ancestor I found branching off my own family tree during my Mad Genealogy Period. He’s the father of a woman George Washington proposed to before Martha, the woman who rejected the man who’d be the first president of the United States.

A man with his own Wikipedia page.

Wait… What?

I knew nothing of his association with Chester, but I recognized his name and where he’d lived in New York, and from that little curtain twitch funnelled back more than 240 years, I could just make out a young lady with burning cheeks standing in awkward conversation with the first president of my country:

“I’m sorry, George. Daddy says no.”

Of the hundreds of marble slabs dedicated to thousands of people in Chester Cathedral, I happened to plant myself directly in front of his. Go. Figure. Things like this happen to me all the time – not very distant relatives found honored in huge cathedrals, but too many little coincidences to recount.

I find these things because I read and research, I’m curious and I travel. Odds are, if you travel enough you’re bound to run into parts of yourself elsewhere. I went looking for my 16-year old self in Chester, and ran smack into my Dutch great-great-great-grand-something – the last person I expected to see in the last place I expected to see him. It happens sometimes, if you keep your eyes open.

Once again, Chester, so long. And thanks for all the fish.

Old Dee Bridge (1387)


At the End of ye town just by the Castle you Crosse over a very large and Long Bridge over the River Dee wch has the tyde Comes up much beyond the town; its 7 mile off yt it falls into ye sea, but its very broad below ye town, when at high tyde is like a very broad sea: there they have a little Dock and build shipps of 200 tunn, I saw some on the stocks.