I have always loved to read. Belle is my favorite Disney princess largely because, even as a young girl, I strongly identified with her love for books. I plow through books like a kid eating candy on Halloween. It took me only a week to read the whole Harry Potter series. And then I immediately read them again. So, freshman year I knew I wanted my required NYU seminar to be about an author, and I chose Jane Austen. Going into college, I hadn’t read any of her work, but my best friend and I have sat and watched the Keira Knightley version of “Pride and Prejudice” about a thousand times together. (I know, I know. It’s not as accurate as the BBC miniseries and I stand by my belief that the book is always better than the movie. But memories, man.) It’s one of “our movies,” we claim, in our typical fashion of holding onto things as perfectly made just for our friendship. So why not appreciate it even more by reading the book and learning about the world of the woman who wrote it? That was the mindset I had going in to the class. And then, I fell in love.
Fast forward a year. There I was, standing in front of the house where my favorite author lived and wrote my favorite books. I left my traveling group in London, knowing that a day trip to Chawton just to go to one museum would be a waste of time in their eyes. On the hour train ride there, I alternated between gazing at the beautiful English countryside and prepping for my visit by rereading Emma, my favorite book by Jane. After a short bus ride and walk through the quaint neighborhood, I saw the sign. Jane Austen’s House. It took everything I had not to sprint through the front door. I opted to excitedly speed-walk to the ticket desk, where I got my student-discounted ticket that is valid for an entire year. A whole year. Limitless Jane Austen house visits. It was then I truly wondered why I hadn’t chosen NYU London.
Jane Austen died in 1817, which makes this year the 200th anniversary of her death. Because of this milestone, the museum is currently running a special evolving exhibition called “Jane Austen in 41 objects”. The number 41 is significant because that is how old Jane Austen was when she died. The museum has selected 41 objects from their collection and organized them in a way that allows each item to tell its own part of the story about Jane’s life and her work. Some of these items include: her father’s bookcase; her gold ring with a turquoise stone; a letter she wrote to her sister, Cassandra; a cup and ball game, bilbocatch, that she was apparently very good at playing; first editions of her books; and the table where she wrote.
To the average person, this table looks insignificant. It’s very small (it looks about two feet wide) and extremely plain (just a simple walnut top on a matching tripod base). But this is where the magic happened. I’m not sure what I expected the table to look like. Something of such exceedingly large importance usually looks just as grand when seen in the imagination. But the small size of the table in no way lessened the overwhelming sensation that hit me when I saw it. I was looking at the actual, real, original surface where my favorite author masterfully put quill to page and produced my favorite works of literature. The fact that I was even in the same room as this table left me feeling an indescribable emotion.
My intense admiration for this table and everything that it has meant to me and people throughout history left me paralyzed for multiple minutes. This one wooden surface represents a common ground between me and so many others. World War I soldiers found comfort reading her books in the trenches, and were prescribed her novels to treat shell-shock after the war. Winston Churchill read Pride and Prejudice while battling Pneumonia in Tunis during World War II. People of all ages around the world read her work. Countless adaptations of her stories find their way into popular culture, including movies based off her storylines like “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (Pride and Prejudice) and “Clueless” (Emma).
After taking my sweet, sweet time and reading every word on every plaque displayed inside the house, I spent the rest of my visit sitting on a bench in the backyard reading Emma. The sun was shining and the flowers around me were blooming, creating a picturesque scene that would normally make me stop and look around in awe, had I not been so consumed by Mr. Elton’s dramatic and awkward profession of love to Emma. I felt completely at peace. I was reading my favorite book by my favorite author on the same property where she wrote said book over 200 years ago. The combination of serenity and excitement that followed that realization was, and still is, utterly surreal. This bliss was disrupted by extreme disappointment when my alarm chimed and reminded me that I had to catch a train back to London if I wanted a bed to sleep in that night.
I am eternally grateful to Jane Austen, a woman who died long before I was born, but has managed to touch my heart all the same. I am thankful for the words she has shared with the world, a piece of her soul that is immortalized in the stories I continue to love every time I read (and re-read) them. I am thankful for this lifeline she has provided through her writing, a comfort that I know will never fail me.
And if it seems strange that I have invested so much of myself into one woman’s books, I think Jane herself said it best: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”