HASTENING TOGETHER TO PERFECT FELICITY
Disclaimer: I apologise for the lack of photographs in this post; the camera on my mobile has broken and I really need to sort out a new one!
On Sunday I realised that the very next day was the last day of the Mysterious Miss Austen Exhibition in Winchester. This exhibition had brought together all the known and suspected portraits of Jane Austen together for the first time, offering a very rare and exciting opportunity to see them, particularly as one is in a private collection. The exhibition also had Austen’s hand-written alternative ending to Persuasion and other articles including letters to her sister Casandra, her pelisse and a tiny purse she worked herself. So far my daughter’s interest in Austen has taken us to all sorts of places including Austen’s house in Chawton, Bath and a very accessible lecture at the National Archives on the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Winchester was on our list but it seemed such a waste to delay our visit until later in the summer holidays and thereby miss the exhibition so we got up early and headed off…
We were so glad we did! The exhibition was held in the Winchester Discovery Centre which also houses the city library. There was a suggested donation of £3 which was a wonderful contrast to the huge amount we were charged at the Jane Austen Centre, Bath for the opportunity to look at six copies of the portraits. It was a privilege to be able to see the real portraits and the rest of the exhibition and the understated and calm setting was perfect. Downstairs on the ground floor there was another exhibition about medicine and apothecary in the time of Austen, ‘Malady and Medicine’, focusing particularly on Austen and the city of Winchester. Jane had lived for many years in Chawton, a village a little way from Winchester but towards the end of her life she was moved to Winchester to take advantage of the more specialised medical care available there. It had some interesting exhibits including a sedan chair and apothecary drawers.
We had a quick picnic lunch sitting on a Jane Austen bench in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral and then intended to go inside; partly to see Jane Austen’s grave and the various memorials to her but also because we always love a cathedral! We timed our visit just as a private memorial service was about to begin (not for Austen, I might add) and so one of the volunteers suggested we came back a little later. We went for a wander, hoping to find Austen’s last home in Winchester in College Street, but actually went in the opposite direction and serendipitiously found ourselves at the City Museum. It was £3 entry per person (again, this was the suggested contribution) and well worth it! The museum is divided into three floors, each with a different historical focus. We worked backwards, as it were, starting with Victorian Winchester, moving up through the Medieval and ending with the Roman and Anglo-Saxon. Not only was there a wealth of treasures, sometimes rivaling those on display at the Ashmolean, but there were children’s activities scattered around and, best of all in my children’s opinion, a dressing-up station on every level! Moreover, the costumes were of good quality and kept nicely. We saw an almost complete Roman mosaic discovered at Sparsholt, along with some beautifully preserved paintings; Medieval children’s toys (including a ball, toy sword and a whopping top) and whistles fashioned from goose bones; a Roman burial; a collection of Medieval ‘face jars’, vessels made with humorous faces; Anglo-Saxon jewellery; and all sorts of other things. The Museum also houses Austen memorabilia including a purse owned by her (the one she made and was on show at the Discovery Centre is also usually displayed at the museum), a monogrammed ivory spool-case with a bobbin for winding silk and a handwritten poem circa 1811.
Eventually we returned to the Cathedral where under-16s are free with an adult (£8 entry fee) and had a wonderful walk around it. My younger daughter did the children’s trail which was informative and fun without being too exhaustive. We were visiting on the bicentenary of Austen’s funeral in the Cathedral itself and we saw her grave and the memorial plaque. The Cathedral hosted a Book of Memories which is intended to be a lasting record of the impressions and reflections of visitors as well as Inspired by the Word, a collection of pieces of art by contemporary artists inspired by Austen, her work and her faith. Perhaps the most memorable of these is a portrait by Joy Pitts made entirely of name-tapes, such as you might have made to sew into school-clothes; 71 words from the opening paragraph of Pride and Prejudice form Austen’s face while 16 names of the main characters make up the backgrounds.
There is a great deal more to see in the Cathedral: the 12th-century Winchester Bible is on display there along with a very useful computer programme which allows you to explore the illustrations in greater depth; there are wonderful mortuary chests containing the bones of ancient Kings and Queens including King Cnut and his Queen, Emma; a beautiful painted ceiling in the Quire; the Lady Chapel with a reredos dedicated to the memory of the novelist Charlotte M. Yonge; and a memorial to the deep-sea diver, William Walker, who worked tirelessly six hours a day for six years in the dark underwater wearing a diving suit and helmet to help repair part of the Cathedrals’s sinking foundations!
We stopped in the Cathedral Refectory for a quick snack (the flapjacks are delicious) before going in search, again, of No. 8 College Street. En route we discovered the most fabulous book shed, more accurately known at the Deanery Bookstall, an amazing treasure-trove of second-hand books run by volunteers to raise money for the choral music and choristers of the Cathedral. Sadly for us we got there at the end of their day and the end of ours, so there wasn’t much time to rifle through their stock but my elder daughter and I could have spent hours there! We chose a couple of books but didn’t have enough change on us; the exceptionally lovely lady running the shed said it was all about being kind and let us give her what we had! I did make a run to a cashpoint and paid her back because I heard her telling someone that they need to raise £50,000 a year, and it is for charity after all, but it was indeed very kind of her! We will definitely be heading back there on our next visit!
Finally, we found Austen’s house just as a beautiful little butterfly was fluttering along its wall. Opposite is a little grassy area with plants and a bench where visitors can sit and rest for a while. We headed back to find our Park and Ride bus, admiring the enormous statue of King Alfred the Great, unveiled in 1901, as we went. We had a fantastic day out and will go back to see what else Winchester has to offer.
‘…we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.’ Northanger Abbey.