July 2017 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Sitting with Jane: Celebrating Jane Austen's Life in Hampshire

Guest Post by Catherine Batac Walder

                                                                                                                                                                             We saw our first "Sitting with Jane" BookBench during a recent visit to Chawton, Hampshire. It was positioned outside the Jane Austen House Museum, where Jane spent the last years of her life. I'd never seen this bench during our previous visits and thought it might be a permanent fixture. Further research indicated that it is one of twenty-four BookBenches that comprise the Sitting With Jane Public Art Trail to celebrate Austen's connections with her birthplace, Steventon, and forms part of a global commemoration of her life in 2017, the 200th anniversary of her death (July 18).

Walder_Jane Austen House Museum.JPGAbove: Jane Austen House Museum, with the "Chawton Woodwalk" BookBench in the distance.

                                                                                                                                                                                 Having always associated Austen with Chawton, Winchester, and Bath, I never thought much of where she was born, in Steventon, a few miles from Basingstoke. I've always considered Basingstoke a sleepy town; we often visited the area for theatre and concerts (understandably much cheaper than going to London) and a train shop, other than these we thought nothing much went on in the area. So learning more of Austen's association with Basingstoke, that it was there where she went to shop and dance, prompted me to look at this town in a different light. Around the area was, essentially, where her writing career began. As the organizers said, "This local heritage is not well-known, Sitting With Jane is about to change this."

Over the next few weeks we followed some of the BookBenches in and around Basingstoke, using a free app and a trail guide available on sittingwithjane.com. The locations all have free public access, but there were a few that we couldn't find and/or were inaccessible at certain hours, e.g., after 5:00 pm. Each bench was uniquely designed and painted by a professional artist with their personal interpretation of a Jane Austen theme.

Walder_Waiting for Mr. Darcy.JPGI'm partial to the BookBench in Chawton, simply because of my familiarity with this countryside setting. The benches at the busy Festival Place in the Basingstoke town center didn't feel at home there, but perhaps the area had the same hectic vibe more than two centuries ago. Predictably, my favorite is the "Waiting for Mr. Darcy" bench (seen at left) at Oakley Hall. It's simple, it's an art doodle of red, black, and white by artist Traci Moss. The fun design is attributed to the hero of Pride and Prejudice - 'The Perfect Man' - a happy doodle-like androgynous figure sits on a sofa waiting for their Mr. Right. "Jane Austen was a frequent guest of the Bramston Family at Oakley Hall. Cherished memories of the hospitality and splendor at Oakley Hall are described in many of Jane's letters." Like in other places I've visited that were Austen-related, there was certainly an inspiring feeling about setting foot on a place like Oakley Hall that has been around hundreds of years, and one that Austen knew so well.

Walder_The house that Jane built.JPGOther benches we encountered included "The House that Jane Built," (seen above) a representation of a Regency dollhouse; "Jane Talk," a modern graphic art style design that uses popular quotes from Austen novels and films; "The Golden Peacock" (seen below), which celebrates the famous cover of the 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice; and "Promenade" inspired by the Regency streets of Bath, where she lived for a few years in her late 20s.

Walder_The Golden Peacock.JPGThe benches are on display till August 31, 2017, after which they will be individually auctioned for a local charity.

                                                                                                                                                                              --Catherine Batac Walder is a writer who lives in the UK. She has contributed several posts from abroad over the years, most recently: "James Joyce's 'Years of Bloom' in Trieste," "Hilary Mantel at the Oxford Literary Festival," and "Roald Dahl's Great Missenden." Find her at: http://gaslighthouse.blogspot.com.

Images credit: Catherine Batac Walder.