I absolutely hated it.
Primarily because in every single class, my professor would go on diatribes about the history of Regency Era, whereas for me, all I wanted was to sit down and analyze Austen's savvy writing.
I guess I made the mistake into thinking that I was singing up for a Jane Austen Book Club rather than an intellectual academic course. But what made me dislike the course – as with all the rest of the literature courses that I took while abroad – was the fact that anything that I said to contribute to the class was deemed automatically invalid.
"Oh, you wouldn't understand," my professor once said to me in front of everyone during a seminar when I raised my hand in an attempt to tie in a passage from Northanger Abbey with one of her many rants about Georgian architecture. "If you've lived in England for as long as I have, and as long as your classmates have, you would have a better understanding into how Bath incorporated some of Austen's insights into her novels."
What my uppity professor didn't know was that I HAD indeed visited Bath last semester in late October. And – not that she bothered to ask – I had also visited Austen's house in Chawton in early January before classes started six days earlier.
On the contrary.
I was living every English major's dream! Last semester I immersed myself in Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare and even more Shakespeare! Day and night, I was reading, highlighting and analyzing. The only problem was, no professor wanted to hear me, let alone pick on me whenever I would raise my hand in class. I knew that I wasn't the only American student abroad in my classes, but now that I think back on it, I was THE only American student abroad who would raise her hand during class seminars. The other students who were called on were native Brits.
I didn't see why I was any different than my classmates – besides the obvious. I made time to sit down after finishing one of Austen's many novels to watch the movie adaptations. I even spent an entire day watching the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice. I didn't leave my room. There's always something satisfying when watching a storyline like that be perfectly adapted into a movie or TV series. It's almost like the screenwriter wrote the script just for you! Because who doesn't want Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy?
It's not only Jane Austen who holds this literary power over me, but my friends Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens as well. English literature has always been the pride of Britain's history. Unlike American literature that only dates back to the late 1600's, England's literature goes back even farther and is rooted within the very foundation of Britain's upbringing. Which was probably why my professors scolded at me for trying to hack away at the thick roots of their literary heritage. What did this American think she was doing? I could picture my British professor fuming. Pulling apart Jane Austen like she's Edith Wharton! Has she no respect for this country and its writers? The fact was, if you were a British citizen you automatically had a stake in the history of the country, regardless if you forget which British monarchy proceeded George I.
Hint: It was George II.
This was actually what made me into an even bigger threat: My annoying knowledge of the monarchs of Great Britain. In the same Jane Austen class that I was stuck in, with my way too nationalist professor, she gave us a lecture of the people in power during the early 18th century after the Glorious Revolution. This had absolutely nothing to do with Jane Austen, but rather how England changed after the Stuart monarchy switched to the Hanoverian monarchy.
To be brief and not to bore you, my professor was trying to make a point that the Protestants were back in power and she made the mistake of jumping from William and Mary of Orange to George I. My hand shot up, and I could tell that my professor just wasn't in the mood to hear an American open her mouth, but she sighed before saying, "Yes, Jacqueline?"
"The crown didn't go straight to George I after William's death," I said. "Didn't it go to his sister-in-law, Anne?"
Many people actually forget that there was another English queen besides Mary I, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. Queen Anne proceeded to the throne, but within months of her reign, another war in Europe had started, which pretty much overshadowed most of her reign.
Sadly, by the look on my professor's face, she too – a native Brit – forgot that Anne existed.
It was priceless.
"Indeed," I could tell that all of the British students had their eyes on their professor, because her cheeks immediately flushed bright red. How was it that an American knew the British monarchy better than the British?
Afterwards, my professor refused to call on me whenever I would raise my hand in class.
But not getting anywhere.
That didn't mean that I didn't enjoy reading the novels that I was assigned to analyze. I didn't motivate myself to read all six of Austen's novels because I had to for my bias professor. I did it because I loved Austen's writing. All of her characters were memorable and very human. It was like you could slip inside their skin and go back in time to the Regency Era to relive their lives. I guess with Austen's writing, she made everything sound so simple and neat and tightly picturesque. I took the time to read and analyze her writing for my own benefit. It was my form of escapism as I endured my homesickness away from my friends at Mount Holyoke and California.
Yes, I had to sit miserably in that stupid Jane Austen class for the rest of my spring semester, but it was all worth it if it meant picking up the next Jane Austen book on my syllabus and watching Clueless right after dinner.
My second step was when the glorious Seth Grahame-Smith released a co-authored book of Pride and Prejudice with zombies! I was a freshmen in high school when I got around to pick up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Though my evaluation to examine Austen's writing was just peaking (I'm pretty sure it peaked when I got around to reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton my sophomore year) but the zombie scenes appealed to my fifteen year old teenage angst. Plus, because the novel was 60% written by Jane Austen, the other 40% was just really cool and gory zombie scenes that Grahame-Smith wrote and inserted in between Austen's paragraphs.
My third step wouldn't happen until I made it to England for my Junior Year Abroad. And even then, my third step wasn't primarily prompt by Jane Austen, but rather than my father urging me to go out and explore all of Great Britain instead of walling myself up with my studies in my apartment on Stanford Street.
He coaxed me to visit Bath.
Worse, I forgot my umbrella. I suppose this is what happens when you forget to check the weather before you buy your tickets for a mind numbing three and a half hour train ride.
So I threw my sweatshirt hood over my head, and walked into the city of Bath.
I had to get drenched from head to foot to come to terms with the city's hybrid design. Well, maybe in the rain, hybrid wasn't the right word. Due to Bath's architectural history, quagmire fitted more suitably.
If Bath, according to my one-sided Jane Austen professor, was the epitome of all things truly British – "Because Austen wanted to write in an environment with a urban design that summed up one of the most English cities in Great Britain" – then she would have known that Bath didn't start off as an English city at all, but rather conquered and inhabited by the Romans and then taken over by the Germanic Angelo-Saxons.
Yeah. So English.
It's a total tourist trap. And nobody loves tourist traps more than me. Probably because I come from the world's most obvious tourist trap – AKA Hollywood – so really corny tourist traps don't phase me.
Like a scene from Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood were standing outside the Jane Austen center with umbrellas in their hands and waving at the tourists as they sloshed through the puddles of water in the street. The actors were wearing Regency Era period costumes; but because it was raining, their Empire Lines and panniered hips were covered by a very heavy raincoat that looked like it was purchased hastily off the racks from Primark. Plus, their hair was pulled back and covered up by a straw bonnet. They were smiling as they tried to persuade the sightseers inside, but their faces were firm and warn from being outside in the cold rain all morning. You could tell that the Dashwood sisters were hoping for a true warm and pastoral Jane Austen weather. Also, from my recollection, I don't think staying outside in the rain did much help to Marianne Dashwood's health.
Maybe I should've told her to go back inside.
This added to my disappointment of the trip. After watching the Kira Knightly adaption of Pride and Prejudice as well as the Emma Thompson adaptation to Sense and Sensibility, I grew to admire the beauty of all of Jane Austen's heroines. Whenever they would attend a ball with their attendant hair styles and white dresses, they remind me of the classical Greek silhouettes. Whenever they would be outside in the sunshine reading on the grass, I'd sigh with want for their pastel colored dresses or their shawls. On their website the actors who worked at the Jane Austen Centre worn these gorgeous outfits.
Unfortunately, just not today in the pouring rain.
"It sure is a nice little place to get out of the rain," one of the Dashwood sisters told me as I walked inside. I could hear a hint of envy in her voice.
That must've been Marianne.
Being a professional when it comes to tourist traps like these, I've learned that in order to get a full fun experience, it's better to just clam up and listen to whatever the volunteer dressed up as Elizabeth Bennet tells you. I've also learned that the people who volunteer to preserve and interpret such literary works are the true heroes who take time out their modern lives to go back in time and explain the past to present Old Navy jean wearing types like myself.
As my tour guide, Lizzie Bennet, led my group upstairs, I realized that there was a tight command in her voice. She sat us all down in the parlor room in front of a genealogy chart of Jane Austen's family and explained the Austen's family history.
Austen's parents were member of the gentry; and George Austen – Jane's father – served as a cleric of the Anglican parishes.
"Jane was a part of a very large family," Lizzie Bennet told our tour group with the same authoritative tone that a professor would give to her students during a lecture. "She had six brothers and one sister named Cassandra who was Jane's closets and dearest friend throughout the remainder of her life."
Of all her brothers, Lizzie Bennet explained to us, Jane felt closest to her brother, Henry who later became his sister's literary agent. George, Jane's eldest brother, was sent to live with a local family at a young age because he was mentally abnormal. Charles and Frank Austen later served in the Royal Navy, both rising to the rank of admiral; and Edward Austen – the luckiest of the Austen brothers – was adopted by his fourth cousin, Thomas Knight, inheriting Knight's estate and vast fortune in 1812.
"You wanted to be this Austen brother," Lizzie told us, pointing to his silhouette on the genealogy chart. "He ended up having a much better life than Jane and her sister."
A much better life indeed.
"Yeah, but who in their right mind would marry someone whose last name was Bigg-Wither?" Lizzie Bennet raised an all-knowing eyebrow to us.
It turns out that twelve hours after Austen accepted Bigg-Wither's proposal she then turned him down.
"Can you blame her? She was six years older than Bigg-Wither and a good deal cleverer."
After rejecting Harris Bigg-Wither, the possibility of Jane ever accepting another proposal was nonexistent. Her sister's fiancée, Tom Fowle had died abroad in 1797, forcing Cassandra to withdraw completely from the marriage market afterwards. The two sisters remained unmarried and shared a spinsterhood until their deaths.
Yet, another disappointment.
Just before I took the staircase downstairs to the gift shop, above me was a small portrait of Colin Firth dressed up as Mr. Darcy. Below the portrait written in white, against the red wall, read the following:
"Oh of course," Lizzie said matter-of-factly. It was this kind of tone that I kept encountering while I was in London. It was this very tone that would later drive me up the wall in my Jane Austen class.
As if I should know. As if I didn't know any better. It was crystal clear that Lizzie Bennet thought of me as a minimalist American. Of course, you would pay £12,000 for a portrait of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. But you wouldn't know because you're not around from here, now are you?
Lizzie didn't bother to back up her statement to me. She went back to discussing the tea set with the tourist down the hallway. For some reason everyone else who was part of my tour group was way more interested in trying on the Regency Era costumes and taking selfies in them, than this weird portrait of Colin Firth above the exit to the hallway.
I separated myself from Lizzie and went back downstairs to the gift shop. Only to be bombarded with more than a dozen I ♡ Mr. Darcy T-Shirts and tote bags.
"It's a bestseller," the cashier, dressed up as Emma, said to me when she noticed me looking at the pile of Darcy merchandise.
It almost seemed too overwhelming. It reminded me of that cringeworthy scene from Mean Girls when Regina George sabotages Cady's chances of getting together with Aaron Samuels at the Halloween party.
"[Cady] made this T-Shirt that says 'I Heart Aaron' and she wears it under all her clothes." Regina tells Aaron as Cady waves longingly across the room at him.
Seeing all of those I ♡ Mr. Darcy merchandise gave me that same uncomfortable feeling. The want to meet our ideal Mr. Darcy to the point that we have to advertise it on a T-Shirt and on our bodies.
Or maybe that was just the rainy Bath weather that was putting me in this nihilistic mood.
I love Darcy too.
Just maybe not as much as the people here at the Jane Austen Centre did.
"Just back upstairs on the third floor," Emma directed me.
This was the other reason I was here at the Jane Austen Centre: To experience Bath's famous Regency Tea Room.
It was a whole lot cheaper than going to The Pump Room and spending £15 on braised ox cheek. Besides, the night before my trip to Bath I looked up the menu for the Regency Tea Room and felt my mouth watering at the descriptions of the various selections of finger sandwiches and cakes.
It really didn't take long for me to become an tea addict in England. I even subscribed to a newsletter informing me which places around London were serving Afternoon Tea at a discount.
Besides, I only had three hours left in Bath and I was planning on spending the rest of my hours at The Roman Baths and at Bath Abbey in the rain. I figured that Afternoon Tea in the Regency Tea Room at the top of the Jane Austen Centre would bring my spirits up.
I hiked up the flight of stairs to the third floor and was greeted by a woman – yet again in costume – ready to seat me inside the tea room. The way she was dressed up reminded me a lot of Mrs Patmore from Downton Abbey. But with All Star sneakers underneath the hem of her dress.
As she led me inside the tea room I came face-to-face with the biggest portrait of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy imaginable. Worse, Mrs. Patmore decided to seat me right across from him in the room.
In summery, it was an awkward but very memorable Afternoon Tea in Bath.
Just me, my tea, and Colin Firth's eyes on me the entire meal.
Maybe she was like my tour guide Lizzie Bennet, and was predisposition to believe that all Americans knew nothing of her life's work. Maybe she was upset with me because I couldn't understand why anyone would pay £12,000 for a portrait of Colin Firth in the appearance of Mr. Darcy. Or maybe she did't find it funny when I took a selfie of myself with the even bigger portrait of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the Regency Tea Room.
Either way, I felt haunted by the presence of Jane Austen when I returned to London soaking wet from the rain.
Maybe the weather was Jane Austen's way of telling me that she hated me. That I didn't belong in her home country.
In the end, of course I ended up writing the whole trip off as a bad day that progressively got worse.
So, that didn't stop me from taking my fourth step into the world of Jane Austen:
"Is this where Alton Brown got his name from?"
Thankfully Alton was only an hour and fifteen minute train ride in comparison to the three and a half hour journey to Bath.
It was January, and my first day of classes for the Spring Semester was only six days away. I decided to take a little trip to a little parish in Hampshire where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life.
It was called the Jane Austen House Museum, located in Chatsworth. From the photos that I looked up online about the place, it was a little red brick cottage at the edge of town. It was this very house that Jane, her sister and their mother lived in until one by one they passed away. It was also this very house that Jane took the time to revise three of the manuscripts that she had written previously, but which had remained unpublished.
I saw this museum as my opportunity to make things right with Jane Austen.
At least, I thought that I did everything right.
I checked the weather: Sunny!
I checked the hours of operation at the Jane Austen House Museum: Google said it was open!
So I bought a ticket and hopped on the next train to Alton.
Alton reminded me a lot of the Island of Sodor. This just proves how old I really am when you get me talking about Thomas the Tank Engine. Anyway, Alton Station was nearby the Watercress Line, which was an old railway station where you could ride around the Hampshire countryside by steam train. Essentially, it brought back some of my old childhood memories of Percy and Toby when I walked further into town.
From Alton Station to the Jane Austen House Museum was a 35 minute walk. So I started down the road and followed the signposts up ahead that directed me to the house.
But once I found the house I saw to my great horror a sign on the window that read:
What I didn't know was that on the museum's website, it stated clearly that the museum was regularly open throughout the year but would be closed during the week for the first six weeks of the year.
It was still the first six weeks of the year.
I felt so stupid.
Again, I screwed myself over!
This confirmed that Jane Austen really did hate me after all!
You wanna know what made this story even better?
It then started to rain as I trudged miserably back all the way to Alton Station.
Why was Jane Austen doing this to me?
Why was she making my life so miserable whenever I would plan a pilgrimage to visit her historical homes?
I didn't understand it. I didn't understand any of it as I sat in my room and pondered why suddenly all things Jane Austen seemed so difficult.
Six days later, my first class of the day was my Jane Austen class with my spiteful professor.
That was the cherry on top of Jane expressing her distaste for me.
But I guess she got bored tormenting me once she started noticing that I was trying to make a dent in my professor's approval for me.
After that, things sort of plateaued.
I kept reading and analyzing her novels. I kept watching the movies and TV series that her books were adapted into.
Even through all the crap that I had to endure in Bath and in Alton, I still remained true to Austen's writing.
I guess in the end, all that I had encountered on my trips paid off in the end.
Maybe Austen was toughening me up. Maybe like her, she was seen as the less important figure because she had no wish to conform with the basic ideals of her society. She was a modern woman, with modern ideas living in the stifling atmosphere of the Regency Era.
And here I was, an American woman with her own opinions and evidence to defend my arguments and analyses. I was going up against an entire classroom full of native born Brits who probably have read all of Jane Austen's novels from cover to cover.
But here's what they don't have:
No experience on how to survive Bath during a downpour.
And no experience when confronting the heartbreaking 'Closed' sign in front of one of your favorite author's historical houses.
I got that all under my belt.
I've experienced it all.
Just you try me.