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Where Jane Austen Danced, Dined or Dallied

Leading the pretour was Frances Brook, a redoubtable Englishwoman with an authoritative manner and a flowery hat. Though she has been a guide for 42 years, this was her first Austen tour. From a position at the front of the minibus, she interspersed helpful Jane-related information with tidbits from her vast supply of situational trivia.


A Jane Austen bust for sale at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society.

Ana Cuba for The New York Times

“The sign off here is to Farnborough, which has a splendid flying show every year,” she said, as the minibus sped along. “Basingstoke played a big part in Jane Austen’s life.”

The first stop was the 15-acre Houghton Lodge in Stockbridge, Hampshire, a fine example of a restored 18th-century garden. The ladies — the gentleman had not yet arrived — wandered around the grounds, speaking of flowers, trout fishing and literature.

“I think the books are the most remarkable things I’ve ever read,” said Noel Butler, a former software engineer and fashion designer from Sunnyvale, Calif., who keeps them all by her bed and reads a bit each day. “When you read Jane Austen, your brain is fired up in different ways than when you read anything else.”

Delia Bisgyer, a retired teacher from Fairfax County, Va., said she turns to the novels at times of distress, as when her father died more than 20 years ago. “It was the first time in my life that I felt how loud the silence was,” she said. “Jane Austen took me away from the heaviness of reality and made me feel less lonely.”

The group checked into a quaintly un-air-conditioned hotel in Southampton, where Austen is said to have danced on her 18th birthday. Mrs. Brook then presided over a walking tour of the city, where Jane lived from 1807 to 1809, with special attention paid to Austen landmarks.

On the second day, the group attended the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society at Chawton House, an Elizabethan manor house that was owned by Austen’s brother and is now a library devoted to pre-19th-century women’s writing. The mood was giddy. Speeches were followed by tea and cakes.

“Fellow Janeites, my lords, ladies and gentlemen,” began the club’s president, Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, a former diplomat who was Britain’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009-10. “As your president, my main job is to talk to you about the lavatories.” He provided some logistical information and beamed out at the crowd. “Thank you for coming to our small oasis of civilization in a rising sea of barbarism.”

The keynote address, on the theme of idiolect — the distinctive speech patterns of particular characters — was delivered by John Mullan, Lord Northcliffe chair of modern English literature at University College London.

Janeites are so steeped in the literature that they regard the characters as intimate friends (and enemies). So there were knowing murmurs when Mr. Mullan noted that the title character herself delivers one-fourth of the dialogue in “Emma”; that the sentences uttered by Mr. Collins, the puffed-up cousin in “Pride and Prejudice,” are by far the longest of any Austen character; and that Isabella Thorpe uses the word “amazingly” so much in “Northanger Abbey” that the book’s impressionable heroine, Catherine Morland, begins using it, too.


Deirdre Le Faye, a literary critic and Jane Austen authority, and Ronald Dunning, a descendant of Austen’s brother Francis, at Chawton House.

Ana Cuba for The New York Times

The meeting was full of distinguished guests, including Deirdre Le Faye, who has been writing about Austen for more than 40 years and is an object of near-veneration, the Mick Jagger of Janeites. But there were also amateur historians, like Barbara Calderbank, a former manager for the Royal Post Office who once presented a paper to her local group about the significance of the mail in Austen novels. “I had to read all the books and note down every instance when the postal service is mentioned,” she said.

Geraldine Buchanan of the Hampshire Regency Dancers was eager to discuss its 2017 Austen-themed ball, held at the end of July. “All the people will be in costumes,” she said, including herself, though not entirely: “My underwear is modern.”


A tea break at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society at Chawton House.

Ana Cuba for The New York Times

Though Austen lovers are outwardly polite about this particular issue, there is a clear divide between the sort of Janeites who like to exchange learned scholarly remarks, and the sort of Janeites who like to dress up in nonlearned period outfits.

Susan Jelen, a former administrative law judge from Plano, Tex., who was on the tour, said her local Austen society chapter had sponsored several costume balls. “Some of them look so cute, and if they want to do it, it’s O.K. by me,” she said.

If there is any tension, Ms. Jelen continued, it’s between “the people who read the books, and the people who only watch the movies.” The movie watchers enjoy the meetings, “but sometimes the topics are a little complicated for them,” she said.

“Sometimes the topics are a little complicated for me,” said Vicki Petersen, a former C.P.A. and stationery-store proprietor, also from Texas.

By the third day, the gentleman, Donald Best, had joined the group. He was less a Janeite than a committed tourgoer — “I’m more into medieval history, but by coincidence and serendipity this fit into my schedule,” he said — but what he lacked in experience he made up for in enthusiasm. The first stop of the day was Netley Abbey, a ruined 13th-century Cistercian monastery that was (possibly) the inspiration for Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.”

Although one of the ladies said she had never been thrilled with “Mansfield Park” (“don’t quote me on that — they’d kill me”), there was an informal consensus that if any of Austen’s novels had to be voted off the island, not that that would happen, “Northanger Abbey” would be the first to go. “I know it’s meant to be a parody of the Gothic novel, but I find it the hardest to read of all her books,” said Janet Rosowicz, a pension plan administrator from Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

“Did we lose David?” one of the ladies said of Mr. Best, who had wandered off piste somewhere.

“Donald,” another said.

There were more stops, including Buckler’s Hard, an 18th-century shipbuilding town in the New Forest where you could see a baby outfit apparently worn by Admiral Nelson and, en route, admire the grazing animals. “Ponies have right of way on the roads in the New Forest,” Mrs. Brook said.

On the minibus, the talk was all Jane Austen. Several women described the Austen-themed rooms in their houses; a few passed around spreadsheets enumerating which Austen-related works have been published and which they have yet to purchase.

Though Mr. Best voted for “Pride and Prejudice” — “that’s the traditional answer” — most people said that they loved “Persuasion” the most.

“It’s not just about second chances, but about becoming aware of choices and misfortunes and being determined not to repeat one’s mistakes,” Ms. Bisgyer said.

Ms. Rosowicz said,“I guess everyone has their favorite, and they change over time.

“The good thing is that as I study and learn about them, I can put it into context much better. It’s one thing to be able to sit and read in the U.S.; it’s another thing to actually come here and see all this.”

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