I recently attended a lecture by Nikola Watson about literary tourism surrounding Jane Austen. Interestingly, Watson presented the lecture at the Chawton House Library, which was formerly owned by Austen's brother, to a packed room of locals and literary scholars. While her research focuses on nineteenth-century literary tourism, Watson focused this event on changes in Austenian literary tourism from the nineteenth century to today, an issue that was of peculiar interest to the people who make their livelihood either hosting or publishing for this niche audience.
Watson began by explaining that literary tourism generally centers around poets, because successful literary tourism gets it traction by blurring the line between the life of the writer and the literature they create. There is a trail in Winchester, for instance, that is reputed to have inspired Keats' "To Autumn." A few days before Watson's lecture, I had followed the footsteps of many people before me in tracing Keats' footsteps, trying to memorize his poem as I walked. Others walk the path to inspire their own poetry, or to search for clues that might give the poetry greater meaning. I understood what she was talking about, because I have done it myself.
This kind of devotion is typical of poets, Watson explained, because we see the literary production as so closely intertwined with the life of the poet. Poetry is an expression of the essence of the self, a notion that has dominated poetic production since the Romantic period. Fewer artists, musicians, and novelists inspire this kind of pilgrimmage, she claimed, because there isn't the same kind of direct parallel between the life and the literature.
Jane Austen is a perfect instance of this gap in prose writing: this great storyteller wove tales of love and romance that differed starkly from her own spinsterhood. She lived a quiet life, alone with her sister and mother. There's not much to say, and even less to see. And yet, Austen-based literary tourism is a major industry not only in Chawton, but also in Bath, Steventon, London, and half a dozen other rural communities in Engand. In Steventon, the only landmark is an old water pump. The Austen family home is long gone. Why do people go there? What has made this industry so successful?
For Watson, Jane Austen tourism has been successful because, despite the gap between Austen's life and literature, these pilgrimmage sites have still managed to muddy the line between fact and fiction.
A hundred and fifty years ago, literary tourism surrounding Austen focused on the usual haunts: the places where she worked, the desk where she wrote, the town where she was born, etc. However, during the twentieth century, the focus slowly shifted from the world of Austen's life to the world of Austen's literature. Where is the regal home that inspired Rosings? Which people in Austen's life inspired the friends, family, neighbors, and lovers in her literature? Where is the hill that Darcy gave Elizabeth his letter? Austen-centered tourism promises that these fictional worlds, these virtual realities, exist--and you can be a part of it.
The plethora of recent film adaptations have added a new layer to this complexity, by adding the film sets to the list of pilgrimage points for Austen enthusiasts. Lyme Park (the site of Pemberley in the BBC film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) is more recognizable as Darcy's estate than Chatsworth House (a likely inspiration for Austen's creation). At the Chawton House Museum, you can see not only the creaky door that signaled Austen to tuck away her pen and paper, but also the dress worn by Kate Winslet in the 1995 "Sense and Sensibility." Literary tourists are just as likely to want to see the steps in Lyme where Louisa Musgrove leapt in the BBC movie, for instance, as the spot that more likely inspired Austen. Let's not even get started on Colin Firth.
And here is the sticking point: literary tourists today don't just take a picture of these stairs in Lyme: they want to have their own picture taken, lying senseless at the bottom. It's not just about understanding her novels more fully--it's about becoming a part of them. For many enthusiasts, pretending to be a Jane Austen character is more appealing than learning about Austen herself. It may be more exciting to see the places that "may" have inspired something in the novel than places we "know" Austen lived. Let's be honest: being Elizabeth Bennet for a day would be more insteresting than being Jane Austen for a year.
Rather than an expression of narcissism, though, Watson sees this phenomenon as an expression of agency and identification that is meaningful and valuable. This new form of literary tourism is a uniquely participatory journey, where instead of passively observing, you can be the star of your own literary pilgrimmage. I might even go so far as to call it "Literary Tourism 2.0", a collaborative, user-generated, virtual community.
Following Watson's lecture, the audience engaged in our own bit of Austenian literary tourism, sharing dinner around the dining room table which is the only surviving piece of furniture that had been owned by Edward Austen Knight. Visitors to the library, the staff told us, often want to sit in each and every chair, so that they can claim, with certainty, that they sat in the same place as the great Jane Austen. I was content to know that one of us was in that chair. And, of course, to take a picture.