To my right cars rushed by on the four-lane highway. One of them honked and I rolled my eyes. Above the sky was slightly overcast, but the sun managed to break through every so often. My mom walked ahead of me, mumbling about ending up dead. The bottoms of my jeans were soaked from the damp, tall grass that grew along the highway. Despite the insanity of our situation, I was determined to get to Jane Austen’s house. Come Hell or high water, I was going to see that house. I should say, come tall grass or honking cars.
My mother and I had arrived in London, England a few days before for a summer trip. We would only be in the city for a week and a half, so I wanted to see everything I had ever dreamed of. At the top of the list was Jane Austen’s house.
The only problem was that we could not seem to find the place.
The lady at the Winchester bus station had said to make sure to tell the bus driver to let us off at the right spot. Otherwise, she said, he’ll just drive by it. Of course, my mom and I got too caught up in talking about something and forgot to tell the driver to let us off. Hurriedly, I pulled the cable of the double decker bus signaling for a stop.
Once out on the street, my mom and I looked around. Where the heck were we supposed to go from here? My mom turned to get some directions from the driver.
“Excuse me,” I said to an old lady as she came towards me on the sidewalk.
The woman was everything I imagined an old British woman to be. She had a soft smile and wore a light pink coat over her dress. She looked at me patiently.
“Do you know where Jane Austen’s house is?” I asked.
“Just follow your nose,” she said with a smile as she tapped her nose. And then she walked away, leaving me even more confused. Of course, follow my nose because obviously my nose knew where to go.
“What did she say?” Mom asked as she came over to me.
“She told me to follow my nose,” I repeated, still uncertain of what that meant.
“She said what?” she asked.
“Follow my nose,” I told her.
We looked at each other. We were stuck and we both knew it.
My mother and I have never been great with directions. Once, we spent three hours driving around Flower Mound in Dallas trying to find her friend’s new house. At another point we ended up driving to a field when we were in search of a wedding.
So, setting off with as much adventurous spirit as we could, we started towards where the driver had instructed my mom to go. Despite the directions he had given her, we still had no idea. All we knew was that there was a busy road we needed to cross and then to just keep walking.
We certainly found that busy road and crossed it.
That was how we ended up walking along the highway.
My mother, of course, was being the optimistic person she usually was.
“No one knows where we are,” she said as we walked in the ditch. “Robert has no idea where we are. We could be dead in a ditch and no one will know!”
Robert was my mom’s new husband. He had remained back in the States.
I looked at my mom. “Mom, we are not going to end up in a ditch,” I said, trying to reassure her. “And we told the Pax Lodge where we would be, remember?”
She did not look reassured, though. Her mind, I knew, was running through every worst-case scenario. All I wanted was to find the stupid house. We had walked along the A31 highway for ten minutes and still hadn’t found a sign pointing us to the house.
“Let’s just turn back,” Mom said when we reached an overpass. “This cannot be the right way.”
I nodded and we both turned back towards Alton. Once back in town, after being honked at again for our idiocy some more, we looked around.
I cannot remember exactly how we found the right way to Jane Austen’s. My mom probably figured it out. I felt so stupid as we crossed the busy turn-around and went towards the right instead of the left like we had ealier.
It did not take long before we saw signs pointing towards Jane Austen’s house. Finally! We were on the right track. I repeated, “I love you,” to my mom over and over. Seeing Jane Austen’s house wasn’t on my mother’s Top Ten Things to Do in London. But, she would for me. There was no one I would rather get stuck on the side of the road with.
As we walked along the sidewalk, we joked about our noses being broken. Neither of us could believe that the woman actually told us to follow our noses. We decided that maybe it wasn’t because they were broken, but because they were American noses.
When we arrived at Chawton, it was simply amazing. The house was a small two-story building made out of brick and surrounded by a low wall. Inside, the wooden floor creaked under our feet. We walked over to pay the Jane Austen Society in order to look around. Instantly, I began to look around at all the souvenirs and memorabilia that filled the room, trying to take it all in at once. Then the women told me that there were costume displays from the BBC versions of Austen’s books. It was all I could do to keep from jumping and running all over the house.
“They’re your people,” Mom said to me after we had paid the Jane Austen Society.
They were elderly British women. I certainly did feel a kinship with them. In that moment I might as well have been an old British woman with them.
I explored every room in the house and drooled over the costumes. The light filtered through the windows and I filed in line behind some other observers down the tiny hallways. I hadn’t been sure what to expect with the house. It reminded me of the Longbourn house from Pride and Prejudice. The house wasn’t grand or elegant, but simple and homey. I could imagine Jane Austen walking through the narrows halls.
When we found another souvenir room, my mom practically had to drag me away from buying a copy of Pride and Prejudice. I stared up at the bookshelf longingly. The covers were different than the ones back in the States. An elderly woman sat in the corner ready to take people’s money.
“You already have one,” Mom reminded me.
She didn’t understand, though. This was a book from Jane Austen’s house! But, I refrained. Instead I purchased a little painting of the Chawton house that still hangs on a wall in my bedroom.
After taking a few pictures around the house, we started back towards Alton. The pure happiness that filled me made me feel like a kid again.
We waited for the bus and I couldn’t stop looking down at my little painting. I would always remember this day. In fact, I would always remember this trip. My mom wanted to go on one big trip with me before I started school and moved away. This one would certainly be memorable. We would always remember the craziness of Camden Town, seeing a lady get pulled aside for videotaping in the Tower of London, and the way we couldn’t figure out the Tube the first day. But the most memorable thing would be the trip to Jane Austen’s house.