Over the years I tried to visit as many places connected to Jane Austen as possible, but for quite some time I stayed away from Winchester, not really wishing to see the place where her journey untimely ended.
Thankfully I needn’t have worried. I didn’t even need the dark glasses in the cathedral, during the service – except for a minute or so, when Jane Austen’s prayer was read. Despite the solemnity of the event, it was a celebration of her life and legacy. The cathedral was full to capacity, the service was beautiful, heartfelt and warm, and the choice to include one of Jane Austen’s own prayers was a wonderful touch and deeply moving.
If you’ve read them before you already know – if not, you can easily imagine – that there are no flourishes in them, no wordy embellishments, just the warmth and common sense we find in everything she wrote. Which is probably why her prayer spoke directly to the soul when she gave thanks for all blessings, for “all hours of safety, health and peace, of domestic comfort and innocent enjoyment” and prayed for mercy to all mankind and “the safety and welfare of family and friends, wheresoever dispersed.”
We had all sorts of thoughts for the rest of the day, like stopping in tranquil Steventon where Jane Austen’s earliest novels took shape, and if the house where she began to write First Impressions is no longer standing, at least the church where she worshipped still is.
I wish we could go there, and then finish the day with the planned pyjama party and some more Darcy champagne (yes, I had to stock up on that when I first saw it in the shops!)
It was an absolutely surreal experience to arrive in the studios (not quite at the crack of dawn, but close enough), be treated to a session of professional styling and find ourselves on the very famous couch, talking to Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty about how Jane Austen and her world became a way of life for us.
So, just as most of us have always wished, this isn’t just the year when we commemorate her passing, but a time to remember that her legacy has endured for 200 hundred years, that her work is not merely relevant to us today, but celebrated more than it has ever been, and hopefully it will still be celebrated for many years to come. What she would have made of it all we’ll never know. Maybe she would have also been amused, bemused or incredulous. But I dearly hope she’d also be pleased.