Desperately seeking Austen
By Heather Vogel FrederickSkip to next paragraph
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There are worse things than being lost in the English countryside on a fine spring day.
We were hunting for Steventon, a destination of the dot-on-a-map variety, but on this late April afternoon it eluded us. With no one but fields of sheep to ask for directions, we took several wrong turns through woods bright with bluebells before finally pulling up in front of a pretty country church.
My heart beat a little faster as I climbed out of the car. I had come to England on a mission, to learn more about Jane Austen’s life and books by visiting the places where she lived and wrote. This tiny village in Hampshire marked the beginning of my quest, for it was here that Jane was born and spent the first 25 years of her life.
The house where she and her family lived, and where she penned early drafts of the novels that would later become “Pride and Prejudice,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Sense and Sensibility,” is no longer standing. The Church of St. Nicholas, however, where her father was rector for nearly 40 years, is open to the public. Built in the early 13th century, nothing much seems changed
inside the cool stone Norman edifice from when Jane worshiped here, aside from the abundant tributes to her, including a plaque on the wall placed by her great-grandniece,
needlepoint kneelers decorated with her silhouette, and the church’s quill- pen-shaped weathervane.
I signed the visitor’s book, struck by the number of other literary pilgrims who had also made their way to this out-of-the-way spot. As it turns out, my mission was not an uncommon one. My two travel companions and I were up to our muslin petticoats in a thriving trend: literary travel.
“It’s a niche that’s definitely growing,” says Francis McGovern, who, along with his wife Linda, founded the website www.literarytraveler.com
in 1998. The pair met as fellow English majors in college. “My wife said to me the first day we met, when I asked her what she wanted to do with her life, ‘Travel and write,’ ” he recalls.
A few years later, they found a way to combine those interests when they created their website, which features a blend of travel articles, information on literary tours, and book reviews, as well as a newsletter and social networking site where people can blog about their novel adventures.
Francis, who occasionally leads tours himself (his favorite was a Mark Twain-themed steamboat trip down the Mississippi), says there’s something special about this brand of travel. “When you take a trip like this, and get to visit a place you’ve read about, you get to really connect with it. You feel like you become part of what you’ve read. It’s memorable.”
Business is also brisk at Idlewild Books (www.idlewildbooks.com) in New York City, says owner David Del Vecchio, who opened the bookstore a year ago. Despite the struggling economy, “sales have been strong,” he notes. They’ve recorded double-digit growth every month this year.
Idlewild (the original name for JFK Airport) offers a unique spin, stocking a wide selection of literature in translation and arranging books geographically rather than by genre – thus travel guides are shelved cheek-by-jowl with fiction, history, language-learning books, maps, and more. “If you’re going to Brazil,” Mr. Del Vecchio explains, “you’ll find books about Brazil along with books set in Brazil and books by Brazilian novelists.”