Schools in the north have had to be closed owing to flooding. The temperature has dropped. On Sunday morning the hands of the congregation felt cold when the Peace was shared. As our own Hampshire novelist remarked, we can all go through the somewhat embarrassing motions of giving each other the Peace for a few moments at Sunday Eucharist, but it is keeping it throughout the week that is the true challenge.
Whenever I am in Winchester Cathedral, I am conscious that the Blessed Jane lies beneath our feet. I mean, of course, Jane Austen and it is significant that she was not praised for her literary talents on her ledger stone, but rather lauded for her virtue.
Occasionally I fantasise that she is eavesdropping on snippets and gobbets of conversation that are echoes of those which formed the foundation to her writing at Chawton, where, in a more constrained square meterage, she still found plenty of grist to her mill.
The types still exist with their universal foibles and characteristics and you could deem her to have an excellent position from which to amass fragments for her personal notebook. Her neighbours are interesting too.
Jane’s internment took place early in the morning, perhaps to avoid comment from the faithful on the rectitude of a resting place having been given to one whose relation had been imprisoned for petty theft and whose cousin’s husband had been guillotined.
I wonder what our novelist would have made of discussions on women bishops and gay marriage. Would she still count eighty seven women passing by, without there being a tolerable physiognomy among them? (Some people are worth seeing, but not worth going to see.) However, as stated, she does not have to move at all.
To be the unseen guest at baptisms, ordinations, weddings and confirmations must delight her. Even those alliances which are the triumphs of hope over experience must provide entertainment enough for any spinster. The voice of the people is the voice of God, said Alcuin – vox populi vox dei.
Being witness to so many unions, does she ever regret turning down Harris Bigg-Wither? Nay, she was delighted to have spared herself any lifelong conjunction with that particular large and awkward youth. Whenever she had experienced a broken engagement, failed seaside romance or unsatisfactory flirtation, she consoled herself in her sister’s company and they shared a game of rubbers, or played a few duets. Next to being married, a girl liked to be disappointed in love a little, now and then. It gave one a sort of distinction among friends and one’s mother an opportunity to remedy the situation.
When a baby grizzles during the Intercessions, does it irritate her? No, not at all, for Jane was the seventh child of eight and loved boisterous games of baseball and cricket. She does not mind the troops of schoolchildren, brandishing clipboards with attached worksheets on Global Warning and St Swithun, who mark their territory by expelling curious deposits of masticated material on the ancient stones. She is amused when itinerant latter-day pilgrims are riveted to the spot.
Teacher: Well done, Merlot! Now that you have ticked all the boxes we can enter you for the Win a Cathedral Roof Tour on a Windy Day prize draw.
Rinaldo, why don’t you go down to the crypt and see if you can spot the virtual angel? Don’t hurry back.
That was quick! No, that wasn’t the angel. It was the sculpture by Anthony Gormless.
No, children do not bother her, but she is disturbed and aggrieved by members of the congregation who show no discretion in the timing of their personal coughs and who would be ideal members of the cast of some stage representation of Great Expectorations. Perhaps they could be induced to retire to the Fisherman’s Chapel to meditate on the Izaak Walton stained glass injunction contained therein, whose injunction is: Study to be Quiet.
Now a restoration appeal for £19 million has been launched and so Jane hopes that the ancient roof will no longer threaten to tumble around her ears from the vibrations of deaf loops, microphones, county brayings and excessive campanology.
Her single regret may be that she misses her dear sister’s company. As Mrs Austen once said:
If Cassie were to have her head cut off, you would insist on joining her.
Yes, Jane’s father often quoted Pope:
The proper study of mankind is Man.
So, here she is dignified with as much learning in the University of Life as her brothers experienced in their various careers. Persuasion, pride, prejudice, sense and sensibility are paraded over these flagstones every day, in as compressed a social milieu as any novelist could desire to inhabit. Henry Tilney once observed:
The Close is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies.
Certainly, its grapevine is as efficient a system of instant gratification as the pew sheet or Internet, whatever that organ of gossip may be.
© Candia Dixon Stuart and Candiacomesclean.wordpress.com, 2012