In Jane’s Visiting Footsteps; Great Bookham, Surrey

Posted by Lucinda Brant on Thursday, May 24, 2012 Under: Authors
Originally published at My Jane Austin Bookclub

Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel, and Anne Elliott my favorite Austen heroine. I don’t care much for Emma, but Mr. Knightley is my second favorite Austen hero. I first read Emma as a set text in high school and then Persuasion for my final year and fell in love with Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliott. Just one month after completing High School and gaining a place to study law and politics at university, I deferred my studies for a year, boarded a jumbo jet (my first ever flight) for a 23-hour journey (one stopover) from Sydney to London to take up a position as a nanny in the leafy environs of Surrey, England. It was 1980, Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first female Prime Minister and I was eighteen years old. 

To my delight I discovered that just east of where I now resided in Little Bookham with my two young charges, Great Bookham had featured briefly in Jane Austen’s life. How did I find this out? Wherever I went, people were eager to tell me, from the greengrocer to the post office lady, about Jane’s visits to Great Bookham. The exact nature of her visits was rather sketchy, but the local librarian filled in the details for me. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to be walking on the same ground Jane Austen had also walked, however brief her time in my home away from home.

Rev. Samuel Cooke’s memorial tablet
Jane visited Great Bookham twice—in 1799 and then again in 1814. Her mother’s relatives lived there. The Rev. Samuel Cooke, who was Jane’s godfather, was married to Jane’s cousin Cassandra. The Rev. Cooke was rector of the local church St. Nicholas from 1769 until his death in 1820 and his memorial tablet is in the chancel of the church. I was fascinated to discover that the church of St. Nicholas is mentioned in the Domesday Book, that its interesting wooden church tower dates from the 15th century, and that over the years its congregation has included such luminaries as Lord Raglan, who lost his life at Sebastopol two decades after losing an arm at the Battle of Waterloo (the east window is a memorial to him), and the newly married Duke and Duchess of York (future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) who had honeymooned at the nearby estate Polesden Lacey. But for me the biggest thrill was that Jane Austen had worshiped at St. Nicholas. That when I walked down the aisle, sat in a pew, I was literally following in Jane’s footsteps. When I went to church and even when I passed by on foot, with my young charges in tow, or to shop or to collect young Master Three from his twice-weekly playgroup, I was always smiling thinking of Jane and her cousins and their connection to what was for a short time my local church.

Old Rectory, Great Bookham, photo taken 1910
Studying the sketch of St. Nicholas at around the time of Jane’s visits, its situation is very rustic and the church appears almost rundown. When I lived nearby, and as it is today, it is very much in town, with Church street running parallel to the beautiful stonewall that encloses the church yard. Sadly the old rectory where Jane stayed is no more. Demolished in 1961, a cedar tree marks the spot where it once stood. The black and white photo was taken in 1910 and shows a rather substantial ivy-covered building and I can imagine Jane seated at one of the windows writing with quill, ink and parchment.

St. Nicholas Church, Great Bookham, 1810

St. Nicholas Church, as I remember it.

Jane’s Letters show that she began writing Emma while staying with her cousins at the rectory in 1814. The leafy countryside around Great Bookham provided the backdrop for Emma and the pivotal scene is said to take place at nearby Box Hill, which rises some 634 feet (193m), and affords spectacular views of the North Downs. Box trees have grown there since the 1500s, hence its name. Jane would have visited Box Hill and it is easy to imagine her picnicking with her cousins in the crisp open air and enjoying the beautiful views.

Box Hill, Surrey, sketched in the late 18th Century

Box Hill as I remember it—the vibrant greens of the English countryside

I have wonderful memories of my visits to Box Hill, where I flew kites and ate soft serve ice cream with my two young charges; unlike Emma, who did not enjoy her visit at all after insulting poor Miss Bates and being angrily berated by Mr. Knightley for her unthinking and unkind behavior. It is almost two decades since I last visited Box Hill, but one thing that struck me at the time and has stayed with me is the greenness of the English countryside. It was while standing at the summit of Box Hill on a clear summer’s day that I realized I had never really seen Nature’s green before. The greens of Australian native species are rather brown and dull olive green by comparison. Whereas the green of an English countryside is green, really green, and so many different shades of vibrant green too.

It still makes me smile whenever I think of my time in Great Bookham, sitting in St. Nicholas Church and day-dreaming of when Jane was part of the congregation, an audience to her godfather’s sermons. I wonder if Jane, like me, was only half-listening, guiltily allowing her mind to wander to ruminating over plots and characters and dreaming of Mr. Knightley, or in my case Captain Wentworth!

In : Authors 

Tags: austen  persuasion 

© 2014 Lucinda Brant. All rights reserved   |   Contact Me