This was my third attempt to attend a Creative Writing Day organised by the Open College of the Arts. I was tempted to spend the day with the friends I had overnighted with but considering that others may have been refused a place because of my request to attend, I left early in the morning to take the train to London, a tube across London and then another train to Alton in Hampshire from where Jane Austen’s home can be reached by a short taxi ride. I looked around the station to see if there might be other people coming but there seemed to be no one, so I took the taxi by myself. On arrival, I looked around outside the house and still seeing no one went into the reception area and enquired of the lady there if there was a group of students present.
She replied that the tutor had left a message to say she was taking tea in a tea shop across the road; Cassandra’s Tea Shop is named after Jane Austen’s older sister. I did not feel like going into the tea shop since there was not going to be time for a cuppa and noticed a small group of women talking outside the gate into the house.
These turned out to be the OCA group but rather smaller than I had expected – 2 students only and one tutor, Liz Newman aka Elizabeth Kay. Another student, Patrizia, joined soon after. We had planned to see the film about Chawton first but needed to wait for the next screening.
In the meantime, we visited the old bakery that stood apart from the main house and walked around the garden for awhile before seeing the film which gave a good account of the house, something of Jane Austen’s life and her success as a novelist.
The house itself was full of items evoking the era in which Jane Austen lived. Of most interest, not only to me but others in the OCA group, was a quilt made by Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. A beautiful object and it was interesting to see that Jane Austen had other talents.
We lunched together in the garden and chatted partly about the OCA but also about writing. Not being on an OCA writing course, I was not really involved but it was interesting to hear that creative writing students faced the same kind of problems as photography students. One subject was having to cut down and edit text, something I have become familiar with over the years since I do write to accompany my photographs. One student considers herself poorly assesssed in a previous module but there is nothing the tutor or ourselves can do other than listen to her complaint.
After lunch, we go to listen to John Mullan talk. A Cambridge scholar of English Literature, he has written extensively on Jane Austen and speaks with great humour. I find it hard to follow his talk since it dwells on details from the novels I can not recall exactly. I feel that I have somehow missed Jane Austen although I have read some of her books.
A cup of tea together in Cassandra’s tea shop might have been a good way to end the day but everyone is getting ready to leave and so we say our goodbyes although Liz kindly runs us to the station in Alton. As it happens, there are delays so we have to get a taxi to Farnham where we wait about an hour for a train to London. Patrizia, Laura and I have a cool drink in a pub garden nearby.
It has been a worthwhile day. I feel I understand Jane Austen and her world a little better. For instance, so much of what she writes about in her novels is autobigraphical. Yet Jane Austen remains for me a slightly distant figure, one whose wit I can appreciate but not fully comprehend. Seeing the films of her novels has perhaps distorted my vision as I have difficulty in distinguishing them from the novels.
Jane Austen is still a national treasure and there is talk of putting her on a bank note; as an old friend of mine pointed out, Jane Austen’s brother ran a bank that failed so it might not be that appropriate although in today’s present financial climate it would not be out of place. On the way to the study day, I saw someone reading a tabloid that carried a title “Did Mr.D’Arcy have bad breath?” while since this day, I have read that a statue of Mr.D’Arcy as played by Colin Firth has been erected in a city pond.
In regard to creative writing, I do not think it needs to be about fiction; it might be about facts as long as the author has a kind of spring in their step !?