Jane Austen And Jewish History

Jane Austen And Jewish History

The City Mill in Winchester. Mill credit: Wikimedia Commons
The City Mill in Winchester. Mill credit: Wikimedia Commons

Few 18th-century authors have captured contemporary imaginations so thoroughly as the novelist Jane Austen, who died 200 years ago this year. Among British authors, probably only Shakespeare gets as much attention in film, theater and popular culture.

And the Austen craze shows no signs of waning — especially not in an anniversary year, when fans are expected to descend en masse on Hampshire, the southern English county where the novelist lived and wrote. Special Austen-related exhibitions, performances, lectures and guided walks will be on offer throughout 2017 in both the historic city of Winchester, where Austen died, and the nearby towns where she composed “Emma,” “Persuasion” and other beloved works.

If there’s a Jewish angle here, it eludes me. But for Austen fans of any (ahem) persuasion, the anniversary activity makes a case for exploring both the rich Jewish heritage and the unspoiled charm of England’s provincial south.

The Jane Austen House Museum. Austen House credit: Flickr

Winchester is an easy side trip from London; it’s less than two hours by car or train, tucked inland between the larger coastal cities of Southampton and Brighton. Today Winchester is a picturesque backwater of 40,000 … but a millennium ago, it was the capital of England and a major hub of Jewish life.

Why Winchester? According to laws of the time, Jewish activities had to be registered in certain cities; Winchester was one. Much of that activity was money-lending, so Jews became prominent in finance (their earliest recorded presence was one Jewess’ payment of a 15-pound fine in order to avoid marriage). In addition to hosting a royal castle for King Henry III, who took Jews under his protection, Winchester was on a major trade route and hosted fairs that drew merchants from around England.

By the mid-1200s, Winchester had a Jewish mayor — wool merchant Simon Le Draper — and three financial dynasties headed by Jewish women, including the notorious Licoricia, who controlled vast sums but was eventually murdered during a robbery. Modern scholars think Licoricia is probably buried along with generations of medieval Jews in the historic Winchester cemetery.

Jewry Street, which runs through the center of Winchester, was the site of a medieval synagogue and Jewish merchants’ homes. But no real Jewish presence remains; the community faced persecution before England expelled its Jews in 1290, and the nearest Jewish congregations today are in Southampton.

Henry’s castle fared a little better. You can tour the remaining Great Hall, a gloomy stone edifice whose arches and stained glass windows give it a churchy feel. The town itself is endlessly picturesque, with its old wooden mill, burbling river and cobblestoned lanes. Jane Austen is buried at Winchester Cathedral; a permanent exhibition on her life comes with a tour (followed, of course, by tea).

Austen arrived in Winchester a few months before dying at (gulp) 41, but despite her brief tenure, the city will host three exhibitions beginning in late spring. Two explore Austen’s medical travails: “Jane and her Alton Apothecary” is at the Allen Gallery, a charming, vintage space with displays of English porcelain, while “Jane’s Winchester: Malady and Medicine” traces the author’s last months as a patient and the role of medicine in her life and books.

The latter will be on view in the City Space at Winchester Discovery Center, alongside “The Mysterious Miss Austen,” which features portraits of Jane alongside manuscripts, silk coats and purses, and other memorabilia in partnership with the Jane Austen House Museum.

True Austen fans will want to make the half-hour pilgrimage through rolling English countryside to the village of Chawton, where the House Museum occupies a graceful brick manse. Austen lived here with her mother and sister for much of her adult life, composing or revising her best-known works at a small round table with views of her verdant gardens and the village green.

That writing table is still on view, along with her pianoforte, portraits and turquoise jewelry. For the anniversary year, the House Museum has unveiled the exhibition “Jane Austen in 41 Objects” (through December).

Other Austen-related events take place at the ports of Gosport and Southampton. But first-time area visitors should consider a visit to the nearby village of Selborne, where the Gilbert White and Oates estate offers a glimpse into England’s age of exploration.

Set on 25 acres of gardens, the Rev. White’s manse greets visitors with a tea parlor and exhibits dedicated to the two Oates explorers — Frank, who sailed to Africa and the Americas in the 1800s, and Captain Lawrence, who journeyed to the South Pole in 1911 and memorably headed to his death in an Antarctic blizzard with the quintessentially British last words, “I am just going outside and may be sometime.”

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