2. A frosty morning with Jane Austen and the Jean Genie
The night had been terribly cold. Then the early morning sun hit back. I started the car. The thermometer on one of the dials said -9,5 Centigrade.
The car hadn’t wanted to start. Maybe the battery was fading away. I needed to take it for a drive.
The road out of town heads west into north Hampshire; it took me into a kind of sacred place: the road passes a modest wooden sign that says:
WELCOME TO JANE AUSTEN COUNTRY
That’s why it’s a sacred land.
It’s a good sign. In addition to the totemic words, it bears some sort of pretty motif that probably has something to do with Englishness; except it pointed to an older sort of Englishness than, say, the steel-and-brick Englishness of George Orwell or the folksy Englishness of Jeremy Deller.
The road is a dual carriageway; it glides and flows like the pen that wrote Jane Austen’s novels. It’s the most well-mannered road in England. Everything about the road and the countryside works: the fences keep their distance; the traffic is respectful, the landscape discreet; the road and the land are just so: Comme il faut. Then I wondered if Jane Austen decorated her prose with bits and pieces of French. I couldn’t remember.
I wanted to set the drive to music; it was the kind of drive that yearned to be set to music. Immediately I realised that it couldn’t be any old music; it had to be English music. I had six cds with me in the car: ‘Rats,’ I thought; not one of the cds was English; they were either American or North African or French.
So I played a melody in my head: it was something to do with the Jean Genie – although in my head she was the Jane Genie: Small Jane Genie snuck off to the city …
After 10 miles the road came to a roundabout. I circled the roundabout so that I could drive on the opposite lanes of the carriageway towards home.
Everything still worked – the road and the sky and the fields.
Now I was heading east. To the east lay a market town (that had won a prize for its floral displays) and then the cathedral city of Guildford and further still, the huge new city-state of London: Small Jane Genie snuck off to the city… I was heading for William Cobbett country, and Lewis Carroll Country and the million-authors country of the capital city.
But there was no sign saying that I was about to leave Jane Austen country.
And so I thought: ‘Maybe we are supposed to stay in Jane Austen’s country forever.’