Allyssa Compton ’21 recently spent the first spring break of her college career exploring the modern-day fame of her literary idol, Jane Austen.
She is one of 13 students taking “Powers of Persuasion: Jane Austen’s Legacy,” a Westover Honors class taught by Dr. Beth Savage. In addition to reading and analyzing Austen’s books, from March 1 to 11 they traveled to England to immerse themselves in the culture and geography that inspired the author.
Compton has been waiting for the trip ever since she learned about it, when she was a high school senior looking at colleges. “It made choosing Lynchburg that much easier,” she said.
“We were able to see Austen’s novels through her eyes in a way we never could have by just reading them,” Compton said. “We were able to see the connections between Austen’s life and the stories in her novels. We were able to walk in the same places Jane Austen walked and see the places where her novels were set. It really brought the stories to life.”
The group also looked for lessons about modern society and the way celebrities are remembered, Dr. Savage said. “One of the purposes of the class is … to understand how Austen is repackaged and sold, so to speak, for a 21st-century audience,” she said. “So as we traveled throughout the sites in England, we could not only feel the ‘magic’ of celebrity and history — of walking where she’s walked, and seeing what she’s seen — but we could analyze how those sites articulated their connection to Austen.”
When people present history, they can accentuate some facts and downplay others to support particular narratives, Dr. Savage explained. The group paid attention to this on tours of sites affiliated with Austen. “People who love Austen call themselves Janeites, and call a tour of Austen sites a pilgrimage,” she said. “We tried to analyze, as we were there, and as we could not have done in a classroom, how that reverence is created and reinforced.”
They visited popular sites connected to the author, such as Stourhead house and garden, where some scenes from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie were filmed, and Austen’s brother’s estate at Chawton. “We also made a point of visiting out-of-the-way sites that most people would not visit, such as Steventon and Lyme Regis, to compare Austen’s descriptions of the place with the place itself,” Dr. Savage said. “Even our coach drivers, both natives of the country and both in the business of driving tours like ours around, had never been to those two places.”
Two of the most revealing stops were in Winchester. There, the class visited the home where Austen died with her sister at her side. Then they walked to Winchester Cathedral, where the author was buried. Her sister was not permitted to attend the burial, because women were not allowed in. “That sequence of events illustrates so clearly, and so tragically, the difficulties and restrictions for women that Austen addresses in her work,” Dr. Savage said.
Aysha Zaman ’18, another fan of 19th-century literature, said the experience taught her a lot about the stories her favorite author wrote and the stories that are told about Austen today. “Experiencing England helped me to understand and visualize how Jane Austen’s own life experiences must have influenced the development of her social commentary, as well as the experiences and hardships faced by her characters,” she said. “I also found it fascinating to analyze the different lenses through which we view Austen and her writings, depending on the source representing her celebrity.”
It also was Zaman’s first time traveling outside the United States. “It is so different to read about a culture and its history versus seeing and experiencing it in real life,” she said.
Zaman said she was glad to have good friends in the Westover Honors program to enjoy the experience with her. “To experience this trip with some of my closest friends, and with peers from across different disciplines is an opportunity that I am very grateful for,” she said. “Westover has been an amazing community to me for the past four years, providing incredible friendships and academic enrichment. This study abroad trip solidified my Westover experience with wonderful memories and new insight.”