A Regency gentlemen’s suit, from the Victoria & Albert collection.
You just never know how a day will turn out.
There were multiple reasons for me to visit Winchester, England, and for me to be excited about it. The first was that it was where Otis Skinner had taken Emily Kimbrough one day while they were staying in Southampton, waiting for Otis’ daughter Cornelia to recover from the measles.
The second reason was that it would give me the chance to revisit Winchester Cathedral (not to be confused with the similar sounding Westminster Abbey in London). It had been more than a quarter century ago that I was here, working as general backstage crew on a production of a play written by Francis Warner, the Oxford University professor who ran my study abroad program. His plays are really more like works of poetry, whose lyrical beauty I didn’t fully appreciate in my 20s, when I was here with that production of “Byzantium”, the story of the emperor Constantine.
But the main reason I was eager to visit Winchester was that, in remembrance of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, there was a big exhibition happening at their Discovery Center, which included a couple of her handwritten letters, some rarely seen portraits of Austen, and a silk pelisse (a Regency-era overcoat sort of garment) believed to have been worn by her. In anticipation of my visit, I had stayed up the night before to finish streaming the last episodes of the 1995 miniseries version of “Pride & Prejudice”. In Winchester, I would be able to peek at Jane Austen’s personal things, then offer remembrance and a word of thanks at her grave in the Cathedral, all hot on the heels of my evening with her Mr. Darcy.
It was a lovely morning with Jane Austen at the Winchester Discovery Center. I pored over every item in the exhibit, from the astonishingly small coin purse she had made for herself, to the movie posters from the myriad film productions of her works. But what meant the most to me was reading her letters. The writer of all those enchanting novels was herself fearless and unapologetic for who she was and what she was doing. If Austen ever had self-doubt, she didn’t record it anywhere. She is my hero.
After the exhibit, I headed to the Cathedral. As I was walking through its gardens, a tall, nice-looking guy in his 30s came up and spoke to me. I had noticed him earlier when we crossed paths on the High Street. He introduced himself (let’s call him James), and asked if we could go somewhere for coffee. It was flattering that this young man was interested in me, but I tend to shy away from situations in which I might get labeled a “cougar”. So I declined, but thanked him for the sweet invitation. He then asked if we could at least just sit in the garden and talk for a bit. That I could do.
James and I found an unoccupied bench, where we sat and talked about his job, and about my book project, and I gave him my website info. He was like so many of the young men I remember from my years living in England – just very polite and very charming.
That is something that young Englishmen have always had over young American men: they really, really know how to romance women. They go about it in such a gentlemanly way. And yes, most of the time, it’s just a line. But it’s a very good line.
We had been chatting for maybe ten minutes when he leaned in and kissed me. It was sweet, and it was lovely. Then he kept on kissing me. Part of me thought that I probably shouldn’t let this continue. But the other part of me could only think of how this would make a good story for the book. It was utterly mercenary, yes, I know.
He was cute, he was charming and this was nice, so I let it go on for a bit. But then when James suggested we go somewhere a little more private, I was done, and told him that I really needed to get in and tour that Cathedral. He asked if he could see me again. I told him that I was leaving for France in just a few days, and James said he would keep in touch with me, with the hope that we could meet up again before I returned to the States. We said our goodbyes, and I walked away feeling more pleased than not about the encounter.
Back to Jane Austen. Inside the magnificent, towering Gothic walls of Winchester Cathedral, I took my time visiting dear Jane’s grave marker. For decades, I have laughed and cried and taken comfort in this remarkable writer’s words. I never tire of hearing her voice. She is my role model as a writer and as a woman. There at her grave, I thanked her for everything she has given me. Which is a lot.
As I wandered in and out of the transepts and back down the nave, studying the Cathedral’s breathtaking architecture, I thought back with great fondness to the people and that play all those years ago. I could picture it so clearly, and it was wonderful to bring those memories to life again. But all too soon, it was time to get back to London.
After an obligatory stop at the Cathedral gift shop, I headed back to the train station, but not before picking up some scampi and chips, soaked in malt vinegar and wrapped in newsprint, from the local chippy. It was the first one I’d come across since arriving in England. In a land of smoothie bars, fast fusions, and generally healthy eats, this beautiful, traditional fish and chips shop may be one of the last remaining holdouts. I salute them.
Back in London, I arrived at my flat in Chelsea to find that I had received a lovely email from young James, telling me how pleased he was to have met me. Darling.
But then there was the postscript. He explained that he had taken a naughty picture of himself to show me just exactly how excited he was about it, but that he was too much of a gentleman to send the photo without asking me first.
Strangely, it wasn’t so much the thought of receiving my first unsolicited dick pic that bothered me as much as it was the “gentleman” reference. Is this what distinguishes a gentleman these days, that he asks first before sending a nude selfie?!
With that, my Jane Austen day evaporated into mist. And poor Mr. Darcy. The quintessential English gentleman had just been run through with a sword.
But I refuse to let them go without a fight. So as a public service announcement, I am saying to all young men everywhere – well, men of all ages, for that matter – exactly what I told James in my very clearly-worded reply that day:
No, thank you.
Actually, forget the “thank you” part – it should just be, “no”. NO. Believe me. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that no woman ever, ever, ever wants to receive a picture of your penis. Not a single one of us.
If you choose to ignore my words, as James eventually did (a story for another time), you proceed at your own peril.
Top row: Delighting in every detail of the Jane Austen exhibit; the lady herself, whom I hopefully didn’t cause to spin in her grave.
Bottom row: Awesome in the truest sense of the world, Winchester Cathedral; scampi and chips for the train ride home.