I live in a place that inspires my Jane Austen-related writing, and it’s not England. I reside in Portland, Oregon, a fairly new transplant here. Typically, one wouldn’t think that a hipster/hippie-centric city with a Pacific rain forest climate would bring to mind England, and yet it does. Portland is called the Rose City, first of all. There are roses everywhere here, a flower that is largely associated with England. As a matter of fact, there is an enormous, public rose garden in Portland, called the International Rose Test Garden, where they grow hundreds, if not thousands of varieties of roses. As you approach the area during the peak season, the smell of roses overwhelms you in the best possible way. They also have a rose parade, elect rose princesses, and have a whole festival around it in early June. (My mom was a junior Rose Princess back in the day.)
Obviously, if roses grow like that in Portland, there must be something in the climate similar to England, and there is. It rains a lot, it’s cloudy a lot, and the weather is temperate: not too cold in the winter (generally), not too hot in the summer (generally). There is a lot of English influence on the architecture as well. I learned that the early founders of the city were from New England, and thus were probably of British origin, because most of the older houses, built between the late 1800s and about the 1920s, are either Tudor style or are reminiscent of English cottages. You also see English-style gardens in front of homes wherever you go. It’s not to say this city doesn’t have deep roots in the American Pioneer spirit, strong ties to the Native American people, and a distinctive Japanese influence, because it certainly does. But somewhere between Lewis and Clark and the Japanese immigrants, the British tradition made its mark.
Granted, as an American, I may have an idealized fantasy of what British people, and life in England, are like. However there are two ladies that I particularly associate with Portland who bring that English sensibility alive for me more than anything else. One was my grandmother, who lived here most of her life and who passed away many years ago. She was of British and German descent, gentle and sweet, loved tea sets, grew amazing roses and violets, and taught me how to sew. Whenever I think of her, I think that she must have been like so many British women of her generation – stalwart and determined, yet feminine, and focused on home and family.
My aunt, who is still very much with us today, is the other Portlander that seems so very British to me, and…drum roll please, her maiden name was Austen! Now, she doesn’t claim any direct relation to Jane’s family line, but I bet there’s a connection somewhere there. She, also, is gentle and sweet with an English Rose complexion, but a strong woman who raised five remarkable children. She treasures her garden, loves to knit and quilt, plays the piano beautifully, and, in short, is the kind of accomplished woman that Jane spoke of so often in her novels. Sitting down and chatting with my aunt is never complete without a cup of tea, and the realization that the visit has no other purpose than just that: a visit, a chat, like was so common in Regency times.
Coming to Portland was such a natural transition for me. From living most of my life between the desert Southwest and New York City, I feel I’ve finally found a place that is more conducive to channeling Jane than any other place I’ve been, other than England itself.
Is there a place or a person that connects you and your writing with Jane Austen? Will you share it with us?