It was a perfect day to have a midlife crisis, but not in a Porsche with a tattooed yoga instructor. Instead, I'd chase Jane Austen and track her down in the wilds of Derbyshire, on her own turf. My wife, Katy, was resigned, recognizing the telltale signs: I'd been practising my posture and had stuffed a waistcoat into my carry-on. "Let's just keep this to ourselves, okay?" she said.
It's not that I didn't want a Porsche and a tattoo, but there was something about dear Jane that got my blood going. The good diction maybe? The witty repartee?
Actually, it was Keira Knightley playing Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, standing on that exposed ridge, her skirts flowing out like smoke behind her, the music swelling, the achingly impossible beauty of it all. I'd find it and Katy would pose there. On that very cliff.
Our trip to Derbyshire, England, was to be a warm-up for a week climbing in the fells of Cumbria, but it quickly morphed into a serious search for iconic scenes from period costume dramas. We explored Chatsworth, lost in the endless corridors of Mr. Darcy's overblown Pemberley, gliding with reverence through the sculpture gallery, catching glimpses of Her Ladyship's chickens beyond the sash windows. We walked the misty shadows of Haddon Hall, that most perfectly preserved medieval pile, which stood in for Lizzie's bedroom, featured prominently in The Other Boleyn Girl, and played Thornfield Hall in the most recent Jane Eyre.
But that was all tea cups and costumes. I wanted raw drama, the wild moors, the bleak soul-searching loneliness of what, for the Georgians, spoke of noble wilderness. So the Peak District had me. The first of England's National Parks, it is within an hour's drive of a third of England's population, and visited by 20 million people a year. But for us it was still lonely on that day in May, the trails empty, the narrow lanes populated only by puzzled sheep and muddy tractors.
In one of Hathersage's many hiking shops, I approached the map shelf. Before I could ask, an Aussie with skin like a brown lizard anticipated my question: "Need a route map for Stanage Edge? Lizzie Bennet's famous rock. Have the lady pose there, eh mate?" He dealt me a waterproof map outlining an 17-kilometre loop that would take us up onto the moors and across the edge of the world, the millstone grit escarpment where Austen's heroine went to clear her head.
It was hard going at first, seriously uphill, a leg-burner. Katy followed, no doubt rehearsing a Jane Austen quote: "Husbands and wives generally understand when opposition will be vain." Then the narrow path gave way to rolling moorland where we had only reeling rooks and scudding clouds as company. The escarpment loomed ahead of us, a sheer cliff in stark contrast to the lush heather and flowering gorse of the moor.
"There it is, that's it!" I enthused. Grumbling, Katy climbed the knobby column of stone and balanced precariously on its narrow podium. I hadn't told her that the Edge was a mecca for British rock climbers. "Sorry, not quite right. Watch your step."
Katy dutifully climbed a few more before we found it: the perfect silhouette, the right background. "Hold your hiking poles out behind you a bit. Make them look like a Georgian frock, kind of blowing in the wind if you can manage." Cue Jean-Yves Thibaudet on piano. She finally had it: Lizzie Bennet in all her innocent angst and gazing into the distance. It was a wrap.
On the way back down to the village, rain threatening, we passed isolated North Lees Hall, an Elizabethan manor house where Charlotte Bronte had Mrs. Rochester jump from the roof to her death in Jane Eyre.
Katy, with a furrowed brow, looked at the house, gauging its height against the stormy horizon, then at me. "Not a chance," she said.
I put my camera away. She'd done more than her share of posing for the day. "Time for the Packhorse Pub?" I suggested, smiling innocently. She had suffered enough for the sake of my midlife crisis. And as Jane once put it in Persuasion: "One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has all been suffering, nothing but suffering."
And we still had more Derbyshire to see.
Special to The Globe and Mail