Take a trip to Chawton to trace the author’s life
By Srianthi Perera
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen fans would make their way to the sites associated with their beloved author to ingest the world that shaped her novels.
One good spot to start this reverence, as I did, is the Jane Austen’s House Museum located South of England in the tiny village of Chawton, near the town of Alton in Hampshire. The village also boasts Chawton Estate, an Elizabethan manor associated with the famous author’s family.
The museum recently celebrated its 70th anniversary 202 years after Austen’s death.
The daughter of a clergyman with modest means, Austen lived here during the last eight years of her life. The house inspired and nurtured her literarily. That’s where she revised and published three novels, including the classic “Pride and Prejudice” in 1813, and wrote three more.
The dwelling was part of the Chawton Estate that belonged to Austen’s brother, Edward, who had the good fortune to inherit it from the childless Knight family for little more than a change of surname and an endearing personality. Edward allowed his mother, Cassandra, sisters Jane and Cassandra, and their friend Martha Lloyd to live in the home rent free for life.
Those days, chickens clucking about the outhouse, grunting pigs and a donkey carriage would have been commonplace sights and sounds.
Nowadays, what’s usual are tourists — more than 40,000 flock to the museum annually. About 30% come from overseas and many of the most loyal and enthusiastic fans travel from the United States.
Getting to the picturesque English village of Chawton is half the fun. Once off the A31 Motorway that leads south from London, the drive to the heart of Jane Austen country features wooded areas lined roadside by wildflowers.
Helpful museum signposts begin about 15 minutes before the destination, but my companion and I still managed to lose our way. However, it added to the experience: meandering through the lanes, we were rewarded with sights of thatched-roof cottages, a quintessential feature of the English countryside.
The verdant Chawton countryside remains as unchanged today as it did in the 19th century, when the Austen family resided.
“Many of the buildings would have been known to Jane Austen, and we know that she used to walk to visit friends and family locally,” says Jen Harris, the museum’s marketing manager. “During her time here, the road directly outside the house would have been busier than it is now, as it was the main coaching route from Winchester to London.”
The traffic, however, would have been of horses and carriages.
The first glimpse of the 17th century red-brick house with white-framed windows is poignant. This is the only dwelling where Austen lived and wrote that is open to the public. The museum describes it as the most important Austen site in the world also because this is where her genius flourished.
To think of the technology and facilities at the disposal of modern writers is to bring to focus what little was available to Austen, and marvel even more at her talent.
These thoughts are reinforced in the Dining Parlor.
Placed in a corner is the three-legged table at which Austen devised plots, engaged her sparkling wit and weaved social commentary into endearing prose. (The table base is dated later, but the top is original.)
At this round walnut table top, a little bigger than an extra-large pizza, she described the privileged landed gentry of the 19th century and women’s dependency on marriage for existence; hence the stuffy social gatherings where matchmaking was ceaseless, the gowns, the balls with their rigorous etiquette, the conquests and the animated sibling conversations that followed.
Here she created the matchmaking Emma Woodhouse, starched the pompous Mr. Collins, and outlined sense and sensibility in the form of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne.
This fictional world was created with a quill pen dabbed in ink. (The nib pen was not in use until a few decades later.)
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
As the story goes, after breakfast each day, Austen would settle at this table for a morning of writing. Remarkably neat, she pinned together about 20 smallish sheets and wrote on them in her sloped handwriting. She hid the manuscript from prying eyes by giving ear to a creaky swing door that was prevented from getting attention.
Now there’s no Austen writing by the window, so there’s no need to safeguard manuscripts. Hence, the door doesn’t creak and is used as a fire door.
Research indicates that Austen was developing cataracts in her eyes, which drove her to move the table through the house in tandem with the light; hence her preference to using a small work surface.
Another item that gives visitors pause is the lock of straw-colored hair kept upstairs in a glass case. The lock was snipped off by sister Cassandra upon Austen’s death at age 41 in 1817. It was presented to the museum by its American owner at the museum’s opening in 1949.
And then there’s the mystery ring. Was it purchased by her or was it a gift? Is the stone turquoise or the cheaper odontolite? It’s hard to verify.
On the subject of rings, in 1802, Austen entertained a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, but changed her mind overnight. Did the insight and emotions she imparted on romantic matters in her novels not translate to real life? Or, did Cassandra, with whom she shared a bed and room since childhood, nudge her to remain single, as she herself stayed?
The museum preserves the first editions of Austen’s books, newspaper clippings from The Courier and The Morning Chronicle announcing the publishing of her books, dozens of hand-written letters and other documents, a coverlet, the Rev. Austen’s bookcase and the family carriage. In Austen’s bedroom hangs her likeness sketched by sister Cassandra, considered the only accurate portrait of her because Cassandra was a talented artist.
It’s best to visit early in the day because the true Janeite will need a good length of time to browse the objects and peruse the documents.
Visiting early would also allow time to walk the few minutes to Chawton House, past the sloping meadows. Austen would often make her way there, to get away from the smaller confines of the cottage where privacy was elusive. While the House Museum is the obvious draw, the “Great House,” as Austen called it, is no less interesting to “dawdle away” the time.
Chawton House, in the Knight family since 1582, doesn’t quite boast the grandeur of Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Pemberley. Researchers believe that Mr. Knightley’s Donwell Abbey in Emma was modeled on this estate.
Janeites would do well to bump into volunteer guide Jeremy Knight, who happens to be the fourth-great nephew of Jane Austen and grew up in the Great House. It is now leased in trust for 125 years.
The Chawton House Library conserves a rare collection of early women’s writing, from 1600 to 1830, which was neglected during the 20th century. While Jane Austen is the most famous woman novelist of her time, others such as Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, also paved the way to the modern novel.
Fans eager to connect the Great House to Austen would note that the library contains the first editions of her novels. She also would have read the books that are in the shelves.
“Some of the books from the Knight collection that the librarian had worked out that we know Jane would have read,” Knight said. “She would have come up here and got permission and read them. So there are books that she would have touched and read herself. We know she came up here to the library quite regularly.”
The Dining Room bears the same long mahogany table at which she dined with her brother’s family when she visited. She would have eaten out of her brother’s Wedgewood dinner service; some of its pieces are in the house museum. Knight inherited the crockery set as a wedding gift from his family.
The Reading Alcove in the Oak Room was one of Austen’s favorite spots from where she would look down the drive.
Among the many portraits is one of her favorite niece, Fanny Knight, while another, a 1783 silhouette, depicts a young Edward Austen being introduced to the Knight family.
During the final part of her life, an ailing Austen moved to Winchester to be closer to her doctor. She died in 1817 and is buried in Winchester Cathedral.
After the author’s passing, her mother and sister continued to live at the house for the rest of their lives. They are buried in the church in the Chawton Estate.
In 1845, the house was split into three dwellings to provide homes for staff on the Chawton estate and the building remained in this state until it went on sale in 1947.
Following an appeal by the Jane Austen Society, the house was bought by a lawyer from London, T. Edward Carpenter, who opened it as a museum in 1949. A registered charity, it’s independent and receives no regular public funding. Jane’s Fund, launched in 2017, raises funds to help protect and restore the home, an ongoing process.
The museum continues to collect her memorabilia and build its collections. A campaign in July raised 35,000 British pounds to retrieve a letter that she wrote. The Bank of England placed her portrait in its new 10-pound note, and the museum asks fans to donate their notes to Jane’s Fund, set up to protect the home.
In this 70th anniversary year, a special exhibition titled Making the Museum relates the story of the characters, hard work, luck and determination that has gone in to preserve this place of pilgrimage for Austen devotees.
Sadly, she didn’t strike riches when she could have used them; her lifetime’s work earned her as much as her father earned annually. Like many authors that contributed to English literature, she, too, was ushered into greatness posthumously.
Especially after the BBC’s dramatization of Austen’s novels, new legions of fans have discovered her writing and often make their way to the museum. Some are inspired to don a bonnet and gown, which are available to those who want to try yesteryear’s fashion, or dip a quill pen in the ink pot and scratch their names.
Some Janeites have even received offers of marriage in the gardens.
“I know of at least two proposals,” Harris says. “The last we heard about was in 2018 and involved a couple from the States.
“The young girl was a huge Jane Austen fan. Her boyfriend booked her the holiday of a lifetime, brought her to Jane Austen’s House, and then surprised her with his proposal in the garden. He’d even booked a local photographer to capture the moment.”
Austen would have approved.