Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days at Chawton, staying in the village that was so important to Jane Austen and her development as a writer, so I thought I’d write about it today, to celebrate the anniversary of the snowy day when she was born in 1775.
And of course I couldn’t visit Chawton without paying yet another visit ( can we ever get enough of this place?) to Jane Austen’s happy Chawton Home, the cottage that from 1809 gave her security and peace and stability. And enabled her to have a productive freedom for eight years. During this period she revised Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, totally created Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, and wrote her last piece of fiction, Sandition which was left unfinished at her untimely death in July 1817.
The Cottage was owned by her brother Edward Knight, who owned the Chawton estate. The house was built in the late 17th century, is “L”-shaped, modest in size, and had six bedrooms as well as attics for the staff and storage. It was originally an inn. Edward Knight spent £45 19 shilling on structural alterations to the cottage, and another £35, 6 shillings and 5 pence on plumbing works.
Here is a section from Edward Mogg’s map of the village of Chawton dating from 1814, which shows the position of Jane Austen’s House on the junction of the roads
and here it is with the position of the house marked in blue. (Do note you can enlarge the maps by clicking on them in order to see the detail)
The position of the house on the junction of the roads leading to Winchester, Gosport, and Southampton made it a busy place in the early 19th century, with carriage traffic passing to and from Alton which was the nearest post town…So much so that the Austen ladies (Jane, Cassandra and their mother),and Martha Lloyd who lived with them, decided to fill in one of the drawing room windows that looked out onto the road and added the delightful Gothic window, that you can see above and below.
Shall we go in? Yes, lets…….
The first real room you enter is the drawing-room, one of the two “parlours” that the Austen ladies had. The new Gothic window gave them a view over the garden, which was set to the side of the house, and the Winchester Road which bordered the garden was screened by a high wooden fence to give them more privacy from prying eyes in coaches travelling to Winchester and beyond.
One of my favourite things about visiting the house is that the staff always have appropriate flower arrangements in the house: in spring and summer they have simple small posies of flowers from the garden on show but at this time of the year they always decorate the house as the Austen ladies may have done for Christmas, in common with many other Georgian families. As you can see the drawing-room fireplace is decked with boughs of evergreens, ivy and yew , and some oranges studded with cloves have been added( though the Austen ladies may have preferred not to use oranges this way but to make their store of expensive oranges into wine…)
There is a tremendous atmosphere in the house. It is a mixture of peace and happiness. I love being there and this time I had it all to myself save for the staff on duty. Who are always friendly and knowledgable, but realise you might want just to be quiet and walk around drinking in the atmosphere. They are always very sensitive.
The house is decorated in a way to suggest life as it was lived there from 1809 onwards…..
With small pictures of family places added in a sightly rickety manner on the walls…..
And pieces of costuming often to be found, suggest that someone similarly dressed might have once stood in the room: this is a replica of a morning dress dating from 1810.
The Bookcase contains editions of Jane Austen’s works……I wonder what she would have thought, seeing them on show….
And there is a square piano. Not the one Jane Austen owned, but one similar to it….. From the Drawing Room you pass into the Hallway, with a glimpse of the dining room ahead……
Edward Austen Knight’s Grand Tour Portrait lived in the house for many years but has now been returned to his Great House at Chawton(which is now the Chawton House Library.)During it’s restoration it was found to be much larger than originally thought as the edge had been folded to fit a frame.
Here we can see the restored Edward Knight in his new home, with Steve Lawrence, CEO of Chawton House Library, Sandy Lerner, Chairman of the Trustees, and Richard Knight, Trustee (Photograph by kind permission of Chawton House Library)
A print of the now restored portrait hangs in the passage and it does look much brighter than is used to, and the beautiful detail of the background is clearly revealed, as you can see .
There are always treats to be seen in the display cases in this part of the house…this visit it was one of Jane Austen’s own manuscript music books….Her music notation is a thing of clarity and beauty….and of necessity.
But there is also a portrait of Edward Knight was a child hanging over the fireplace…….no wonder the childless Mr and Mrs Knight were taken with him…..
The Silhouette showing him being presented to them is also on show in this small space…..
Then you go into the cosy dining room……
and where Jane used to write, and revise and write…..her glorious works of art…
….on this humble and very small table……
An object I always find to be a very touching and resonant relict…if only it could talk…..what tales it could tell…
I made a short video of the room…do click on it below…you can hear the upstairs floorboards creak, as one of the attendants had kindly left me on my own to soak up the atmosphere in this room…and then the downstairs boards creaked as I walked about…the silence, however, in this house is not unfriendly. And I think I can understand how Jane Austen loved this place so much, a place which afforded her peace and a regularity of life so that she could write….
The dining table is now denuded of the Wedgwood China that Jane helped Edward Austen choose at Wedgwood’ s showrooms in London…for the set was to be sold today, but failed to reach its auction estimate…I hope some of it makes it back to the house……
The educational elements are sympathetically done: you can see in the pictures the very discreet information boards which are attached to the walls in the rooms……And there is always something new and entertaining to see. This visit there was an exhibition of Rex Whistler’s costume designs for the 1936 stage production of Pride and Prejudice written by Helen Jerome and starring Celia Johnson as Elizabeth Bennet
This is one of the designs for Lady Catherine (above)
And here is another of the designs made up and on display……
The room that used to be a very tiny but wonderfully stocked shop is now a lovely quiet area where you can sit and think….
and read lots of material about Jane Austen. ……and from this room leads to the staircase to the upstairs bedrooms…
…which we shall discover in part 2, in a few days time .
In the meantime, Happy Jane’s birthday to you, from an appropriately snowy Jane Austen’s House Museum.