Today I have something really special to offer you, an interview with Louise West, who has recently been appointed as the Curator of the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton. She has succeeded the redoubtable and rather wonderful Mr Tom Carpenter in the role and was the Education Officer at the Museum for many years prior to this appointment.
A few weeks ago I asked Louise if she would give us an interview, for I knew you would like to get to know her a little better, especially as she is the person who is now caring for Jane Austen’s very important Chawton Home. Amazingly, she agreed to do it….
So, here it is. I do hope you find it interesting.
Louise, you have worked at the Jane Austen’s House Museum for some years, first as the education officer and now as the curator, can you tell us when and how you first become interested in Jane Austen?
I was aware of her from a very young age and in my bedroom there was a copy of Pride and Prejudice with illustrations by Brock which my mother had received as a school prize in the 1930’s. I first read beyond Chapter One when I was 15 (tried at 12 and got nowhere) and have been hooked ever since.
This is the question most Janeites hate, because it is almost unanswerable, but I’ll ask it anyway: which is your favourite Jane Austen novel and why?
Emma. It was my A level text so I knew it in detail from early on but it still surprises me. It’s also cheered my through sad times in my life.
Many people associate Bath with Jane Austen and are not aware of the treasures to find at Chawton. They often think it is difficult to access (most emphatically, it is not!) Yet too many people visiting the museum might endanger it’s unique and very special atmosphere. This is obviously a delicate balance to maintain, and I’d like to know what is your long-term vision for the museum, and your thoughts on attracting visitors to the house.
Let me say first of all that I can understand why people associate Bath with Jane Austen. It is after all a Regency town and includes places specifically included in her novels. However, I do want people in this country and worldwide to associate Chawton and Hampshire in their mind with Jane Austen, because this was her home county and Chawton Cottage (now Jane Austen’s House Museum) was actual home. More importantly it’s the home where she did the majority of her writing – the reason for her fame!
The numbers game is tricky but I would confidently say that we are nowhere near breaking point. There are times that are particularly busy in the summer but then there is always the garden to explore. The winter months of November, December, February and March can be quite quiet and visitors can enjoy the special atmosphere of the house sometimes on their own.
We do want to encourage repeat visits and we are lucky that over the next few years we have the bicentenaries of all the novels to celebrate.
The next seven years are very exciting ones for Janeites with so many important bi-centenaries on the calendar, culminating in 2017 with the bicentenary of Jane Austen death. How will the museum be celebrating this year’s 200th anniversary of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility?
In many ways. All our events this year are themed around Sense and Sensibility, and these will include concerts, talks and relevant displays. (Go here to see more details of the events.) We will be having regular readings from the novel by our staff and volunteers who have been helped by our wonderful patron, Elizabeth Garvie. (Whom you will all recognize in her photograph, below, for she is a general Janeite favourite, her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet in the 1981 production of Pride and Prejudice produced by the BBC is considered one of the best, and her stage performances in A Celebration of Jane Austen, with her late husband, Anton Rogers and now with Robert Powell, are acclaimed- jfw)
May I ask about the new edition of about the new edition of Sense and Sensibility that the Jane Austen House Museum is publishing this year? Is this going to be the first of a series of all six of the novels? Can you let us have some details about the book: for example, will it be published in hardback and paperback format, will it be annotated and will it be illustrated? And can we order it from the Museum shop?
We are very excited about this venture as you can imagine – publishing Jane’s first novel 200 years after it was first published from this very house. Our aim at this stage is certainly to publish all 6 novels in the same format over the next few years. It will be a hardback copy with covers very similar to the original board ones, but it will be in one volume and not three. As with the original it will not be annotated or illustrated, but, it will have a foreword by our patron, Professor Kathryn Sutherland, renowned Austen scholar, from Oxford University. Yes, you will be able to order it from the museum shop.
The newly refurbished kitchen has been beautifully renovated, and is a wonderfully inviting space. Do you have any plans to use it for public events, and do you plan to use it in conjunction with Martha Lloyd’s amazing household book?
We already use the kitchen for certain events. We have held herb workshops in there and we often use it for intimate sessions with small groups. It’s also a very nice venue for refreshments at evening events. We do have plans to use the recipe book in new and creative ways, but these are still in development. Watch this space!
This all sounds rather exciting, intriguing and yet comforting at the same time. It is wonderful to note that Jane Austen’s house is in such good and capable hands, and I do look forward to the development of Chawton under Louise’s tenure very much. I should like to thank her for her time and for her gracious answers to my rudimentary questions, and I hope many of you will visit Louise at the Museum.