For years I have loved Jane Austen’s novels. I remember seeing BBC’s Pride and Prejudice for the first time and willing with my whole heart that Elizabeth and Darcy should love each other by the end. This began a love affair of my own with Jane Austen’s work that has lasted decades. The romance found in the stories she told are not found only in the characters but in the Georgian world that surrounded them as well. How could you not be entranced by a time so far from our own forward thinking future? With its horse-drawn carriages and society balls, tea-time and pastimes, scandals and marriages, parts of this world are not so different and yet there is an elegance to it all that seems to have faded as part of our everyday. Jane’s novels brings this to life for us again and again with her clever tales.
But what of the writer herself, did she live a happy life? Our shared fascination in Jane Austen’s own life is almost as popular as her works. Numerous locations are linked to this beloved author around the UK but few offer such insight into the author’s day to day life. We journeyed to the quiet village of Chawton to visit the house where Jane spent many of her years and Chawton House, the home inherited by Jane’s elder brother, Edward.
The Jane Austen House Museum is happily situated at the main crossroads in Chawton Village amongst idyllic thatched cottages and brick period houses. The museum building itself belonged to the Chawton estate inherited by Jane’s own brother, who offered the cottage to his mother and sisters, Cassandra and Jane to live in rent-free. Visitors tour through the rooms in the cottage with each exploring a different element of the Austen’s family history and lifestyle.
Learn about the family’s military connections and how these shaped some of Jane’s most well-known characters. Step into Jane and Cassandra’s bedroom as you imagine the secret conversations they shared. Try your hand at some Georgian skills as you find out the trials and joys of running a household in the bakehouse and kitchen. Each and every room has treasures for you to see, including some of Jane’s own hoard, her turquoise ring, hand written music and embroidered muslin.
After you have finished discovering the house, take a turn about the pretty surrounding gardens before treating yourself in the giftshop. The Dye Plant garden explains something of a forgotten art and the nearby benches offer the perfect resting spot to take a moment to imagine the ladies of the household going about their daily activities around the cottage.
Cassandra and Martha picking flowers for the house, Mrs Austen giving orders for dinner to the cook and dear Jane, writing at her desk by the window. The Jane Austen House Museum has an inside viewpoint of Jane and her family, you can almost feel their presence as you make your way around. But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself.
A little down the road from Chawton Cottage is ‘The Great House’ known as Chawton House. Jane’s brother Edward, inherited Chawton from the Knight family and the rest of the Austen family were regular guests for dinners and social events. Approaching from the road, the house appears at the end of a path rising up the hill and is bordered by pasture fields of sheep, transporting visitors to the bygone days of the late 17th Century as they walk in Jane’s footsteps to the front door. I would recommend taking at least an hour to tour the many rooms complete with their little quirks. The marks around the fireplace to ward off witches, the beautiful sunlit window in the dining room and the fantastic set of historic portraits are all features to be found.
The Knight family owned Chawton since its construction in the 1500s and it was Thomas and Catherine Knight, relatives of the Austen family that adopted Edward and made him the heir to the Chawton estate. Edward later changed his surname to Knight and details of the this and the houses owners can be found on the stained glass windows in the Long Hall.
Fans of Jane Austen are often also fans of other female literary figures and this is where Chawton house comes into its own. Currently hosting a literary exhibition, ‘The Art of freezing the blood’, cases of classic gothic tales have been scattered around the house, bringing to life the history of women who sought to expand the world of the written word in their unique way. Interestingly there were more female published horror writers than male ones throughout much of the Victorian age and this exhibition brings their talent to light in its celebration of female gothic works. Uncover the events leading to Mary Shelley’s ‘waking nightmare’ that sparked the inspiration for her classic Frankenstein and find out out about the lives of the Bronte sisters as part of the selection on display. The study library at Chawton houses the prized Knight Collection, over 3000 volumes of english literature, mostly written by female authors. The library is the hidden gem of the house including some Jane Austen first editions and manuscripts and books are available to view for research upon request.
Part of the charm of Jane’s books for me is the knowledge that they are the writings of an ordinary Georgian lady. One who experienced times of abundance and times of hardship, but let neither shape her infallible mind and likeable nature. The more I learn of Jane Austen, the more I see how her surroundings and company inspired the characters and places she wrote of in her books. She created an entire world from her own to share with us, and that I think is what we hope for when we visit each place, a moment in Jane’s World.
Why not visit Cassandra’s cup for some refreshment after your visit?
‘The Art of Freezing the Blood’: Northanger Abbey, Frankenstein, & the Female Gothic runs until 7 December 2018. Find out more about this and Autumn/Christmas events at Chawton by visiting the above address.
The Jane Austen Festival runs from 14th-23rd September 2018 in Bath, UK