20 August 2013

Jane Austen's House Museum

Would you have ever heard of Chawton if it was not where Jane Austen (1775–1817) created her work? Just as well I adored Austen novels during my young teenage years, devouring Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma in the first four years of high school.

Jane Austen's father, the Rev George Austen, was rector of the Anglican church in Steventon in Hampshire where his six sons and two daughters were raised. He died suddenly in 1805, and as was the custom of the time, left nothing to his daughters. Since his wife and daughters were also not allowed to work, Jane, Cassandra and their mother were left dependent on the good will of the men in the family. Fortunately Jane's brother Edward had been adopted by his cousin, inheriting the cousin's estate called Chawton House and becoming financially secure himself.

By 1807 Edward moved the three women into an old steward/estate manager’s cottage in Chawton village that was next to, or part of his own estate. It might not have been been a palace, but this two storey red brick home provided a happy, peaceful and productive period of Jane Austen’s life. As long as Edward gave the property as a gift, the women’s home was secure. Apparently it was - Austen lived at Chawton until she moved to Winchester just before her death in 1817, and the other two women also remained there till they died (in 1827 and 1845 respectively).

The old steward's cottage in Chawton,
given to Jane and Cassandra Austen and their mother

Each day Jane’s day included looking after mother, writing at the small table (right side of dining parlour photo), enjoying family meals, playing with the nieces and nephews, playing the piano, sharing long walks, going to church and sharing sewing with Cassandra in the evening. Convivial yes, but relentlessly mind-numbing I would have thought.

Much of what is known about the novelist's domestic routine comes from the niece Caroline Austen who in later life recorded the daily routine at Chawton. “Aunt Jane began her day with music – for which I conclude she had a natural taste; as she thus kept it up – ‘though she had no one to teach; was never induced to play in company; and none of her family cared much for it. I suppose that she might not trouble them, she chose her practising time before breakfast – when she could have the room to herself. She practised regularly every morning. She played very pretty tunes, I thought and I liked to stand by her and listen to them; but the music would now be thought disgracefully easy. Much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print”. Caroline’s brother James Edward Austen-Leigh also remembered Aunt Jane in his Memoir of Jane Austen 1870.

Their dining parlour. Jane's writing desk, ink well and quill have been pushed away from the fire and protected behind perspex.

Can we tell from the Austen House Museum, plus the garden near the centre of Chawton Village, what the house looked like in the early 19th century? Possibly yes. The kitchen, with its huge brick fireplace, was separate from the house. In the house itself, visitors can also see the family furniture, dinner set, Jane’s writing table, her jew­ellery, piano, family portraits, a patchwork quilt made by the three women, her wonderful music books and the letters from Jane Austen that were not later destroyed. But the star objects are her three novels, already written at least in draft form when Jane arrived at Chawton: Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. In addition it was here that Jane wrote Mansfield ParkEmma and Persuasion. These works can be found in pride of place in the Hepplewhite bureau.

It is not clear what happened to the house after sister Cassandra died in 1845. I do know that Jane Austen's House Museum was estab­lish­ed soon after World War Two ended and is still being run to advance the study of English literature, especially the works of Jane Austen. Regular events are held at the museum, to listen to Jane Austen’s writing and to hear other people play her music.

2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. So the Museum suggests we mark the occasion by visiting the place where the novel was completed. Austen fans will also want to locate the book Jane Austen in Chawton by Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of English at Oxford.

Steventon and Chawton are both in the county of Hampshire.




14 comments:

Travel France Online said...

I live in Winchester where Jane Austin spent her last days. She is buried in the cathedral. Your excellent posts encourages me to take the time of writing on my blog about it as I also have have photos.

Travel France Online said...

Apologies, could you please correct the typo on Jane's family name (fat fingers!)

Student of History said...

Of course Jane tried to get up early in the morning, to practise her music and to have some quality time to herself. It must have been so difficult to be sharing every minute of the day with the others.

Andrew said...

That's one of the most interesting pieces I have read about the Austins. It was a strange life for women of their station.

Hels said...

Travel France

true true. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral so Austen-pilgrims like to go and visit her tomb. Sadly, her tomb doesn’t mention her literary fame. At least a memorial window was added later.

I still believe Jane Austen deserved better! Drop me a note when you write about Austen in your blog... I will love to see the photos.

Hels said...

Student

Agreed....a modern woman would have gone insane in that claustrophobic environment. Jane Austen had two lucky escapes.

1. Being brought up in the country, she was happiest going on rambling walks across the countryside. She did quality thinking out there. And

2. Noone disturbed her early each morning.

Hels said...

Andrew

Even going through the publication process didn't get her out of Chawton. Brother Henry, who was living in London, often acted on behalf of Jane vis a vis possible publishers. It was Henry and not Jane who found the bloke who published Sense and Sensibility. When it appeared in 1811, the reviews were favourable and Jane's earnings provided her with SOME power in her life.

But it didn't bring fame since Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously :(

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is very interesting that most of Austen's lively stories were written here. Somehow it is easier to imagine a novel like Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, with its minutiae of village life, emanating from this town and house.

I seem to recall when wandering around London spotting a house with an historic plaque saying that Jane Austen had some important connection with that house, but I cannot recall the inscription.
--Road to Parnassus

We Travel said...

Hello Parnassus.
I saw it. Brother Henry was Jane's literary agent, so the memorial plaque on Henry's house in Henrietta St Covent Garden represents her base in London.

Hels said...

Parnassus

One of the great joys of visiting a writer's home (s) is trying to understand what life might have been like and finding bits of that life in his/her novels.

Jane enjoyed concerts at the most elegant building in Bath, the Assembly Rooms (as in Persuasion). And social gatherings at the Pump Room, taking the waters (as in Northanger Abbey).

In Chawton, her life was quieter. Nonetheless the Austens socialised with neighbouring families of the same class and entertained whenever her siblings visited. You can easily detect her comfortable home, church and rural villages in her novels (eg Pride and Prejudice).

Hels said...

We Travel

Thank you. I knew about Jane's London connection but not where the house was.

Parnassus said...

Hello We Travel, Thanks for the info about the London house--I'm sure that I would have driven myself crazy trying to remember.
--Jim

Joseph said...

Nancy Alsop toured the estates that inspired Jane Austen, both in her Austen's own books and in later screen productions. She started with Mansfield Park which was set in Northamptonshire, and as ever, was pre-occupied with the beautiful setting. Castle Ashby was originally built in the shape of a E, to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I. Visitors can visit the Capability Brown gardens and take a tur about the Orangery. Have tea in the walled-garden tea rooms.

http://www.discoverbritainmag.com/author/nancy-alsop/

Hels said...

Joseph

Good reference. Touring the estates that inspired Jane Austen in her books would be a very exciting journey for a literary tourist to go on. The letters she wrote to her sister and mother would be full of information.

But later screen productions were often just the figments of some director's imagination.