Jane Austen has quite a following. In the millions, and that’s just those still alive. I enjoy her books, and Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy is my enduring image of Pride and Prejudice. She lived in Chawton, in southern Hampshire, not far from where I live, and even closer to a cottage where I spent a few days last week, seeking peace and quiet from the builders at work next door. I thought it was about time I ticked off Chawton’s number one visitor attraction from my list.
It was a week of thunder showers, quite a change from the heat and drought of July and August. Pleasant English weather, in fact. It certainly put me in the mood to step back in time. Everything looked fresh-washed in late summer sunshine, tinges of autumn (or just the remains of the drought) adding to the local colour.
Jane Austen’s House
Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra came to live at the cottage in 1809 due to the benevolence of her brother, who had inherited a substantial property from his adoptive parents. The pleasant building has been lovingly restored by the Jane Austen Society and many, many donations and grants.
Typical of me, I found great interest in the wallpaper. Early 19th century wallpaper was subject to considerable taxation, so this was a luxurious item. All that remained, when the cottage was rescued, were some indications in a couple of the rooms. The dining room held a faded scrap in the corner of a cupboard, and the true colour emerged pristine from underneath a fixing board. The bedroom above held a faded piece behind the panels for the window shutters. Interestingly, it was missing a piece of the pattern (a block of white print missed out during the process) and was hung upside down. ‘Probably a second, therefore cheaper.’ The display showed us both a corrected piece and the original it was taken from. The reproductions on the walls of both rooms are both charming and artistic. I would have them in my own home.
But you’re probably more interesting in Jane, her sister, and what they got up to.
Jane Austen Activities
Sewing, cooking (assisting a cook and a maid), writing letters, gardening… In the account of how they spent their time I wondered where Jane fit in writing the books, but then, doesn’t every writer suffer the same problem? I was very taken with the view Jane Austen chose as she wrote. It looked out on the crossroads, and across to several village shops. I can just imagine the minor characters in her head as they passed by, going about their daily business.
Her table, however, is more suited to having my coffee cup on it than a writing pad. But then, sheets of paper were smaller then, and so was her handwriting.
There were plenty of displays of items appropriate to the period, and letters from ‘Aunt Jane’ to several family members. In the archives and explanations of the relatives, there are people who I’m sure match characters precisely – like Colonel Fairfax, the whole of the Mansfield House crowd, and even Mr Wickham. Her sister Cassandra sounds a dead ringer for Jane Bennet. I wonder if Jane saw herself as Elizabeth, or made her the heroine she wished she could be?
There is much to see, and I lingered over the illustrations for the 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice. I examined them in particular for the characters, and the accuracy between their faces between different scenes. As I went round, quotations from the books came to me at odd times–seeing the shelves in the bedroom cupboard for example (Elizabeth’s visit to the Collinses).
A Grand Day Out
In short, if you fancy a good morning out, followed by lunch across the road at the pub or the tea rooms, after which you stroll down the village to Chawton House, a very grand house worthy of Darcy himself… well, take yourself to Chawton. Even if you don’t see yourself as a Jane Austen fan, but enjoy the books, you’ll enjoy this. I surprised myself by my enthusiasm!