John Westbrooke visits the literary home of the great British novelist
Two hundred years after her death, visitors are still coming to the house in Hampshire where Jane Austen spent her last years. Whether they’re fervent Janeites or just interested readers, they want to see the redbrick home where the writer revised her early novels for publication and wrote her late ones.
Austen lived in towns and cities, but Chawton is a village. It has a stately home, where her brother Edward lived, but her own home was a modest two-storey cottage that she shared with her mother and sister Cassandra and an old friend, Martha Lloyd.
The building has been at different times a farmhouse, pub and working men’s club, before becoming the Grade I listed museum it is now, but it’s been restored to much the 18th-century home Jane would have known.
The little round walnut table she wrote on is still in the dining parlour, where she used it after breakfast every day. This was a family room and must have been busy a lot of the time. Her family were supportive of her writing; but she didn’t want their three servants or visitors to join in, so she refused to have the creaking door fixed, because the noise warned her when anyone was approaching, and she could quickly hide her papers.
Upstairs, overlooking the yard, is the bedroom she shared with Cassandra, complete with a replica tent bed of the sort they would each have slept in. Many of the items on display in the house are original, however, including the bookcase that belonged to Jane’s father Rev George Austen, the donkey cart the women used for shopping trips, the Wedgwood dinner service Edward bought them, and Jane’s turquoise ring. The ring was bought by the American singer Kelly Clarkson in 2012, but the government blocked its export and it was eventually purchased by the museum and put on show.
Perhaps the most striking exhibit is a patchwork coverlet made by Jane and her mother and sister out of 300 fabric diamonds stitched together, the sort of domestic relic that would never survive from the hand of, say, Shakespeare.
Other rooms on display include the bakehouse, the kitchen, with a big brick inglenook fireplace, and the “Admirals’ Room”, given over to documents about the naval career of Jane’s brothers Francis and Charles, who both missed the battle of Trafalgar (Francis was particularly distraught) but became admirals none the less. The Navy frequently appears in Jane’s books, even with one unexpected indelicate joke: “My home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”
As well as the house, there’s a pretty English country garden out the back, with flowers and shrubs, lawns and seats and copies of Austen’s novels for visitors to read as they relax in the sun.
How the Austens came to the cottage is a story in itself, and very much the sort of tale Jane might have written.
Her most famous sentence is the first in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” But she was being, as usual, ironic; readers soon see the real story is that a single woman without a fortune is in want of a husband. The Georgian world was a man’s world. Women had few rights, and few job opportunities beyond being a milkmaid or a servant. (Being a writer was seldom an option, and Austen’s novels were published anonymously, “By a Lady”.)
The Austens were no exception: prosperous males, dependent females. Two of Jane’s brothers rose high in the Navy. One founded a bank (it went bust). Edward was adopted by rich relatives who were in want of an heir, on condition that he changed his surname to Knight. He became High Sheriff of Kent and inherited three estates, including Chawton: the home he provided rent-free for his mother and sisters had been that of the Chawton estate managers.
But Cassandra and Jane remained in want of a husband. Cassandra’s fiancé died in the West Indies. Jane, in her mischievous youth, had fabricated three marriage entries for herself in her father’s parish register (they’re still there); but faced with an actual proposal, she accepted it and then changed her mind overnight.
The vigour with which Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice tries to arrange marriages for her daughters, while scrutinising the income of possible suitors, is treated with humour, but it wasn’t really funny: an spinster was a woman with no role and a burden on her family. The Rev Austen’s death left his widow and unwed daughters in reduced circumstances until Edward provided them with a home of their own in 1809.
It remained in the family until Cassandra’s death in 1845. But Jane had fallen ill in 1816, and next year left Chawton to live in Winchester, nearer medical treatment. She died there on 18 July 1817, perhaps of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and was buried in the cathedral. The house opened as a museum in 1949 and is run by a charity, a fitting memorial to one of England’s best-loved writers.
Jane Austen’s House Museum, Winchester Road, Chawton, Hampshire GU34 1SD.
Entrance £8 for adults, discounts for seniors and children.