Jane Austen readers, fans the world over, will know that Chawton village was where Jane spent her final years; revising and publishing her classic books we know and love today. It had been quite some years since I had visited, and being in need need of a day out, this seemed like a more distinctive destination.
The cottage sits directly on the high street in a small picturesque village. A red box of sash-windowed beauty. It is though, rather small inside and reminds us of how modest Jane’s life had been. Being a single woman, in want of a husband, and a daughter of a not-very-well-off rector, life had not been an easy start for ‘a lady’, nor did it improve. Jane was moved from her beloved Steventon, half an hour to the west, to noisy, ‘society’ Bath, then onwards to her sea-faring brothers at Southampton and finally, she and her mother and sister settled at Chawton. Here she could truly immerse herself in finishing her novels and pursue publication.
This was only possible because her brother Edward, had been adopted/given to a rich family in need of children and had inherited the great Godmersham Park, Kent as well as Chawton House. He had not been nearly as generous as he could have been. It had taken many years of uncertainty before he offered his struggling mother and sisters the cottage at Chawton.
The cottage is small inside, and for visitors, sparsely furnished. However there are some interesting interiors worth noting. The first room is one of the best, showing a handsome regency Escritoire with many early Austen editions. Together with period writing equipment, as well as reproduction wallpaper, specially recreated form the scraps of the original found in the plaster. (You can buy this wallpaper for £260 per roll! Hardly in Jane’s financial bracket now.)
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A Clementi early piano was of particular interest to me, as it is a convenient size for a small home, unlike our Boudoir grand Steinway, which takes up half of our family dining room. I sat down to play and it was fine for playing Clementi, but not for the top notes of Chopin. Nevertheless I was intrigued by the practicality of it. Upstairs, her reproduction bed was of interest, handsome; and some copy letters on the walls. It was crowded in such a small house, with a big following, so it wasn’t long before I decided to make the short walk to Chawton House nearby. Chawton was the ‘big house’ that Jane knew and would often visit to see family there.
The ‘big house’ was a welcome place, a handsome home, impressive but cosy at the same time. Spartan but adequately furnished and no family living there, there with no problems with photography, it was extremely promising. It also had a lovely walled garden. This is where Jane should have lived with her mother.
The house had had a long history: it was built in the 1580s by the Knight family, on the site of a medieval dwelling. In the 20th twentieth century the house had run into costly problems with tax and the Knight family could no longer maintain the building, which fell into disrepair. An American buyer came, restored the estate, and founded the library, concentrating on women’s literature and making it available to the public. The library incorporates the Knight family library on loan from Godmersham Park, their former main residence. It is definitely worth a specialist visit by appointment another time.
Inside the rooms were large enough with rather a lot of brown panelling, and some good portraits throughout. But the most interesting part for me, were the first editions, which were easier to photograph with no distracting crowds or awkward lighting. Handsome stained glass with heraldic designs of the Knight family, Edward’s adopted parents, decorated the corridors. All very interesting and plenty of space to think and just look.
The garden was lovely, high red walls, beautiful gates and a garden full of apple trees making a small orchard, more fruit, and plenty of flowers, lavender, and all kinds of perennials.
Reminding myself of Jane’s plight, with limited choices in a male world, women’s status has progressed since 1810, but still women have many corners of equal rights to restore. Much of her world, such as male primogeniture, is still with us and under question today. Thus Chawton continues to be a centre of pilgrimage for the modern, independent, thoughtful lady. Chawton House Story.