It is a truth universally acknowledged…that Jane Austen’s popularity continues to grow. Her novels, the film adaptations, the fan fiction spin-offs – as a recovering English major, I am not immune to Austen-mania.
Searching out her house was a natural choice for me, given my love of her work and my slight obsession with architecture. After all, when presented with the incredible sight that is Chatsworth House, my first thought was not to muse upon its blending of Baroque and Italianate styles of architecture, but to exclaim, “Oh! This is the setting of Pemberley!” (Chatsworth, located in Derbyshire, is the home of the Cavendish family, and the seat of the Duke of Devonshire.)
Excerpt from Pride and Prejudice:
The time fixed for the beginning of their Northern tour was now fast approaching; and a fortnight only was wanting of it, when a letter arrived from Mrs. Gardiner, which at once delayed its commencement and curtailed its extent. Mr. Gardiner would be prevented by business from setting out till a fortnight later in July, and must be in London again within a month; and as that left too short a period for them to go so far, and see so much as they had proposed, or at least to see it with the leisure and comfort they had built on, they were obliged to give up the Lakes, and substitute a more contracted tour; and, according to the present plan, were to go no farther northward than Derbyshire. In that county, there was enough to be seen to occupy the chief of their three weeks; and to Mrs. Gardiner it had a peculiarly strong attraction. The town where she had formerly passed some years of her life, and where they were now to spend a few days, was probably as great an object of her curiosity, as all the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale, or the Peak.
The house where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life is considerably less grand than Chatsworth, but was a welcome respite for Jane, her sister and mother after the chaotic pace of life in Bath. The two-story brick “cottage” is located in the small village of Chawton (population in 2000 was around 380 residents), about 16 miles northeast of Winchester. The house has operated as a house museum since 1949.
When Jane, her mother and sister moved to Chawton in 1809, the cottage was part of the estate of her brother Edward, who lived at nearby Chawton House (a 5 to 10 minute walk from the cottage). The dwelling occupied by Edward (who had been adopted by their cousins, the Knight family) is a large, stone Elizabethan manor house, now a library and study center.
There appears to be some disagreement about the age of the cottage in Chawton amongst various Austen-related literature and on the web. The building is presented by the museum as a 17th century dwelling, while other sources date it to the 15th or 16th centuries. I chose to go with the English Heritage date – the National Heritage list is, in their words “the only official and up to date database of all national designated heritage assets.”
The house is built of brick laid in a Flemish bond pattern, with the doors and windows displaying the changes typical to house of this period. Some openings have been bricked over; others have been enlarged or narrowed.
The southeast front, which faces Winchester Road (a busy road for travelers during Jane’s day), is charmingly asymmetrical – but originally all of the openings on the first and second floor would have lined up. The second floor once had five windows, but the central window has been bricked in. The window underneath that bricked-in second story window – was the original entry door! It is easy to imagine Jane, her mother, and sister enjoying tea and watching the world go by from their windows.
A favorite view must have been in the garden, on the southwest side of the house. One of the first floor windows was redone, apparently by the Austen family, with a segmental arch and a pleasing Gothic-style sash. Although the garden was still sleeping through winter while I was there, I can imagine it being a welcome respite in pleasant weather.
The hipped roof is clad in tiles, and the five brick chimneys (each with two chimney pots) seem to burst from the roof. The interior is remarkably intact, with simple and plain woodwork, doors, fireplaces and cupboards (complete with a creaking door!). Jane Austen’s writing desk, where she revised “First Impressions” into what would become Pride and Prejudice, is located in the drawing room of the house. She also revised the books Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey while living in the cottage, while Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion were completely written at the house in Chawton.
The best parts about the cottage in Chawton are the numerous items that belonged to the Austen family – some of these are literally pieces of the family, as there is a lock of both Jane’s hair and her father’s on display. Behind the house, in one of the outbuildings, is Jane’s donkey cart.
This is a house meant for living –with about eight rooms, cellars for storage and attic space for servants – both the interior layout and the architecture emphasize this, and while it certainly was not a hovel, it was not the grand Georgian style house portrayed in many Austen novels. After Jane’s sister Cassandra died in 1845, the cottage was renovated into three separate units for farm workers.
Elements of Jane’s life, most recently a ring she owned, are still making their way back to Chawton. The singer and former American Idol star Kelly Clarkson initially bought the gold and turquoise ring at an auction in London for $250,000 – the price set by the auction house was $48,000!
A British law denying the export of items deemed “national treasures” was imposed by the government after Clarkson purchased the ring, leading to a fundraising campaign by the house museum to come up with the funds to purchase the ring. At the end of September 2013, they met their goal and the ring is back home at Chawton.
In 2017, Jane Austen’s image will grace the 10 pound note in Britain, further stoking the flames of Austen ardor – a passion that I, for one, hope never subsides. Chawton is an easy day trip from Winchester – even with my penchant for missing buses or getting easily confused by bus schedules – I managed to get to Chawton and back with no extraneous drama.
Winter hours, when I visited, (technically it might have been spring as it was March, but winter still grasped Britain in her icy fingers) are sporadic, but there was no tourist push. And I felt as though as I was popping into visit a friend – the tone and set-up of the museum nicely convey the feeling and association of the dwelling from Austen’s day.