Regular readers may remember my post of a few weeks ago about visiting Jane Austen’s house in Chawton in Hampshire. But there’s more to the story—
As in most historic homes open to the public, volunteer stewards sit in some of the rooms in the Jane Austen’s House Museum. They answer visitors’ questions and make sure that nobody takes too great a liking to any conveniently pocket-sized items. On my visit, I asked the steward in the sitting room a question and found myself talking to the writer in residence.
Rebecca Smith—novelist, Teaching Fellow at Southampton University, and distant relative of Jane Austen’s—is bringing to a close her term at the Museum as writer in residence, during which she organized so many activities I’m surprised she managed to write anything at all.
“I made notes for my novel during my commute,” she told me over coffee at Southampton’s City Art Gallery. Rebecca travelled from Southampton by bus to Chawton twice a week, changing busses in Winchester, for a total commute time of two hours each way. She also used the commute time to mark students’ papers and to read; that cleared the decks so she could get down to writing quickly when she did have the chance, either at her home or at Jane Austen’s.
I began by asking a general question about being the first writer in residence at the house, but she jumped in to correct me: “Not the first.” It seems I’d forgotten Jane Austin herself—a rather embarrassing slip. “In the beginning,” Rebecca said, “I felt there could only ever be one true writer in residence there.” Thinking of the job as stepping into Austen’s shoes does make it seem truly daunting, but Rebecca seems to have met the challenge. And another concern—that she might upset the Janeites if she made a mistake in talking or writing about Austen—proved an unfounded fear, too. While some fans and scholars may have memorized Jane Austen’s biography and know most of her novels by heart, Rebecca admires Austen the way most of us do: as an appreciative reader rather than by making a special in-depth study of her life and work. And anyway, if she has slipped up, nobody seems to have noticed.
Reviewers have noted similarities in the work of the two writers. In the reading room at the Museum, along with books by Jane Austen and about Jane Austen, I also found Rebecca’s three novels—The Bluebird Café, Happy Birthday and All That, and her latest, A Bit of Earth—their backs covered with praise. One reviewer said she has “Jane Austen’s clarity and gentle irony”, and author Barbara Trapido called Rebecca “the perfect English miniaturist”.
So there are several reasons why, when the Museum got an Arts Council grant to fund a writer in residence, Rebecca seemed to fit the job description as if it were made for her. A representative of the Museum, when I asked how having a writer in residence has worked out, said “It’s been huge fun”.
The Museum staff hoped the writer in residence would come up with ways to use the new Learning Centre annex to offer a range of activities to draw in the public. They certainly got their wish. Rebecca started a writing group, led writing workshops for the public, ran a reading group, kept up a blog about the house, and organized and judged a competition for young writers from schools and sixth form colleges. (US readers: I can’t explain the UK education system in a nutshell here; just think of a sixth form college as providing a sort of extra layer of high school for university-bound kids.) Other staff and volunteers arrange harpsichord and other concerts, and the Museum currently hosts an exhibition of work by local students from Farnham Art College, inspired by items in the museum and using the museum itself as a gallery.
Spending time as a steward, sitting amid cases of military medals and ladies’ brooches, handmade lace and theatre playbills, Rebecca began thinking more about the influence of the material items we keep and which give us a tangible link with the past. Being around these object, she said, helped her “get a handle” on the novel she’s writing now. She’s set to step out of her role as a miniaturist, in part as a result of these museum experiences, with a novel taking in five generations of one family, moving from Britain to India and back, following the threads that run through the stories of different generations, looking at the way patterns repeat and at “the oddness of how things pan out”.
It seems likely that repetitive patterns are at work in Rebecca’s family; her mother is also a writer. And as for things panning out in unexpected ways, Rebecca started her studies intending to be a doctor, ended up reading (US: majoring in) history, and now finds there’s a little buzz of excitement in getting to write down, whenever she uses departmental services such as photocopying, that she’s a member of the English department.
She did substantial work on her novel-in-progress while in the Museum, sometimes sitting in the garden while the visitors flowed around her, unaware that the art of writing novels, for which Jane Austen was so famous, was being practised right under their noses. If she felt sociable she could do a bit of stewarding and people would stop to chat. Writing is a solitary practice; one of the best things about being on the faculty of the University, Rebecca told me, is that it provides her with colleagues, though having an office and some structure to the working week are benefits, too.
This past year Rebecca did a lot of her serious writing in the reading room at Jane Austen’s house, but the reading room sits over a deep, cold cellar, making the place so frigid in the winter that Rebecca had to write wearing gloves. On the worst winter days, when it seemed colder indoors than out, she sat in the Learning Centre instead. Jane Austen preferred to write at the little table in the dining room. (There’s more about this, with photos, in my older post, too.) She got up early, practiced the piano (thereby, it seems to me, making sure everybody else in the house rose early, as well) and then went to work.
Although Jane Austen never married, her siblings managed to provide her with thirteen nieces and nephews, one of whom became the ancestor of Rebecca herself, who is the five-times-great–niece of Jane Austen; there are objects in the Museum that Rebecaa remembers seeing, years ago, at her great-aunt’s house. Beyond that, Rebecca very much plays down the family connection. She doesn’t know how many descendants of the family are alive in this generation, but she’s aware that there must be many; my back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests there could very easily be over 1600 of them.
Rebecca took pains to make sure I understood that she doesn’t feel this genetic relationship gives her any special connection to Jane Austen, anything beyond what any reader might feel. Attending the opening of a display on Jane Austen in Winchester cathedral, Rebecca found being in the spotlight because of her family background a bit uncomfortable (though she did say they “had a lovely tea-party with the bishop” on that occasion). After the dignitaries’ remarks, she and the other distant relatives (nowhere near 1600 of them turned up, of course, many of them probably don’t realize they’re related at all) were asked to lead the way to Jane Austen’s memorial; walking down the central aisle between the seats where the general public sat, all waiting to get up until the family had passed by, felt “very odd”.
I might have felt the same if I’d been in her shoes, publicly singled out for something that I hadn’t chosen or worked for or had anything to do with bringing about. But then again, I think if I stood before the memorial of a great ancestress I would be more likely to think seriously about that woman’s accomplishments and constraints, where her sense of humour came from and whether I shared it, what her daily life might have been like, than I would if I didn’t know she was kin. With our without justification, I think I’d feel more of a personal connection.
And it is that sense of personal connection, I think, that the Museum and Rebecca Smith try to give everyone who visits the house, attends a workshop, or listens to the harpsichord played there: a feeling of personal connection to the house’s first writer in residence.
I hope I’ll have a chance to see Rebecca again; for one thing, she insisted on buying my cappuccino and it’ll be my turn next. In the meantime, I’ve set up Featured Links (check the right-hand edge of this blog, up nearer the top) to point to the Amazon pages for her novels. See whether you think she’s a miniaturist in the Jane Austen mold/mould. And please come back and leave me a comment to let me know what you think.