Tag Archives: Austen

Writer in Residence: Jane Austen’s House, II

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— 

Rebecca Smith, Writer in Residence at the Jane Austen's House Museum

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. 

book cover: The Bluebird Cafe

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. 

book cover: Happy Birthday and All That

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. 

Rebecca in the reading room

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”. 

book cover: A Bit of Earth

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.

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A Visit to Miss Austen’s House

Living in the south of England puts me in easy visiting distance of the homes of a whole collection of classic authors, though I’m not sure what you call a group like that. If geese come in gaggles and lions come in prides, what about writers?  A booklet?  A folio?  A rejection of writers?

Jane Austen’s Chawton cottage from the street, which would have been a busy thoroughfare in her day

I’ve been to several of them—places such as Shaw’s Corner in Hertfordshire (as in George Bernard) or Bateman’s in Kent, where Kipling lived.  Undershaw, built for Arthur Conan Doyle, stands empty at the moment while protestors try to stop its redevelopment into flats; we had a memorable dinner there a couple of years ago during its restaurant phase.  I have even, on a few occasions, volunteered at Virginia Woolf’s house in West Sussex, spending the afternoon sitting in either her bedroom or her sitting room, making sure that nobody walked off with any books or damaged any upholstery, answering questions when I could.

But Jane Austen’s house is closer to me than any of them, so I don’t know why, in over a decade of living half an hour’s drive from the place, I’d never been to see it. If I were saving it for a rainy day, then–this being England–I’d had ample opportunity. Recently, on a beautiful sunny May afternoon, I managed to go have a look.

Looking across the courtyard at the rear to the bake house and other outbuildings (UK: outhouses — no, really, that is the term they use here)

The tale of how Jane Austen came to live in Chawton in Hampshire sounds straight out of her novels: The death of the male head-of-household leaves the heroine, her sister, and their mother in a perilous financial state.  A distant cousin saves the day when, having no children of his own, he adopts the heroine’s brother as his heir.  In due course this brother inherits a small handful of large country estates and can offer his mother and unmarried sisters a cottage, rent-free, for the rest of their lives.  This frees them from worry about how they will live although the heroine, a fine judge of class distinctions, is always conscious of the social divide between their little cottage and her brother’s manor house as she walks through the fields and woods the short distance between the two.

The house from the side garden

Edward Knight (Jane Austen’s brother; he changed his surname to that of his benefactor), lived in Chawton House, currently a library promoting study of the work of women writers; the cottage he gave to his unattached female relatives is now a museum showcasing Jane Austen, her family, and her times.

Cottage, by the way, is a word the Americans and the British use differently.  Setting aside those Americans, mostly in New England I think, who use cottage to mean a huge posh vacation home, most Americans on hearing that someone lived in a cottage would expect the place to be small, cosy, rural, picturesque, and probably thatched. Not so in England.  There’s no hard and fast rule, but almost any house below the size of a stately home can be called a cottage.

A bit of the garden, though most of it is lawns surounded with hedges and trees. The Austens also grew their own plants for dyeing cloth.

The Austens’ cottage is a three-story brick house with six bedrooms plus staff quarters, as well as a separate kitchen, bake house, and coach house, and—by today’s standards, anyway—a huge garden.  Even with all of that space, Jane never had her own study or any kind of privacy while writing.  She always shared a bedroom with Cassandra, her only sister, and wrote at a tiny table by the dining room window.

The dining room, with Jane Austen’s small writing table near the window.

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own used Jane Austen as an example of how society cramps a female writer’s style.  Austen wouldn’t allow anyone to fix the creaking door of the dining room, because the creak gave her enough notice that someone was coming that she had time to pull a sheet of blotting paper over her work, to keep it secret.  The family knew she wrote books—her father was involved in early attempts to publish her work, and her mother and sister took over all the running of the household to give her all the time she wanted for writing—but their wider sphere of acquaintance did not; it wasn’t ladylike to write for money.  Her first book, Sense and Sensibility, came out with nothing but “By a Lady” to indicate the author, and after that, the title pages said only “By the Author of” and listed her previous successes.

Jane Austen’s writing table

I’d always thought of Jane Austen at her inadequate little table, a martyr to interruptions, hiding her pages, as I imagine Woolf meant readers to think of her: an example of female genius unreasonably constrained by society’s rules.  But it’s easy to do the math and find that with six bedrooms (not counting the servants’ quarters on the top floor), four people to accommodate (the sisters, their mother, and Martha Lloyd, a family friend), two of whom (Jane and Cassandra) shared a bedroom, even if they saved two rooms for guests, an extra room remained free.  Surely she could have had a private study if she’d wanted one.

In any case, she managed to write out by hand on little sheets of writing-paper (I’ve recently learned that it is thought common here to call it notepaper, though I have no idea why), more lasting works of literature than any one person has a right to, and do it without losing her reputation as a gentlewoman, so she must not have felt too constricted.

Costume drama, anyone?

Most of the house is open to view, with mannequins showing off period dresses, wall displays showing her letters and giving details of her life and her family, cases and shelves of memorabilia and documents.  My favorite of these comes from correspondence between Austen and the Prince Regent’s librarian, who wanted her to write a romance involving royalty.  She replied:

I am fully sensible that an historical romance founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

Just the kind of thing you’d expect from the woman who dreamed up Elizabeth Bennett.

The dining room displays some of the wedding china that belonged to Edward Knight and his wife; I don’t know about you, but while I have known at least one family who could boast a Wedgwood dinner service, none of them went directly to Wedgwood to arrange a custom design including their crest.  Food came into the dining room from the separate kitchen, but tea was kept under lock and key—servants, it was thought, were inclined to pilfer it—so the family brewed it themselves on the stove at the end of the room, where a copper kettle of the sort they used now stands.

Another view of the house, from yet another part of the garden

But none of this paraphernalia made the kind of impression on me I expected, not even seeing Jane Austen’s bedroom, furnished with a replica—historically accurate in every particular—of the bed in which she slept, not even seeing almost unbelievably fine lace she made by hand and a quilt that she helped to sew.

The well in the courtyard

Had I not read enough of the Austen canon?  Was this just not a period of English history that came high on my list?  Was it the damping effect of the  signs for tourist set up almost as soon as you cross into Hampshire, telling tourists they’re “Welcome to Jane Austen Country”?  Was it that the museum-like fixtures made the place seem less of a house where real people lived?

I don’t mean to run it down.  It’s definitely worth a visit and I’m sure I’ll go back, but I didn’t get the little internal shivery feeling I usually get when I feel I’ve found some connection in the modern world with the life of someone from the past whom I really admire.

Sheep in a field skirted by the path to Chawton House.

It did hit me, eventually.  We went back through the car park and followed the path a little ways toward Chawton House, and that is when it hit.  We crossed a stream where a man watching his grandson pulling up water plants and getting thoroughly soaked remarked on what a fine day it was, then went through a stile into the sort of timeless picturesque landscape American Anglophiles dream of, that tamed rural paradise of fields and copses that seems to go on forever.  Four or five heavy horses with feathered feet cropped grass alongside a flock of storybook-quality woolly sheep.  The path led into a little wood complete with hollow trees and moss and ferns and even bluebells.

Another rural scene on the path to Chawton House

Not only was it quintessentially English and completely idyllic on a perfect day, but—and yes, I know I’m a philistine and my reactions stem not from Austen’s novels alone but from all those movie scenes with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth walking in the woods between the Bennett ménage and Mr Bingley’s great house—this was the path that Jane Austen walked. I could look down at my trousers and running shoes (UK: trainers) and almost see the long skirt of an Empire dress and the toes of delicate slippers, at least for a fraction of a second, because the idea that anyone would have walked through fields and woods in satiny slippers is completely ridiculous.  Still, I was walking the path Jane Austen walked, and the shivers came along on cue.

Bluebells in the wood–along with some stinging nettles.

I see it mooted on some other blogs that “Brontë is the new Austen”—though they don’t mention which Brontë and apparently mean all of them put together.  Jane’s out and the Haworth three are in?  Not for me.  I’m no Janeite—if anything, I’m a Woolfian—but I prefer Austen’s novels to those of any Brontë I’ve read so far; Austen beats all three with one hand tied behind her back.  In a lady-like literary sense, you understand.  Besides, it’s a lot farther up to Brontë country; by the time I get organized to make the pilgrimage up there, the pendulum will surely have swung back.

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