Tag Archives: Hampshire

A Little Bit of Egypt in Hampshire

The British Empire in traditional pink. The insets indicate British holdings in the Caribbean and on the Arabian peninsula

Not long after I moved to England I heard someone refer to a time when “the whole map was pink”, which I eventually learned meant “when the British Empire was at its height”.  Mapmakers, it seems, considered red the most appropriate color for Britain and its colonies, but a red background makes black text difficult to read, so they toned the red down to pink.

Great Britain did control a surprising—to those of us who didn’t grow up with those pink-tinted maps in our schoolrooms—proportion of the globe considering that it’s a pretty small island.  As a result, over the last couple or three centuries some wonderful things from other cultures ended up here.  Recently, in highly publicized cases, some countries have made clear their preference for reclaiming the material relics of their cultural heritage, thank you very much, but for now, if you want to see the Rosetta stone, the Sphinx’s beard, or sculptures from the pediment of the Athenian Parthenon, you can see them at the British Museum in London.

But not all foreign treasures sit in major museums.  Stately homes frequently show off collections of artifacts bought (they’re usually bought fair and square, not literally plundered, though some people think of the purchases as exploitation) and brought back from postings abroad—which is why, for example, walking on the grounds of such a property near Guildford, you can stumble across a Maori village’s meeting house, the whole thing brought back by a former governor of New Zealand and re-assembled in a corner of his estate.  And that’s why if you go to visit Highclere Castle, seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, you can find a little bit of ancient Egypt. 

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon—George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert by name, but don’t ask me how the names and titles work; he was called Viscount Portchester before he inherited the earldom—famously dabbled in archaeology.  For several years he funded work without much luck; in his first year of digging, his team found only one mummified cat.  That was 1906, and by 1922, having found a bit of this and that—much of it historically important, but nothing like the treasures he hoped to find—he was ready to throw in the towel.  He told Howard Carter, manager of his Egyptian digs, that he planned to stop pouring money into excavation.  Carter could have one last chance.  And that’s when he found King Tut’s tomb.

I’ve visited that tomb in the Valley of the Kings across the Nile from Luxor.  The striking figures painted on the walls look as though they ought still have the “Fresh Paint” sign hanging on them, the unspoiled, brilliant colors all the more astonishing because to get there you go through—in my case, by bicycle—a baking desert in which every rock, every speck of dust, every rise of land, every single thing you can see is the same dull khaki color. 

In 1984 when I visited, the wall paintings were almost all that was left for tourists to see, although since then the king’s body has been replaced in his tomb chamber.  When Howard Carter first put a candle into the tomb through the a slit in the rock, the dazzle of the gold furnishings reflecting the candlelight struck him speechless for so long that Lord Carnarvon finally had to prompt him with “Can you see anything?”  Carter famously replied, “Yes, wonderful things”, and “Wonderful Things” is the title of the exhibition I visited last week at Highclere Castle, on the Berkshire-Hampshire border near Newbury.

Those glittering grave furnishings recovered from Tutankhamun’s tomb remain in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, when they aren’t touring the world.  Even the little cat mummy from the first year of digging sits, with its little cat coffin, in the Egyptian Museum.  His widow sold a great deal of the Earl’s collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to pay off a tax debt, too, but the items the family retained, now displayed in a museum in the cellars, are definitely worth a look.    

The centerpiece of the first room of that exhibition, a mummy case from a tomb at Deir-el-Bahri belonging to a noble lady, may not be as grand as King Tut’s, but is beautiful in its own right.  (The staff didn’t permit photography, alas.)  The goddess of night, Nut (pronounced noot), decorates the bottom of the coffin, with her painted arms rising up the sides to support the lid.  3500 years ago, high-born ladies started preparations for burial when in the prime of life even though they might not need their coffins for decades; that’s why the painted faces are always youthful.  In the afterlife, the spirits of the dead have to find their bodies again; painting the faces of the deceased on their coffins helped the spirits could find their way to the right bodies. 

The rest of the grave goods on display pertain to things that the deceased would need in the afterlife, whether the burial included the artifact itself, like silver bracelets and supplies of eye makeup; or a 3-D model of something the deceased would want, such as a sculpted pair of feet, complete with gilded toenails, provided so that the deceased would be able to walk in the hereafter; or 2-D paintings, such as hunting scenes full of fat ducks, so the deceased would have something to eat.  Ushabtis, little figurines representing workers, provide staff to do the heavy digging—model employees, you might say.  The Egyptian Book of the Dead (more accurately The Book of Coming (or Going) Forth By Day) provides the text inscribed on many ushabtis: “Oh Shabti, if [the deceased] be summoned to do any work which has to be done in the reaches of the Dead, to make arable the fields, to irrigate the land, or to carry sand from East to West: ‘Here I am’, you shall say, ‘I Shall Do It’.”  The Christian heaven my Sunday School teachers described doesn’t, as far as I remember, require the transport of significant amounts of sand, but you never can tell.

The management at Highclere provides a box of sand in which young would-be archaeologists can dig with their hands to find 6 different treasures; my husband and I defined ourselves as young enough to play the game, though we only found 5 items: 4 ushabtis and a scarab.  A sign asked us to re-bury our finds for the benefit of the next explorer to come along; if a previous young explorer couldn’t resist, and pocketed the one of the items, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. 

Eventually the displays  of authentically ancient Egyptian pieces gave way to reproductions of the famous articles from King Tut’s tomb.  We had some houseguests with us who happen to be professional archaeologists; they were impressed at the quality of the recreations, and thought it very much worthwhile to provide a place where the public can look at and study the reproductions as long as they like, since seeing the originals either on tour or in Cairo involves being pushed through the exhibits by the crowd without getting much more than an impression of all the gold and lapis lazuli.  My visitors complimented the didactics—museum-speak for the signs that tell you what things are—saying these were “quite good” (which you’ll know,  if you read my previous post, is not always a ringing endorsement, but in this case, they did mean the didactics were very good).

There’s nothing like a professional perspective; our guests provided valuable insights such as the opinion that the 5th Earl, to go by his portrait, didn’t look like somebody you’d want to buy a used car from, and that an enormous solid alabaster canopic jar, with four heads carved on the lid in two rows of two, looked like kids on a rollercoaster.  Okay, they had more astute things to say as well, but never let it be said that archaeologists are as dry as the dust they sift. 

And in context of King Tutankhamun these particular archaeologists, being specialists in the history of Nubia, have reason to be irreverent; pharaohs always seem to be depicted defeating armies of Nubians.  King Tut was no exception even though, dying at 18, it’s unlikely that he led any military campaigns.  Despite ongoing fighting, the long history of Egyptian dynasties had comparatively few turning points in which significant territory changed hands; the map of the world King Tut knew would have been mainly one color, too, though perhaps lapis blue would be more fitting than British pink.    

Highclere Castle’s “Wonderful Things” is worth a visit, and—who knows?—there could be more treasures to be found.  If a retired butler hadn’t happened to mention, in 1987, two stashes of Egyptian artifacts in cupboards forgotten by everyone else, it might have been up to archaeologists decades or centuries from now to rediscover them.


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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.


Filed under Arts, Culture, History, Many Books Little Time