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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.