Jane Austen’s Chawton home brought into the 21st century
PUBLISHED: 11:34 24 November 2014 | UPDATED: 11:34 24 November 2014
With a new curator, displays and interactive elements, Jane Austen’s Chawton home is being brought in to the 21st century. Claire Pitcher pays a visit to relive her life and times
Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, near Alton, is one of the most important literary sites in the county, arguably the country. It’s here in this modest, 17th century timber framed-cottage that Jane Austen spent the last years of her life and wrote some of her best-loved novels.
Mary Guyatt is the curator at the museum. She’s new to the role, having only started a year ago, but she’s already been able to have an influence on the house. “There’s been an awful lot happening behind the scenes; everything from tidying the attic to re-registering the charity as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. A curator’s job is wonderfully varied.”
For the first 26 years of her life Jane lived just down the road in Steventon, where her father was the vicar. She was the seventh of eight children. On his retirement, the family moved briefly to Bath. Mary explains why Chawton is so important: “Jane Austen came to Chawton in 1809 and lived here for the last eight years of her life. It was in the house where she revised her early novels for publication and wrote the next three. Visitors come from all around the world to see where these beloved books were written.”
Chawton was her home until her death in 1817 and it was there that she published her most famous novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion.
Austen’s writing desk, a patchwork quilt she made with her mother and sister and various letters are all on show at the house, and new display cases have led to a reinterpretation of some of the rooms. “This year we have also unveiled a gold and turquoise ring owned by Jane Austen, the subject of an export ban and an international fundraising campaign.” Mary continues: “We have also had a fragment of Austen’s handwriting conserved and put on public view for the first time.”
Already this year the Jane Austen Museum has received two significant grants from Arts Council England to support their public programme. There have also been some new additions to the team, as Mary explains: “We currently have a Poet in Residence, Maura Dooley. Maura is at the house drawing inspiration for her own work and leading a number of poetry workshops. We’re also planning lots of ways to enhance our winter low-season, such as musicians playing in the rooms, a New Year mummers’ performance and Regency food tastings. We’re about to relaunch our website (www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk) so I encourage readers to look there for details.”
Like many of us, Mary wasn’t introduced to the works of Jane until she was an adult, but she’s certainly making up for lost time now: “I studied English at A Level but our teacher decided against reading Austen. This was perhaps for the best as I was able to discover the novels for myself in my early 20s. My favourite is Sense and Sensibility.”
Visit the museum - Jane Austen’s House, Alton GU34 1SD; 01420 83262
On the Austen trail - There are many locations within the county that have links with Jane Austen
Steventon - The village is the birth-place of Jane, who lived here for 26 years. Unfortunately, the rectory in which she wrote Pride & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Sense & Sensibility was demolished around 1824. You can still see where the rectory once was as it’s marked by an old lime tree that is believed to have been planted by her eldest brother, James. You can also visit the village church, where the Austens were rectors and Jane worshipped. Dating from the 12th century, visitors can see memorial tablets to James Austen, his nephew William Knight and their families.
The New Forest - Jane and the rest of her family loved to spend time in the New Forest. Letters found have revealed that they would often take a trip by boat along the river to the shipbuilding village of Buckler’s Hard. While they were there they would also peruse the abbey ruins at Beaulieu. Sounds like the perfect Hampshire day out!
The Vyne, Basingstoke - Jane’s association with The Vyne was through her elder brother, the Rev James Austen, who was the vicar of Sherborne St John for 28 years and a close friend of the Chute family, who lived in the large mansion, now owned by The National Trust. Jane Austen and her brother used to visit the house and many think it provided the setting for some of her novels.
Portsmouth & Netley Abbey - Netley Abbey has always been considered an inspiration to many poets and authors, including Horace Warpole and even artist John Constable. It’s no surprise, then, that this was one of Austen’s favourite places too. Just along the coast, in Portsmouth, Jane would also pay a visit to her brothers, who were stationed there in the Navy.
Winchester Cathedral - Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral in 1817 at the age of 41. Although her original memorial stone made no mention of her books, a brass plaque was erected in 1872 to redress the omission; and an illustrated exhibition detailing Austen’s life, work and death in Hampshire is displayed beside her grave in the north aisle.