Thursday, July 30, 2015

Jane Austen's Home in the English village of Chawton

Jane Odiwe at Jane Austen's House Museum
I love visiting the Jane Austen House Museum and a recent summer trip was a wonderful opportunity to take photos of the house and other houses in the village of Chawton which are quintessentially English with roses blooming round the doors and windows and gardens stocked with cottage garden flowers. Chawton is a small village about a mile southwest of the town of Alton on the road to Winchester. I was visiting as part of Jane Austen Regency Week which is a fairly new festival celebrating Jane’s life and work. The festival is growing year on year with workshops and talks, and even a ball!   

Jane Austen came to live at the cottage in Chawton in July1809. It belonged to her brother Edward who lived up at the ‘big house’ further along the road. Chawton House is now a library which focuses on women’s writing, novels written from 1600 - 1830, but in Jane’s day it was home to Edward and his large family. 

View of roses and garden at Chawton
When theAustens moved there, Edward’s wife had recently died giving birth to their eleventh child, and I can’t help thinking that Edward must have thought it would be beneficial to have his family living close by.
Chawton cottage had been a coaching inn, and had formerly been tenanted by Edward’s steward before the Austen women moved in. A large pond was set in the angle between the roads along which rattled carriages off to Gosport, Southampton, Winchester and London. One of Jane’s nieces later remembered how comforting it was ‘to have the awful stillness of night frequently broken by the sound of many passing carriages, which seemed sometimes even to shake the bed’, and even Mrs Austen was said to have enjoyed watching the passing traffic.

The Bookcase
Some alterations were made before they moved in; both sitting-room windows looked out onto the road and the drawing room window was blocked up and the space filled by a bookcase. A new, Gothic window was cut into the wall which looked out over greenery and trees hiding the Winchester road. The garden is not as large as it was in Jane’s day, but is wonderfully stocked with the kinds of plants that Jane Austen would have known. One of the trustees told me that they are soon to be launching a new Jane Austen rose with Harkness roses - he wouldn’t go into any details because it’s a big secret yet to be revealed, but I got the impression it will be a strong colour to match the temperament of our famous writer.
Jane was looking forward to being settled at Chawton and having her brother Henry come to them for some shooting. She wanted to buy a piano ‘ … as good a one as can be got for thirty guineas, and I will practise country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephews and nieces, when we have the pleasure of their company.’

A glimpse into the living/dining parlour
Jane is thought to have revised her novels in the general living/dining room, writing on small pieces of paper which were folded and attached to make small booklets. She is said to have insisted on keeping the creaky door unoiled so that she would have some warning of people coming in, so she could slip her writing out of sight under her blotting paper, thus keeping her work a secret from strangers.
She was in charge of ordering tea and sugar, and it was her responsibility to make breakfast though Jane is said to have started the day by practising on her piano so as not to disturb the others later on. 

The fireplace where Jane made tea
The kettle was warmed on the grate hob to make tea in the morning. Popular breakfast treats included bread rolls, toast, with preserves and marmalade, or ham and eggs. Tea, coffee or hot chocolate might be drunk, and gentlemen might take some ale. When staying at Stoneleigh Abbey, Mrs Austen wrote of a grand breakfast, though it
seems she declined the luxury treats of cake: At nine in the morning we meet and say our prayers in a handsome chapel, the pulpit &c now hung with black. Then follows breakfast, consisting of chocolate coffee and tea, plumb cake, pound cake, hot rolls cold rolls, bread and butter and dry toast for me.  

In my book, Mr Darcy’s Christmas Calendar, I had a lot of fun trying to imagine the scene where my heroine Lizzy walks into the dining room just after Jane has left it:
Jane's writing desk
Cautiously advancing inside, she found a cheerful parlour and the delicious aroma of hot, buttered toast. A dining table and chairs occupied the centre space upon which a pot of honey, a blue and white plate bearing a few breadcrumbs with a sticky knife, and the scatterings of pretty china, consisting of a flowered teapot, a sugar box and a milk jug, were the remnants of what appeared to be a breakfast meal. A kettle hissed and steamed on a trivet over the roaring fire in the grate and on either side of the fireplace, a cupboard and a cabinet held a variety of precious treasures: miniature portraits of loved ones, beautiful teabowls, and a box of candles. Every picture was decorated with a glossy sprig of holly, and a swag of the same, entwined
A view from the attics
with ivy, was held in place on the mantle with scarlet ribbons. Set before the window a small tripod table and writing desk were placed. Lizzy was drawn to it by the sight of several leaves of paper, a bottle of ink and a quill pen, but as she approached she saw that the even handwriting in brown ink was partially hidden by a plain sheet, which had been placed on top.
Jane’s bedroom was on the left at the top of the stairs and it’s thought that she and her sister Cassandra possibly shared the room.

In another scene from my novella Lizzy has the chance to see Jane’s room. This is a timeslip novel and Lizzy isn’t quite sure exactly what is happening.

A replica of Jane's original bed 

Lizzy looked about her now she was alone. It was a very cosy room, she saw, with a chocolate rug on the floor and striped wallpaper on the walls. A jug of holly and ivy on the windowsill before the casement gave it a festive air, the scarlet berries glistening in the candlelight. The oval looking glass above the fireplace reflected her face, pale and slightly anxious, but she was comforted by the sounds of a clock ticking and wood crackling on the fire as it burned. There were bookshelves, and Lizzy couldn’t help picking up a copy of a volume of Camilla by Fanny Burney. She’d read once that she was one of Jane’s favourite authors - what a lot of trouble the curators of the house had made to get all the details right, she thought. There were all sorts of personal objects left lying around - a pair of spectacles, a thimble and a needlecase were left neatly on the mantelshelf at one side and an ebony hand mirror, a patch box and a bottle of lavender water were arranged on the other. Two pretty reticules dangled from a wooden chair by the fire, and a piece of lace was folded over the top. On a handsome tambour desk, two Tunbridge workboxes sat on top in pride of place. The lid of the desk was rolled back and Lizzy could see the contents inside. There was a pile of music, each carefully transcribed note beautifully sketched upon fine lines, and there were several songs, she noted: The Soldier’s Adieu, Robin Adair, and The Yellow Hair’d Laddie, looked well-thumbed and were covered in personal notes and alterations. A sheaf of paper in the middle of the desk looked like a manuscript file and there was a bottle of ink and a well-used pen, its feathers short and stubby. Drawn to the writing like a magnet, Lizzy tried very hard not to look and for at least a minute, she avoided reading the top page. However,
like a heroine in a novel, the temptation proved too much. What she read really surprised her!

A view over the garden wall
 I imagine Jane spent her mornings writing when she wasn’t required to help. Sewing or ‘work’ took up a lot of time in those days, and although they had some servants to help them, they were a small household. In the afternoons she and Cassandra would go on a walk, into Alton for shopping, to visit their neighbours or just to enjoy the countryside, weather permitting.

Jane first took out her novel, Elinor and Marianne, and began to revise it. Her brother Henry persuaded her to publish it and placed it with Thomas Egerton. She paid for its publication and was so convinced it would make a loss she planned her accounts in anticipation. To her great surprise she made a profit of £140. After that success she took down First Impressions, which was published as perhaps the most favourite of all her books, Pride and Prejudicewhich was published in January 1813. The other novels followed soon after, and I can’t help thinking that at Chawton Jane must have been the happiest time of her life. She was inspired to write some of the most beloved works of fiction in this small corner of England.

Jane Odiwe


Joana Starnes said...

What a delightful post, Jane!
It was wonderful seeing you in Alton and Chawton in June. Chawton is a magical place at any time of year, but so much more so with roses in bloom and all the beauty of summer!

Jane Odiwe said...

Thank you, Joana - it was lovely to see you too and enjoy the festival. The village of Chawton really is beautiful in the summer!

Anji said...

Lovely post, Jane. I'd read Mr. Darcy's Christmas Calendar at a chapter a day in the run up to Christmas last December. My first visit to Chawton happened on New Year's Eve a week later. It was amazing to see the rooms you'd described and where so much beautiful writing took place. I still get goosebumps remembering the first time I saw that little writing table!

Jane Odiwe said...

Thank you, Anji, I'm so thrilled to hear that, and how much you enjoyed going to the house! It is fantastic to see that table, isn't it?