“ Address: Chawton / Alton / Hampshire / GU34 1SD / Tel: +44 (0)1420 83262 „
I've been recently re-reading and enjoying Jane Austen's novels. Having read them last when I was studying for my A Levels several decades ago, I found them surprisingly readable and most enjoyable. The books certainly weren't the dry and boring syllabus texts I remembered them as, but an interesting and somewhat satirical look at Regency society. Starting off with the best known Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, I swiftly moved on to Sense and Sensibility, then Persuasion (my favourite) and finally Emma. Readings of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park are on the agenda as both books are on my birthday present list.
Being in the midst of a personal Jane Austen revival, it was therefore fitting that I'd want to visit one of the places where many of these novels were penned. Jane Austen lived in Chawton in Hampshire from 1809 to 1817, her most prolific writing period. The house is now a museum open to the public, and one can view the rooms where Jane Austen slept, worked, wrote and rested.
~~~ A LITTLE HISTORY ~~~
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" Pride and Prejudice
When Jane Austen's father died in 1805 he left behind a widow and two unmarried daughters - Jane and her sister Cassandra. In those days, well to do gentrified women did not work and they were totally reliant on their men folk to provide for them. George Austen's death left them with hardly any income and they were forced into inferior lodgings in Bath. In those days, keeping up appearances was of paramount importance and if you couldn't keep up with the Jones (or the Darcys or the Knightleys!) you were no longer welcome in polite society. Luckily for Mrs Austen, one of her wealthy sons, Edward Knight, came to her rescue and found them a home on his estate in Chawton. As was common in this era, Edward had been adopted as a young man by a wealthy distant relative (his fourth cousin) as they had no heir of their own. Edward's adoption by the wealthy Knight family set him up for life and he was therefore able to look after his widowed mother and unmarried sisters for the duration of their lifetimes by providing a rent free home. The theme of unmarried ladies and widows being dependent on the goodwill of their male relatives for their living was a theme taken up by Jane in Sense and Sensibility.
The house was quite small but comfortable, and it provided the ideal location in which Jane Austen could write. She fell in love with the cottage almost immediately, writing to her brother in 1809 saying "It will all other houses beat". She had rather disliked Bath and did not write at all whilst residing there. Chawton was different and in her eight years of residence there she was particularly busy. She not only wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, but she also comprehensively revised Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey ready for publication. She also started on a sadly unfinished manuscript called Sanditon. All these new books and revisions would have been done by hand...simply with a quill, a pot of ink and reams of parchment. Interestingly none of the books published in her life-time had her name on the cover - they were simply described as having being written "By a Lady". This was not only to preserve her anonymity, but because it was not really deemed to be quite the "done thing" for ladies of the gentry to be openly publishing their work, no matter how impoverished they were.
The cottage at Chawton remained Jane's home until the last few months of her life. Due to ill health she had to move to Winchester in 1817 to be nearer to her doctor. The move had no effect on improving her health, and she sadly died a couple of months later, from what is thought to be either Addison's Disease (a tubercular disease of the kidneys) or bovine tuberculosis (caused through drinking unpasteurized milk). She was only 41 years old. She is buried at Winchester Cathedral and her tomb can be viewed there today.
~~~ THE HOUSE ~~~
"Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be." Emma
The house at Chawton became a museum in the 1940s. As you approach the house, you enter through a set of wooden gates and go in via the gift shop. As you would imagine, the gift shop sells all manner of Jane Austen themed items such as notepaper, diaries and the like. You can also buy various different publications of her novels and film and TV adaptations of said novels. When you pay to enter, you will be offered a printed leaflet / short guide to the house which costs £1. This is pretty good value (unlike the entrance fee...of which more later), as it "walks" you around the house and explains the salient points of interest.
If you time your visit right, you can start off with a short film in the on site Learning Centre. This is an informative ten minute filmed presentation on the life of Jane Austen. I found it most interesting and it certainly helps put the house at Chawton in context with the life and times of Jane Austen.
As you enter the house you go straight into the Drawing Room, which is a rather formal room where visitors would have been entertained, and in which the ladies of the house would have retired of an evening to sew, chat or read. This room also contains a piano, and it is thought that Jane Austen played and practiced on a similar model for two hours everyday before breakfast. Evidently Mrs Austen and her daughters lead rather a quiet life in that they did not socialise with the neighbouring gentry and entertained only when their family visited Chawton. This quiet life would have allowed Jane to get on with her writing. She was relieved of many household chores as her beloved sister Cassandra took charge of the housekeeping at Chawton, seemingly to allow her more time to write. The Austens were a close and loving family, and were frequently visited by their brothers and their various offspring. Both Jane and Cassandra were much loved aunts who frequently entertained their nieces and nephews with songs, piano playing and made-up stories.
The Dining Parlour is where the family would have taken their meals. Jane was in charge of preparing the tea and coffee every morning at breakfast. Tea and coffee were extremely valuable commodities in those days and would have been kept locked away in the cupboard in this room to prevent any pilfering by the servants. The Dining Parlour is also where Jane sat down every morning after breakfast to write. You can view the little table near the window where she wrote everyday. After luncheon Jane and sister tended to go for long walks in and around Chawton, no doubt giving Jane a break and a chance to mull over what she had written that morning. The ground floor is completed with a Reading Room, but history does not tell us what the Austen's used it for.
Climbing upstairs and we come to Jane Austen's Bedroom. She shared her room with her sister Cassandra as she had done all her life. The room contains a replica of the beds they likely slept in. The sisters were extremely close, and did everything together. Indeed, such was their devotion that Cassandra accompanied Jane to Winchester in search of a cure for what ailed her. Sadly no cure was to be found and she died in Cassandra's arms.
The other rooms upstairs are Mrs Austen's Bedroom and the Dressing Room, both of which have been kitted out with various bits of Austen family memorabilia. There are various miniatures of the Austen family as well as some items of dress (handkerchiefs and shawls). You can also view some of the costumes used by the characters in some of the TV and film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels (i.e. a bonnet worn by Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility)
Moving along the corridor (the floorboards creak ominously), you come to the Admirals' Room. This was the room used by the varying visiting members of the Austen family. Two of Jane's brothers were in the navy (a theme taken up in her novel Persuasion), both rising to the rank of Admiral. This room therefore pays homage to the naval exploits of her brothers Francis and Charles. Next door you can view a patchwork bedspread made by the Austen women, but it's safely behind glass to stop it being handled.
~~~ THE GROUNDS ~~~
"Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance..... and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life." Pride and Prejudice
The gardens at Chawton are truly delightful and an oasis of calm. Most of the plants are labelled so you can get a good idea of what's grown there. The Kitchen is entered from the outside as it was not linked by doorway to the main house. Kitchen smells and noises would have disturbed the ladies of the main house, so it was kept rather separate and probably remained largely the domain of the servants. Gentrified ladies such as Mrs Austen and her daughters did not cook - they gave instructions to their housekeeper or maid (another theme taken up by Jane in one of her books - Pride and Prejudice - where Mrs Bennet is most insulted by Mr Collins assumption that her daughters may have been involved in cooking the evening meal).
Behind the house is the Bakehouse which is an outhouse containing the bread oven and a washtub. This is where all the hard work of washing clothes by hand, baking bread from scratch and churning butter would have taken place. There is also the original donkey carriage used by the Austens on display. They evidently kept two donkeys, but only used one of them at a time to pull the cart, allowing the other one to rest. Jane used the carriage more frequently as her illness got worse and walking became difficult for her.
~~~ MY THOUGHTS ~~~
"One man's ways may be as good as another's, but we all like our own best." Persuasion
Although I enjoyed my visit to Chawton and found the site mostly interesting and informative, I do think that a £7 entrance fee is rather steep for what it is. It's not a big house by any stretch of the imagination - five or six main rooms and a few vestibules and halls. Certainly not worth £7 in my book - £4 to £5 would be fairer. It wasn't massively busy when we visited - only about 20-25 people milling about. Granted it was a mid-morning visit on an autumnal Friday, but I would still have expected the place to be busier. I do wonder if the entry fee puts some people off.
Expensive entrance aside, I thought that the short film on Jane Austen's life before we entered the house was informative and interesting, and set the stage well for entering the house. Similarly, the £1 guide to the house is also very good value - being very readable and full of colour photos.
The house itself is charming, but it rather lacked any atmosphere. When you enter some old houses you often get a sense of the personalities that lived in them. Here there was nothing doing - the house had no secrets to yield to me. To be honest I found the outside a lot more evocative than the inside. It was easy to imagine Jane sitting under a tree in the garden reading aloud to Cassandra and her mother. The inside of the house lacked any mood at all, and I found it impossible to conjure up any sense of the daily movements of its former inhabitants.
The house is chock full of Jane Austen memorabilia - be it bits of jewellery, manuscripts, musical scores or pictures. However to me it felt like they had shoe-horned in anything that could have the slightest link to the Austen family, and then filled up any remaining spaces with bits of Regency furniture which may or may not have been something like the Austen family used. Whilst I appreciate they need to make the museum as interesting as possible, I found some of the items a little "de trop". For example, laying the table up with Wedgewood china which, just possibly, might be like a set mentioned by Jane in one of her letters to Cassandra seemed a little like grasping at straws.
The walls of the house are filled with all sorts of memorabilia - illustrations from her novels, an Austen family tree and a copy of the inscription from Jane's tomb in Winchester Cathedral. It's all interesting stuff, but there was rather a lot of it, and it seems to have been put up to fill a space rather than having any cohesion with the rest of the house.
Overall we spent about an hour and a half there, and it was an interesting and pleasant interlude, but not one you would need to repeat regularly. If you're interested in either Jane Austen or the Regency period in general, then there is certainly plenty to see and admire in the house. However in my opinion you'll get much more of a sense of the woman behind the words by reading Jane Austen's novels than you ever will by visiting her former home.
Recommended (with four stars - they lose one star for the high entry price and the deluge of Austen related clutter throughout the house).
~~~ FURTHER INFORMATION ~~~
"If you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them." Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen's house is situated in the pretty village of Chawton, one mile south-west of Alton in Hampshire. Car parking is free of charge and is located in the village car-park opposite the museum. The nearest railway station is at Alton. In June, July and August the museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm. The rest of the year the museum opens at 10.30am and closes at 4.30pm. However do please note that in January and February the museum only opens at the weekend.
~ Admission Charges ~
Children £2.00 (under 6's free)
The ground floor of the museum and the gardens are easily accessible to those with disabilities. However, the stairs and the first floor are definitely not.
There are no refreshments to be had in the museum...but there are a couple of watering holes in the village of Chawton. First up is the rather cringingly named Cassandra's Cup - a tearoom opposite the museum. We wanted a cup of tea and a bun after our visit, but the large sign telling us we could only have a lunch up until 2.30pm put us off a visit. We wanted a snack not a meal :o( There is also a pub called The Greyfriar, which looked small but welcoming. We did eat there many years ago on our first visit to the museum, but I cannot vouch as to whether the food and the welcome is as good nowadays. There are also a couple of nice looking pubs in nearby Selborne, and you can also visit Gilbert White's house too (not someone I'd ever heard of before but evidently he was an 18th century English naturalist and ornithologist).
Jane Austen's House Museum
Telephone No: 01420-83262
Jane Austen's house in the Hampshire village of Chawton is one she lived in for a number of years prior to her death. After her father died whilst they were living in Bath, the female members of the family fell on hard times. Jane, her mother and her sister Cassandra were forced to move to an insalubrious Bath address with their friend Martha Lloyd. Fortunately her brother Edward had been left some money by a wealthy family who had adopted him, and this bequest included the Chawton estate. He allowed his mother, sisters and Martha to live in a cottage here free of charge. Jane lived here from 1809 for eight years until she became ill and moved to Winchester to be near her doctor, where she died. Whilst she was here she wrote Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion. The house has been a private museum since 1947.
The house is easily signposted as you approach through the Hampshire countryside. It is less than an hour by car from Winchester, and I do believe there are buses that come this way, stopping at Alton which is 10-15 mins walk away. Certainly having your own transport would be easier. There did not seem to be an official car park, if there was we missed it, parking on the street, just up the road from the house, and walking back. You enter through some wooden gates and the Admission desk and shop is on your right. It is £7 per adult (reduced prices for OAPs, students, children and groups) and we also bought a 'Short Guide' to the house for an additional £1. The guide is concertinaed card, printed in colour and about A3 in size unfolded, it contained enough info for us. The Gift Shop contains a lot of books, not just Austen's novels, but biographies, reading companions and other books associated with Jane and the Regency period plus themed gifts, greeting cards etc. The stock was generally tasteful.
They show a small film in the Learning Centre. It is a modern building around the back, but designed to keep to the period. There are a few interactive games for kids, but they are not really Jane Austen related. The toilet block is also near here, although I didn't use the facilities, they seemed to be in another modern block and suitable for disabled visitors.
Outside of the shop there is the Bakehouse which was an outhouse containing a bread oven, washtub and a donkey carriage which I believed were all used by Jane and her family. When you go to the house, you will first come to the kitchen which has been decorated in the style of a typical country kitchen of the area. There has been additions in the form of a new storey above the kitchen, but the layout of the kitchen itself, is I believe, authentic. When you come out of the kitchen you go back outside and turn left into the main part of the house, there isn't a direct doorway, I don't know if that was always the case. The room you enter into is the Drawing Room, in here is a piano similar to one owned by the family and an authentic Austen owned bureau style writing desk. There are lots of pictures on the walls, both here and throughout the house, of family members (Jane had lots of brothers) and a family tree. There are also items of correspondence and a calculation of Jane's worth (£800 - quite a bit in those days). The room leads to a vestibule, which may have been the original entrance hall (the door may have been moved) and in here you will see some items and letters that were owned or written by Jane. The vestibule leads into the Dining Room, a good sized room and we learn here that Jane was in charge of preparing breakfast and held the key for the cupboard containing the tea and coffee which would have been quite expensive. At the back of the house is a reading room, I'm not sure as to its original purpose but it contains Austen's novels in various languages and other related reference books for visitors to browse.
Upstairs you see Jane and Cassandra's bedroom (they always shared) containing a replica of the bed they probably used when younger and living in nearby Steventon. The other upstairs rooms contain Austen family heirlooms and memorabilia. Two of Jane's brothers were Naval officers and some of their possessions are here too, there are also dresses used in film adaptations and other info on the family. Furniture is usually reproduction, but there is a bedspread made by the ladies on display in one of the rooms and various other personal items.
Overall we spent about an hour here, the gardens are pretty and well maintained and there is lots for Jane Austen fans to learn about her. Certainly this house will appeal to her many fans, or those interested in the Regency period and I do recommend a visit. The garden area, toilets and downstairs part of the house are accessible to disabled visitors. There is no cafe here, but there is a tea shop across the road.