Why Jane Austen House is the key location for fans of the novelist

By Veronica Cowan | 16 February 2006
shows a bedroom scene, with a writing table in the centre of the room

Jane Austen's bedroom © Veronica Cowan

Veronica Cowan visits the former home of Jane Austen and talks to a curator about running a house that belonged to one of the world's most famous authors.

The trustees of Jane Austen's seventeenth-century house in Chawton, near Alton, Hants, are hoping the launch of the DVD of Pride and Prejudice will boost visitor numbers. "The recent film has not had a dramatic affect all on its own," says curator and chairman of trustees, Tom Carpenter.

"The real impact - in terms of the house - was the BBC's six-part series in 1995, which saw visitor numbers more than double." The Austen connection put the pretty Hampshire village on the map - "whether it likes it or not, Chawton has become a tourist village," said Tom.

Now plans are afoot to recognize the house as an historic building in its own right. The results of the first historic building survey of the house by Hampshire Country Council's specialist architect will be published this year.

"The aim is to re-examine the physical, viewable evidence to help us ascertain the building's real history, quite apart from the Austens coming to live here", Tom explains.

shows a man looking down a staircase towards the camera wearing a suit

Tom Carpenter, Curator of Jane Austen's house. © Veronica Cowan

Tom's grandfather bought the house in 1949 and set up a charitable trust to run it as a museum. Its furnishings echo the style during Jane's occupation, and one item closely linked to her literary talents is the small table on which she used to write her novels.

She was at Chawton when her work was first published, and it is here where she was most prolific. "It was her brother Henry - a banker in London - who twisted the arm of a publisher to give his sister a go," Tom explains, adding: "In terms of the literary establishment, this is the key house because it is only after Jane moved here that everything came together".

As we spoke in the thriving bookshop, the sound of piano music could be heard. Had a ghostly Jane returned to caress the ivories, I wondered? It was a visitor playing the piano in the drawing room.

"We encourage visitors to do this to recreate the atmosphere," Tom says, pointing out Jane was a highly accomplished pianist, who practiced every morning before breakfast.

shows the view through a window with leaded lights into a garden

The view from Jane Austen's window © Veronica Cowan

Although the square piano is not the instrument she used, it is similar. Built in 1810 by composer Muzio Clementi's family company, it is on long-term loan from Hampshire County Council, having been restored to a playable state by a donation from the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Jane's father, George, was not well off, having been orphaned as a child. "His great-uncle Francis, a solicitor, funded his education. He got a degree in theology at Oxford, where he was later a Fellow, but when he married he had to vacate the Fellowship which was for bachelors only."

This homelessness was rectified by the owners of the Chawton Manor Estate, with whom the Austens were connected, exercising patronage to make him a rector. Hence Jane's birthplace being the nearby Steventon Rectory.

The family lived there until Jane's father retired in 1801 "at the urging of his wife" and moved to Bath, a much busier place than Jane was accustomed to.

Photo shows one of the rooms in the house.

The museum houses items connected with Jane and her family and the grant has helped them to be displayed. © Emily Sands/ 24 Hour Museum.

"My personal guess", says Tom, "is that there were severe constraints in Bath society on what one could or should not say in open conversation". As an independent-minded woman, Jane would not have liked that.

"But it probably did her a good turn indirectly, because she would have been at hand-shake level with a much wider cross-section of middle-class and gentry society than she would have encountered in rural Hampshire".

In Tom's view, she would unconsciously have got much of the character material for her books in Bath".

The Chawton Manor Estate was left to Jane's brother Edward, who had been adopted by a wealthy childless cousin of their father's. When Jane's father died, the family needed somewhere to live, and Edward provided the house in Chawton.

"Jane was very happy from almost the moment she arrived; the letter she wrote her brother showed this", Tom observes. Although she never married, she had several "gentleman acquaintances" and got engaged for one night in 1802 but changed her mind the next day. "Don't think she had no life," Tom comments.

shows a varnished wooden piano against a wall

Jane's piano © Veronica Cowan

According to Tom it was unusual for a woman to write in those days, and it would certainly have been considered infra dig for someone of her station to do that.

"The Austens were at the lower end of gentry and the expectation would be to get married", he remarked, noting that Jane never put her own name in the first edition of her novels: "If you were a lady in the gentry and were found to be using a professional skill - like writing - to earn money that would raise a big social question mark, and you would be dropped from dinner invitations".

That would represent social death, which is why, observes Tom wryly, "we have this legend of the creaking door", a reference to a door left permanently un-oiled on the hinges so it creaked when it was opened to give Jane time to hide her manuscript.

Another factor was that if it became widely known she was the popular writer, then she would have become the 'celeb' at dinner parties. "That was the last thing she wanted", says Tom, "even people in the village did not know she was writing."

Photo shows the outside of Jane Austen's House.

Jane revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility while she lived at the house and wrote Emma and Mansfield Park. © Emily Sands/ 24 Hour Museum.

Jane became ill, and died in 1817 at the age of 42. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral. "She never kept a diary", notes Tom, "so it has been a question of putting the story together from family recollections and correspondence."

Her bedroom window overlooks the garden, now less extensive than in her time. The courtyard behind the house has an old well, a granary and a bake-house, which houses Jane's donkey carriage.

At one point - in the 1700s - the house was an ale house: "It got a bad reputation and was shut down", Tom reports in a slightly hushed voice, pointing out that I was almost standing on the trap door behind the bar.

Living in a former alehouse Miss Austen? Now what would the snooty Mr. Darcy say to that?

Veronica Cowan is a freelance journalist

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