Thursday 1 August 2019


Last week, on a journey between Oxford and Portsmouth, we stopped for a while at the village of Chawton. 

You might now be asking Where's Chawton? What's Chawton? Or not.

Image result for Jane Austen portrait wikipediaBecause any Janeite - or enthusiastic fan of Jane Austen and her work - would recognise the place immediately. Chawton is where Jane lived for the last part of her life, along with her mother, Cassandra her sister and a female family friend. (Please note that I am not a knowledgeable Janeite.)

Their home is now the Jane Austen House Museum; nearby, within much larger grounds, lies Chawton House, the imposing home of the far richer relative who let Jane and her family have that corner house. 

Jane Austen's House MuseumThe mellow brick house, with its out-buildings and pretty garden, sits in interesting location: directly on the curve of the road that passes through the little village therefore - if it was then as it is now - the windows offered Jane and all a chance to see whatever was happening in the village and who was passing by.

Ah yes, writers can be nosy, even the apparently "quiet" ones like Jane.

I came to Chawton almost by chance, without any preparation or preconceptions, yet as I went round the fairly modest rooms and read more about her life, certain points about the way she'd ordered her life struck me.

Chawton was where  period of what could be called "writer's block" ended. Here, Jane took up stories she'd put away before and worked on them again. She had written when she was younger, but a long period of instabilityp in her home life had had an effect. Her father, a Vicar, unexpectedly moved his family to Bath, so Jane and Cassandra's lives became full of society and social obligations. 

Only when Jane came to Chawton, a place where she was happy and settled, could she did take up her writing work again.  She needed some kind of peaceful place for her writing to develop and thrive. 

Moreover, she did this by picking up her earlier ideas and drafts and working on them again, re-forming them into the first of her successful, publishable novels.  Sometimes discarded or set-aside ideas do still have life in them when time has passed.

Jane also had someone who was on her side emotionally an din all sorts of practical ways: her sister Cassandra took on a lot of the running of the house so that Jane had mornings free to write.  
Who would not welcome someone like that, there to defend your "space" for you and let your mind slip into the zone?

Although Jane's real life writing space, according to the display at the house, was a tiny, round table - barely the size you would use for a couple of drinks -  I did wondered if she would have wanted a more noticeable space. This small, restricted surface has been picked out as an example of Jane's writing constraints:why did she not have a larger writing desk? Did she not deserve one?
Maybe Jane welcomed a table - about the size of a large laptop - that did not attract attention, or encourage house-callers to ask how her latest writing was going, although in the phraseology of the time?.

The same for the squeaky door that warned her of people coming. Maybe that was a positive choice: Jane defining her own space by that noisy door? Like the jangly indian bells on my own workroom door?

Furthermore, there is a large and beautifully worked quilt in the house. On one hand, to some that needlework could be seen as a symbol of female toil. However, thinking of the number of writers who value time spent on art or craft work - doodling, painting, knitting and more - maybe Jane too, valued time to think about her work while her hands were busy?

All of these thoughts were going round in my head while I visited Chawton. My ideas might be simplistic misconceptions, so at a future date I want to discover more about her life, perhaps by reading her collected letters rather than just the novels.

I did enjoy my unexpected afternoon at Chawton, and those moments imagining Jane Austen as a real working writer in her  home, a woman dealing with all the everyday stuff, and making her own kind of pattern out of her circumstances. A very satisfying visit, especially on so fine and sunny a summer day.

Penny Dolan


Joan Lennon said...

How lovely to feel those connections with her - thanks for this, Penny!

Lynne Benton said...

Ah yes, that tiny writing table! But in such a small house I guess it was very important to her not to have people continually noticing what she was doing and asking her about it. The bit I liked about the place too was the kettle nearby for refreshing tea/beverages whenever she needed one! Thank you, Penny, for reminding me what a lovely place it was (and still is!)

Penny Dolan said...

Especially connections I wasn't expecting. Today I saw the outside of the Bath lodging house where she'd stayed and was told she hated the place because the cooking there was so awful and the rooms drank of boiled cabbage. In 17C Bath, that smell must have been unusually bad.

Penny Dolan said...

Yes, I felt the table was her secure place. A noticeable desk -in a house with 17C levels of furniture - would not have been safely subtle.

Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds well worth a visit!

Nick Garlick said...

I never have liked Jane Austen - I've tried, but there's just no click. But I loved this piece. It helped me see her as a real person, and not that legend on a bank note.

Andrew Preston said...

Phew... Chawton. Alton. Watercress Railway. A32. Gliding Club.....

I must have driven all around, and right past Jane Austen's place hundreds of times for work, pleasure and leisure.... and not realized it was there.