My little pilgrimage through England to see the homes of my favourite writers would be incomplete without tracing the footsteps of English literary rose, Jane Austen.
Jane Austen is famous for writing romantic stories, but her words are artfully stitched together with a sharp wit. Her novels offer a subtle critique of society and the social structure in which women had to secure an advantageous marriage to guarantee their future. Unmarried women placed an ongoing financial burden upon their male family members, which was particularly evident in Jane’s own life.
Jane, along with her sister and mother, relied on the financial support of her brother, Edward, who was adopted by the wealthy Knight family in his youth and would one day inherit their property. After the death of Jane’s father, the Austen ladies moved around without a permanent place to call home. In 1809, Edward inherited the Chawton Estate and was able to provide his mother and sisters with Chawton Cottage, a comfortable cottage nearby to his home at Chawton House.
Jane resided at Chawton Cottage for the final eight years of her life from 1809 to 1817. Chawton provided Jane with the perfect environment to write and edit her work. Here, she revised three of her unpublished manuscripts, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, and wrote three new novels, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.
Chawton is a lovely little village of only 380 residents with pretty tree lined streets, rows of wisteria covered cottages, a cosy local pub, and Cassandra’s Cup, a tea shop named lovingly after Jane’s sister.
Stepping inside the house where Jane Austen once lived was surreal. I closed my eyes to listen to the birds twittering outside the window, I took note of the afternoon sun lighting up her little writing desk and the air of tranquility that would have aided her writing process.
Jane Austen died when she was 41, but her sister and mother remained at Chawton Cottage for the rest of their lives. After their deaths, the cottage was transformed into living quarters for Chawton House staff, the purpose in which the cottage was intended. It was not until the late 1940’s that the Jane Austen Society made an appeal to a wealthy benefactor to buy the property and turn the house into a museum honouring the legacy and work of Jane Austen.
Chawton Cottage is a quaint brick house nestled on a corner and framed by a prosperous garden filled with flowers and vegetables. The village is an idyllic sanctuary from the chaos of London, or even Bath. Chawton was the perfect creative setting for Jane’s prolific writing to flourish.
After exploring the house you can wander the cottage garden. The lawns also offer a lovely setting for a picnic lunch, where you can sit beside the garden’s plants, herbs, and flowers.
The Jane Austen House Museum
Open daily from 10am to 5pm, entry to the house and garden is £8.
I arrived via car, but you can also take the train from London Waterloo to Alton, and there is a coach service (64) to Chawton from there. A special vintage bus service also operates on the first Sunday of the month in summer.
While you are in Chawton, the nearby library at Chawton House is an independent research library and study centre focused on the protection and restoration of neglected womens writing from 1600 to 1830. The library is inside the 400 year old house that once belonged to Edward Austen Knight, housing a collection of over 9,000 rare books and manuscripts – including work by Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Chawton House Library is just a short walk from the museum and your cottage ticket will get you a discount off the entry price. By a disappointing twist of fate I ran out of time to visit, but I will certainly return to Chawton again in the future with more time to explore.
To complete your road trip, you can visit the final resting place of Jane Austen at the Winchester Cathedral, 30 minutes drive from Chawton. Further afield you may wish to take a drive around Steventon where Jane Austen grew up, although most of the buildings associated with her are no longer there.
Are you a Jane fan? Have you seen my post about The Jane Austen Centre in Bath?