When planning my literary pilgrimage through England to see the homes of my favourite writers, one non-negotiable stop was visiting the small brick cottage in Hampshire where English literary rose, Jane Austen, once lived and wrote.
Jane Austen may be famous for writing romantic stories, but her words are artfully stitched together with her 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. This was a plight Jane was familiar with in her own life.
While very little is known about Jane Austen, historians and Janeites love to make assumptions and theorise about her character by piecing together little snippets – examining her letters, her novels, firsthand quotes from family who knew her, and the spirited monologues of the heroines she crafted.
We all form an idea of who we believe, or want to believe, she may have been. It seems as though the mystery and enigma surrounding Jane Austen somewhat contributes to her enduring legendary status.
I like to view Jane through a feminist lens with the Virginia Woolf essay, A Room of One’s Own, in mind. Jane’s writing flourished when she was settled in a permanent home. Her talent and work was challenged by her inability, as a woman in regency England, to support herself financially.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” – Virginia Woolf
Maybe I am just romanticising my own ideals, but I like to believe that Jane’s greatest ambition would have been to gain her own independence as a published author, thus being able to financially support her mother and sister. In Pride and Prejudice, think of the way Elizabeth Bennet pities her friend Charlotte for settling down with bumbling idiot, Mr Collins, just to secure her own survival. Does Jane’s art echo some of her own sentiments? I guess we will never truly know.
Following the death of Jane’s father, the Austen women moved around Bath and Southampton for a number of years without a permanent place to call home. There is little evidence to suggest that Jane wrote at all during this period.
Unmarried Jane and Cassandra had no alternative but to rely on the financial support of their male family members. Fortuitously, their older brother, Edward Austen, was the heir to a large estate bequeathed to him by the wealthy Knight family when he was a young child. When Edward received his inheritance, he was able to provide his mother and sisters with a home, Chawton Cottage, a five bedroom house where the Austen women could live for the rest of their lives.
I shudder to think of what would have happened to Jane’s writing if it weren’t for the Knight family bestowing Edward with Chawton Estate. Without a permanent home, Jane might not have published or written anything more.
Jane resided at Chawton Cottage for the final eight years of her life from 1809 to 1817. Chawton provided her with a suitable environment to edit and write. 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 about 400 residents. Think pretty tree lined streets, rows of wisteria covered cottages, a cosy local pub, and Cassandra’s Cup, a tea shop named after Jane’s sister.
Stepping inside the house where Jane Austen actually 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. The cottage feels like it would have been a haven for Jane. A quiet sanctuary where she could nurture her talent and write without interruption, free from the anxiety of uncertainty.
The village is an idyllic sanctuary away from the chaos of city life and Chawton Cottage seems like the perfect creative setting for Jane’s prolific writing to flourish. Again, all we can do is make assumptions, but somehow it feels true.
Housed in the cottage are various priceless Austen artefacts, including the circular wooden writing desk where Jane herself wrote. There is a manuscript copy of her unfinished novel Sanditon, George Austen’s bookcase, first edition copies of her novels, original letters between Jane and Cassandra, jewellery and other objects of her time.
Jane Austen died when she was 41 years old. She lived at Chawton Cottage almost to the end. Just months before her death, Jane moved to Winchester to seek more advanced medical attention, but she died soon after. Cassandra and Mrs Austen remained at Chawton Cottage following Jane’s death, staying for the rest of their lives.
Following the passing of the three Austen women, the cottage was once again used as living quarters for Chawton House staff, until it was purchased by a wealthy benefactor, Thomas Edward Carpenter.
In 1944, Mr Carpenter gifted the house to the Alton Jane Austen Society in memory of his son who died serving in the war.
In 1949, Chawton Cottage was reopened as a museum celebrating the legacy of Jane Austen, a treasured literary site that is visited by thousands of Janeites each year who make the pilgrimage to see Jane’s beloved home, a place that seems to have given her a sense of stability after a difficult period in her life.
Chawton Cottage is a quaint brick house nestled on a corner block, framed by a prosperous garden filled with flowers and vegetables. After exploring the house you can wander the cottage garden. The lawns 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.
Just 1.5 hours south west of London, Chawton is located in Hampshire on the northern border of the South Downs National Park. I arrived via car, but you can also take the train from London Waterloo to Alton. There is a coach service (64) to Chawton from there. A special vintage bus service 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 was inherited by Edward Austen Knight, which now houses 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 in the future with more time to explore. My big dream is to visit during Regency Week someday, bonnet and all.
You can also visit Jane Austen’s final resting place 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.
Are you a Jane fan? Have you seen my post about The Jane Austen Centre in Bath?