Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is the most significant Jane Austen site in the world, but the symbolic value of this house goes far beyond bricks and mortar. This modest little red brick cottage undoubtedly changed the course of literary history.
Jane resided at Chawton Cottage for the final eight years of her life from 1809 to 1817, it was the calm environment that Jane needed to focus her attention on her writing. In this treasured retreat where her creativity could truly blossom, Jane revised three of her unpublished manuscripts, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, and wrote three new novels, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.
As Virginia Woolf eloquently wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction”. This premise is particularly pertinent when reflecting on the life of Jane Austen, who wrote prolifically in the carefree days of her youth, but as a single woman later in life, struggled to find an environment conducive to producing new work without property of her own or an income to pay rent.
Jane Austen’s novels almost always conclude with a wedding or marriage proposal – after all, securing an advantageous marriage was the ultimate happily ever after for a woman in the Regency era. Having to marry strategically to guarantee survival was a plight that was familiar to Jane. Were Jane’s words artfully stitched together with irony and satire to mask her resentment towards such a pragmatic approach to life and love?
While very little is known about Jane Austen for certain, historians and Janeites love to theorise and make assumptions piecing together little fragments, such as her surviving letters, her novels, and the monologues of the characters that she crafted. Beyond the mystery and enigma of Jane Austen, we can use our imagination to form an idea of who we believe or want to believe Jane might have been, with many viewing Jane through a feminist lens.
Maybe I am just romanticising my own ideals, but I believe that Jane was ahead of her time, a modern-thinking woman with great ambition to gain independence as a published author with a home and an income of her own. The very notion that women were entirely reliant on their fathers, husbands and brothers is covertly woven into the context of her novels, a burden Jane knew personally, after finding herself destitute following the death of her own father.
Chawton is a lovely little village in Hampshire with only 400 residents. The quiet tree-lined streets are dotted with thatched roof cottages, a local pub named The Greyfriars, and a tea shop called Cassandra’s Cup, named in honour of Jane’s sister.
The village is an idyllic haven that feels like it would have been a perfect creative setting for Jane’s abilities to flourish. Again, all we can do is make assumptions of what could have been, but somehow it feels true.
Stepping inside the house where Jane Austen once physically lived and worked 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 quiet tranquillity of each room.
Housed in the cottage are Austen artefacts, including the circular wooden writing desk where Jane herself wrote. Small and light, so she could move it easily from window to window, chasing the best writing light. 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 her sister Cassandra, personal jewellery and other objects of her time.
After exploring the house you can wander the cottage garden. The lawns offer a peaceful setting for a picnic lunch.
Jane Austen lived at Chawton Cottage until the final months of her life when she moved to Winchester to seek more advanced medical attention. Jane died when she was only 41 years old. There are many theories, but the true nature of Jane’s illness is not known for certain.
Cassandra and Mrs Austen remained at Chawton Cottage following Jane’s death, staying there for the rest of their lives. After the passing of the Austen women, the cottage was used again as living quarters for Chawton House staff, until it was sold to a wealthy benefactor, Thomas Edward Carpenter. In 1944, Mr Carpenter gifted the house to the Alton Jane Austen Society in loving memory of his son who died serving in the war.
In 1947, Chawton Cottage was opened as a museum dedicated to Jane Austen, a treasured literary site that is visited by thousands of Janeites who come from all over the world to see the home of the much-loved writer each year.
Jane Austen’s House Museum
While you are in Chawton, be sure to wander up to Chawton House, the former home of Edward Austen Knight. The library at Chawton House has been transformed into an independent research and study centre focused on the protection and restoration of neglected women’s writing from 1600 to 1830, comprising of 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 a short walk from Jane’s cottage and your ticket will get you a discount off the entry price. By a disappointing twist of fate, I ran out of time to visit Chawton House, but my dream is to visit during Regency Week, bonnet and all.
If you want to continue with your Jane Austen adventure, you can visit Jane Austen’s final resting place at the Winchester Cathedral, or you may wish to drive around Steventon where Jane grew up. Both sites are 30 minutes drive from Chawton. Bath also holds a piece of Jane Austen’s history, two hours drive away.
Are you a Janeite? Have you seen my post about The Jane Austen Centre in Bath?