Chawton Cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, might be the single most significant Jane Austen site in the world, but the symbolic value of this modest abode goes far beyond bricks and mortar. Sometimes a house is not only a home, this little cottage also changed Jane’s life.
Jane resided at Chawton Cottage for the final eight years of her life from 1809 to 1817. This home became the calm environment that Jane needed to focus her attention on her writing and a treasured retreat where her creativity could truly blossom. Here, Jane revised three of her unpublished manuscripts, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, and wrote three new novels, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.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. Despite being written a century after Jane’s death, this premise is particularly pertinent when reflecting on the life of Jane Austen, who wrote prolifically in her carefree days of youth, but as a single woman later in life without an income or property of her own, struggled to find an environment conducive to producing new work.
Jane Austen’s novels often conclude with the triumph of a wedding or marriage proposal – after all, securing an advantageous marriage was the ultimate happily ever after for a lady in the regency period, and Jane wrote for women of her time. Having to marry strategically to guarantee your own survival was a plight familiar to Jane, so much so, that this predicament is woven into the context of almost all of her novels. Were Jane’s words artfully stitched together with irony and satire to mask her own resentment towards such a pragmatic approach to life and love?
While very little is truly known about Jane Austen, historians and Janeites love to theorise and make assumptions by piecing together little fragments, by examining 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. As a modern woman, I like to view Jane through a feminist lens, and although I may be entirely wrong, this is my version of Jane Austen – your Jane might be altogether different, based on your own views.
Maybe I am just romanticising my own ideals, but I like to believe that Jane was ahead of her time, a modern-thinking woman whose greatest ambition in life would have been to gain her own independence as a published author, with a home and income of her own.
As we all know, most women were financially reliant on their father or husband during the regency period. Following the death of her father in 1805, Jane, along with her mother and sister, found themselves destitute and having to move into shared lodgings for a period.
Jane’s eldest brother, Edward, inherited a large estate and was able to gift his mother and sisters a home, Chawton Cottage, a quaint five-bedroom red-brick house nestled on a spacious corner block, which is now framed by a country garden yielding flowers and vegetables.
Chawton is a lovely little village in Hampshire with only 400 residents. The quiet tree-lined streets are dotted with thatched roof cottages, a cosy local pub named The Greyfriars, and Cassandra’s Cup, a tea shop named after Jane’s sister.
The village is an idyllic haven away from the chaos and distraction of city life, which feels like it must have been the perfect creative setting for Jane’s abilities to flourish. Again, all we can do is make assumptions about 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 that floats through the rooms.
Housed in the cottage are various priceless Austen artefacts, including the circular wooden writing desk where Jane herself wrote. Small and light, so she could easily move it from window to window, chasing the best light. There is also 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 lovely 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.
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 1949, Chawton Cottage was opened as a museum dedicated to the legacy of Jane Austen, a treasured literary site that is visited by thousands of Janeites each year, who come from all over the world to see the home of the beloved writer.
Jane Austen House Museum
Open daily from 10am to 5pm, entry to the house and garden is £8.
While you are in Chawton, be sure to wander up to Chawton House. 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 just 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 I will certainly return to Chawton. My dream is to visit during Regency Week someday, 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 is also teeming with Jane Austen history, two hours drive away.
Are you a Janeite? Have you seen my post about The Jane Austen Centre in Bath?