Even though I wax lyrical on every single platform about how much I love Jane Austen, I’ve never visited her house at Chawton or her grave in Winchester Cathedral – until this week. We went on a lovely trip to Hampshire and had a beautiful day (helped by the British sunshine) exploring Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton House and Winchester, and I couldn’t wait to share it and the many photos I took in a blog post!
Edward Austen, Jane’s brother, had been adopted by the Knight family who owned Chawton House. He then inherited the whole Chawton estate, which this beautiful cottage was part of, and promptly offered to his mother, two sisters and their friend Martha Lloyd for the rest of their lives. Jane moved here in 1809 and lived here for the final eight years of her life. This year, Jane Austen’s House Museum is celebrating its seventieth birthday – whilst the house was purchased in 1947 by T. E. Carpenter, the founder of the museum, it first opened to visitors in 1949.
I think the reason why I was so excited to visit is that this house was where Jane wrote and refined her novels. I was especially desperate to see her writing table…
And here it is – although the base is newer, the walnut top of the table is the original. You can find this in the Dining Parlour. I found this quite magical to look at because Pride and Prejudice, my favourite of Jane’s novels, was published in 1813 and was surely edited (it was first written with the title First Impressions during 1796 and 1797) at this table. Similarly, Persuasion, my other favourite, was written in 1815 and 1816 here at Chawton. To think that they were probably written at this table and in this room was quite special.
More treasures can be found upstairs, including a beautiful patchwork coverlet made by Jane, Cassandra and their mother (apologies for the reflection on the glass in my photo!). Also next to this is the famous ring belonging to Jane, which poses more questions than it perhaps answers: nobody knows how Jane acquired it or whether the stone actually is turquoise or not. Cassandra inherited the ring upon Jane’s death and it was then passed through the family. Next to it is a beautiful turquoise beaded bracelet and a topaz cross that were also owned by Jane: I particularly loved the cross because it reminded me of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, who is given a similar cross by her brother William, who was in the Navy.
After a wonderful time at the museum, we took the walk Jane often did to her brother’s home at Chawton House, which she referred to as the ‘Great House’. It is beautiful and I particularly loved the long walk up to it from the road – it’s a spectacular view. The house was built in the 1580s by the Knight family and is now home to an extensive library of early women’s writing.
There is a wonderful exhibition on Jane Austen’s Reading, which I spent ages looking at. I find it really fascinating to understand what our favourite authors read, enjoyed and were inspired by: and the bulk of this for Jane can be learned from reading her letters and from references in her own writings. Jane read widely, including political history, poetry and conduct literature, and of course, she uses Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey to tell her readers that
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
And of course, what could make this more perfect but the reading nook where, as Knight family tradition has it, Jane loved to read and relax?
After a lovely walk around the gardens at Chawton, we went to Winchester. Winchester is where Jane moved to in order to be closer to her doctor, arriving at 8 College Street on 24th May 1817 with her sister Cassandra.
In the beautiful Winchester Cathedral, which is very close to College Street, is where you will find her grave. Jane was buried there two months after arriving in the city. Her ledger stone does not note her as an author.
Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote the first full biography of Jane, which was published in 1869 as A Memoir of Jane Austen. (Whether or not it represented Jane and her writings accurately is another matter!) The profits made from A Memoir funded this brass plaque near to her grave in the Cathedral: this immortalised her as a writer.
Fancy following more of a Jane Austen trail around Hampshire? Find a brilliant trail from Visit Winchester here.