“Mary Jane and I have been wet through once already today, we set off in the Donkey Carriage for Farringdon…but were obliged to turn back before we got there, but not soon enough to avoid a Pelter all the way home.” —Jane Austen, letter to James Edward Austen, 9 July 1816.
Yesterday when I drove to Chawton to see Jane Austen’s house we became wet through and did not avoid a Pelter all the way home. Fortunately I had been before, when the peltering rain wasn’t a problem.
The house at Chawton is where Jane lived for many years until shortly before her death, when she went to Winchester to be closer to the doctors who were treating her (for what might have been Addison’s Disease, or possibly arsenic poisoning).
Despite the weather, I travelled to Chawton yesterday with a friend who’s visiting from the U.S. She’s researching the Long 18th Century and wanted to study some of the texts and books at the Chawton House Library. Chawton House Library is devoted to the preservation and study of women’s literature from 1600 to 1830 and is housed in the Elizabethan mansion of Jane’s brother, Edward Knight. Edward was adopted by the childless Knight family, who were distant relations to the Austens.
Jane, her sister Cassandra, their mother and sister-in-law Martha lived in the small Georgian house. Many items on display were owned by the Austens, including the table where Jane wrote or revised many of her books, including Pride and Prejudice.
The table is small, about eighteen inches across. There’s a split down the middle, perhaps caused by age, perhaps by the original construction. It’s hard to see how she could have written so many manuscripts, by hand rather than with a modern laptop and word processing software, at such a small table.
There’s also a replica bed in the room she shared with her sister. The bed is small, hardly bigger than a twin bed today. Perhaps Jane dreamed up her plots in just such a bed, 200 years ago. Perhaps she scribbled her ideas on the table in the room below, next to the fire where Cassandra kept a tea kettle warming. Perhaps she sat in the large garden, dreaming up the characters who populate her books as she watched the villagers in Chawton. Maybe visitors to the much larger and grander Chawton House inspired the literary themes she addressed in her novels: the poor relations scrimping while other members of the family lived in luxury nearby, the contrast between those who have and those who have much less.
Being a poor relation was probably not as bad as just being poor.
A coverlet quilt, made by Jane and her sister and mother using end cuts of fabric, is on display in an alcove upstairs. The coverlet had a backing but no wadding in between. The pieces are diamond shaped, with a large basket design in the middle. In one letter, Jane reminds her sister to pick up more fabric pieces while she’s visiting their brother:
“Have you remembered to collect pieces for the patchwork? We are quite at a standstill…”
The photos below were taken on a previous visit, when the weather was much better.
In contrast, Edward Austen Knight, who inherited his adopted family’s wealth, lived in the much more imposing Chawton House a half mile away. He also had a home in Kent, where he, his wife and eleven children spent much of their time.
Jane and her sister visited Chawton House and ate in the dining room there, served by servants they couldn’t themselves afford. Jane was a good aunt to all her neices and nephews, but Fanny Knight was especially close to her. In the upstairs hallway there’s a poignant letter from Cassandra to Fanny, written after Jane died:
“I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed — she was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”
Chawton is in Hampshire, about an hour from London. If you can’t get there, the website has a virtual tour. And do check with the Met Office before journeying to Chawton; if peltering rain is forecast you might bring an umbrella.