Nearly a year had passed since we last visited Jane Austen’s house, a year in which we had failed to return with our tickets that lasted a year; I hoped she wouldn’t be offended. As I forgot to actually bring the tickets, at least she would know our visit was genuine.
The weather was greyer and mistier than last time, but at least it wasn’t raining. With two nights away we had all day and this time we were determined to see The Big House properly.
Because Jane’s parents were fortuitous in giving away one of their sons to childless rich relatives ( and what parent wouldn’t be tempted, I wonder if they chose the naughtiest? ) it came about that Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight inherited Chawton House and was able to provide Jane, sister Cassandra, their friend and their widowed mother a home on the estate for the rest of their lives. Cassandra and the friend ran the household so Jane could concentrate on her writing and this was the happiest and most productive period of her life, sadly cut short by her early death.
We strolled around the village first on this damp morning, being nosey of course and admiring the lovely cottages brightened with spring flowers. At the house there were few visitors yet and I was fascinated with a very jolly, well spoken family; granddad with three generations of women who all seemed to have impossibly long slender legs. You may recall last year we met Jeremy Knight, third great grandson of Edward who now volunteers as a guide at Jane’s. My ears pricked when I heard the grandmother of the family ask another volunteer ‘Is Jeremy in?’ He’s just gone for coffee. ‘I’m his first cousin.’ Oh, did you want to go in the office for coffee? ‘ What, with the staff? I haven’t seen him for years.’
When we did arrive at Chawton House and went first to the kitchen where they serve light refreshments, Jeremy’s relatives were there having coffee, I wonder if they did meet up with him that day?
You can walk up to the house as Jane would have done. You ring the doorbell and get a friendly welcome. We bought tickets that will last a year. The house is a study centre for women’s literature and you can also see the books Jane herself enjoyed reading or did not enjoy…
I was intrigued to dip into a copy of this book; certainly heavy going, but now I understand this scene…
‘Sermons to Young Women in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Mr Collins chooses Sermons to Young Women to read aloud to the Bennet sisters on the first evening that he spends with the family (I. 14). This is an important clue to Mr Collins’s character, since by the time Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, Fordyce’s views were outdated and restrictive. Lydia Bennet is particularly unimpressed by Mr Collins’s choice of reading material: ‘Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him …’.’
There is plenty to enjoy looking round the house even if you don’t pause to read. Imagine the family in the dining room, or gazing out at the views. Take time to wander the gardens as well. The primroses were out and we walked through ‘the wilderness’ and to the church close by where the family worshipped and Cassandra and her mother are buried. Jane Austen’s last few weeks were spent in Winchester, where her family hoped for a cure. She is buried there.
See more pictures at my website.