I can’t remember a time when I did not love Jane Austen, or, in fact, a time when I did not know who she was. Even before I could read her books, I used to spend hours watching on VHS the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series, and my parents used to take us to visit country houses and places around Britain where the connections to Austen, her novels and their adaptations, were celebrated.
I first read Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice at the age of nine and that sealed the deal. I knew from a very young age – and it is still a truth universally acknowledged – that the work of Austen would be a lifelong love of mine. It then took me fifteen years to visit Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton. Amongst all the historic houses I’ve been to that have connections to Austen, this one had apparently been left until last, and what a jewel in the crown it was.
Walking through the door at the House Museum is the closest I’ve ever felt to my favourite author. I believe that material objects and once lived-in spaces can evoke a person, their world and their thoughts, in a way that the mere imagination cannot. For it was here that Austen revised drafts of earlier novels, wrote new ones, and watched as some became published works. She moved in to this charming cottage in the village of Chawton in 1809, and spent the final eight years of her life here, bar the last three months, during which she resided at Winchester for medical treatment. She lived here with her mother, sister Cassandra and friend Martha Lloyd completely rent-free, thanks to her brother Edward, who had been adopted by the wealthy Knight family of Chawton House, and who owned the cottage.
Nowhere did I feel that material closeness more than when I saw Austen’s writing table. It is, of course, just a table; made of walnut, only the top still original, placed in front of a window. Family tradition tells us that Austen would sit in front of a window for the natural light and write here every day. The fact it is just a table did not prevent the inevitable from passing through my thoughts. Surely it was here, on this very tabletop (sorry, new, non-Austen table legs), that First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice, and epistolary negotiations were made for its publication in 1813? And where Persuasion, my second favourite novel of hers, was first conceived, written and revised? Seeing this table was a strangely moving and exciting experience, eclipsed only by the jewellery on show in the galleries upstairs.
Here I found topaz crosses belonging to both Jane and Cassandra, gifted by their brother Charles, who was in the Royal Navy. Though an unpopular choice, (and of course I have thought of my ranking order of the six complete Austen novels many times) I have always had a soft spot for Mansfield Park. For me, seeing these topaz crosses embodied the feelings of longing and familial affection that Austen imbues upon her heroine, Fanny Price, when she is given her own cross by her naval brother William. Fact and fiction intertwine, inspiration becomes obvious. However, Jane’s brother did give both of his sisters chains to wear their crosses upon: Fanny’s brother could not, which resulted in her having to choose between the affections of her cousin and the ostentatious Crawford siblings. Seeing the crosses felt like some part of the book was real.
Alongside the topaz crosses sits the famous blue ring belonging to Austen. This was something I had been desperate to see before my visit. Mysterious, pretty and simple, it is not known who gave Austen the ring or where it came from, or even exactly what the turquoise-coloured stone set in it is. The ring was made famous in 2012 when it went up for sale at Sotheby’s – having been kept by Cassandra following Jane’s death and passed down through the family – and was eventually bought by the singer Kelly Clarkson. An export ban was placed upon the ring, and the House Museum managed to purchase it the following year through donations. There is something magical about looking at it in the museum and I had to pause for a little while. It is an enigmatic piece of jewellery that asks more questions about its owner than it answers, yet has become perhaps the most famous object relating to Austen, owing to the personal nature of wearing, receiving and choosing jewellery. I like to think that one day we will find out where it came from and from whom, but for now, it is a wonderful part of the museum’s Austen collection.
The House Museum is a cosy, welcoming space for Austen fans old and new, with delightful stewards and lovely displays celebrating and probing the life of the author in the way that she deserves to be remembered: with ardent admiration and love.
One of the great things about visiting Jane Austen’s House Museum is that tickets are valid for a year from the date of purchase. The Museum is closed during January but opens seven days a week the rest of the year with seasonal hours, excluding the 24th, 25th and 26th of December.
Find admission prices and hours:
Parking can be a little limited in Chawton village, so be sure to get there early. Whilst you’re there, you can also visit Chawton House, which is home to a library of early modern women’s writing.
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Lizzie Rogers is a historian of eighteenth-century Women’s History. She has recently submitted her PhD thesis on female collectors, curiosity and the Enlightenment in the English country house at the University of Hull, where she also completed her BA and MRes, specializing in History of Art and Gender History.
Alongside her studies, Lizzie has volunteered at the University of Hull Art Collection and the National Trust, as well as undertaking a curatorial internship at Stratford Hall, Virginia. A lover of art, reading and writing, she runs her own history blog at https://historylizzie.co.uk/.