A Visit to Chawton – From One Literary House to Another
“Our Chawton home how much we find
Already in it, to our mind;
And how convinced that when complete
It will all other Houses beat,
That ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise or rooms distended.”
Jane Austen to her brother Frank. 1809, on moving into their new home.
The No 64 bus from Winchester to Alton dropped us at a roundabout on the A31, just after a large brown sign has pointed the way to Jane Austen’s House Museum. It’s a slightly surprising introduction to this place of pilgrimage for all lovers of Jane Austen’s work, as traffic on the A31 is unforgiving. Undaunted, two friends and I leaped across the road and in a matter of moments were in the world we expected to find, as we entered the seemingly tranquil and leafy village of Chawton.
I have visited a number of writers’ houses and literary museums, driven I think by a desire to see if I might get insight into a little of an author’s life and inspiration. I am a reader of Jane Austen; like many other people I know, I find she is a writer I want to return to from time to time. I have long wanted to visit the house where she lived towards the end of her life, to see where her major works were written and revised. But my mission today was twofold. I certainly wanted to see the place where we know she wrote but I also wanted to compare how she might be brought alive through “her museum” with how we attempt to bring Elizabeth Gaskell to life at 84 Plymouth Grove.
First impressions are of a very different sort of house. It is, of course, older and cottage-y with small rooms and low ceilings. There are many cupboards in walls which have been cleverly used to contain themed artefacts. There are lots of pictures, letters and explanatory panels on the walls so a great deal to read and learn. The furnishings are simple and rooms are not crowded. A chaise longue, a chair, a dining table, a bed. A prime exhibit is the tiny table and chair at which Jane sat to write and a wall sign indicates the creaking door which famously alerted Jane to hide her pages. A key difference is that many items displayed here are those which remained within the family or in the locality. Inevitably this means that there are plenty of “do not touch” labels and little bunches of lavender prevent us from sitting on chairs. This feels much more like a museum than Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.
As I walk round, some comparable artefacts and themes chime with me. A feature is made of two wallpapers commissioned from fragments discovered in the house and samples can be purchased in the shop. Quilts feature as well. A modern patchwork quilt covers the Admiral’s bed, while a beautiful coverlet made by Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen hangs in a display case. Quilts remind me of the patchwork recently displayed at Plymouth Grove which was made by volunteers. There are items I expect to see, such as silk slippers, a delicate hand-made (by Jane) muslin shawl, books and letters. There are also unexpected things such as toys and games and small items of jewellery- a tiny turquoise ring and a beaded bracelet, which illustrates the narrowness of Jane’s wrist , as well as the Donkey Carriage used by Jane to visit friends and go shopping. I particularly liked the closet in Jane and Cassandra’s bedroom, in which a shelf has been especially cut and shaped, to allow for head room while washing.
Overall, there are more artefacts that really belonged to Jane and her family than we have of the Gaskell family possessions at Plymouth Grove. There are many more letters between family members on display and display panels describing the context in which she lived as well as some of the exploits of her brothers. While it is more of a museum than a family home, we three all said that it had a lovely habitable feel, which is a comment we often hear from visitors to Plymouth Grove as well.
As a volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, I was obviously interested to see, and if possible talk to, volunteers here at Chawton. Surprisingly I only saw one volunteer in the house itself, in the first room, the Drawing Room (possibly the 2 staff selling tickets at the entrance were volunteers) . This gentleman was informative and approachable and pointed out items of interest in this room. But in the rest of the house we were on our own. The rooms are much smaller than at Plymouth Grove and must receive a much higher volume of visitors. In some rooms a volunteer speaking would be overwhelming. This was a major difference. It was up to us as individual visitors to read and absorb what we were able to. Little incidental stories about the Austen family life here were only available in written form.
I did see a poster asking for volunteer gardeners. As, at 84 Plymouth Grove, the garden is smaller than the original would have been. It is known that the Chawton Garden covered several acres and included an orchard and vegetable beds. Today the garden is smaller but well maintained. There is a small herb bed and a bed containing plants that would have been used in making dyes, as well as general flower and shrub beds. A nice feature is an oak tree which is thought to have grown from a self-sown seedling from an oak planted by Jane herself. A lovely pink rose called “Pride and Prejudice” was for sale in the shop. Perhaps we should start campaigning for a rose called Elizabeth Gaskell, or Mary Barton?
A sizeable space is given over to a gift shop selling gifts as well as cards, books and dvds. There is a huge range of souvenir items which we saw not only here but also in the Winchester Cathedral Shop. Jane Austen is a much bigger industry than Elizabeth Gaskell.
On moving into their house on Plymouth Grove, we know Elizabeth Gaskell exclaimed that she wished her house to give pleasure to as many people as possible. This is a wish we volunteers are trying to fulfil. Jane Austen’s House in Chawton has been giving pleasure to thousands of visitors each year since 1949 and is well worth a journey. It is also possible now to visit Chawton House, the big house along the lane, where Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight lived and which houses the famous Chawton House Library, as well as the church of St Nicholas where Jane’s mother and sister Cassandra are buried. The view from these is unspoiled and idyllic. All that is needed to perfect this little corner of Hampshire is a bridge to bring visitors safely over the A31.
Jane Mathieson, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House