How better to crown your Easter holiday than with a visit to Jane Austen country? I visited Jane Austen’s house about four years ago, before I moved to New York. It was such a special experience to see the place where she had lived and written her most famous novels, and it proved to be just as lovely the second time around. Driving through the chocolate-box pretty streets of Chawton, I was once again struck by the real mix of society Jane and her family would have been living amongst; from tiny thatched cottages to large detached houses, Chawton was clearly a village where rich and poor lived side-by-side. This is most powerfully illustrated by the colossal Chawton House, set back from the main street amidst its own parkland, which was the home of Austen’s brother Edward. On the one hand ordinary villagers in their modest cottage, but on the other extraordinarily privileged through their connection to the lord of the manor, the Austens occupied the most inconvenient position of the poor relative, dependent on their richer relations to keep them in comfort and constantly exposed to a lifestyle they could not hope to emulate. No wonder there are so many poor relatives in Austen’s novels; it was a role that Chawton shows in its architecture that she knew only too well.
Inside the house, it is touching and moving to see Jane’s writing table, her jewellery, items of her clothing and textiles and other trinkets that she once used. These objects demonstrate that she was far from the almost mythical figure she has now become; she was an ordinary woman with the usual accomplishments and routines expected of most others of her social position at the time. She was deft with a needle, fond of pretty clothes and jewellery, enjoyed fun, games and gossip and opportunities to travel. Visiting her home, rather than participating in some sort of cult of celebrity, actually helps to normalise her and contextualise her life. The cottage in Chawton is small and homely, offering little privacy and a close-knit, female dominated domestic world. Situated on the main road through the village, it also offered a perfect viewing point for the comings and goings of friends and neighbours, and in this small community, everyone must have known everyone. The expertly nuanced observations of human behaviour that Austen demonstrates in her novels are all products of this small-scale existence, and without visiting Chawton it would be difficult to understand and appreciate just how deeply Austen’s world influenced her work and how realistic a viewpoint of early 19th century life she offers.
After a tour of the house, we popped over the road to Cassandra’s Cup, Chawton’s only tea room (which is refreshing in itself, as the first time I visited, I fully expected the entire village to be consumed by ‘Ye Olde Jane Austen..’ signs) for lunch. We had delicious soup and cake, and I can highly recommend a visit.We then had a short wander around the village, enjoying the beautiful views across the Hampshire countryside and marvelling at the beautiful little cottages, before going to see the Austen graves in the village churchyard and peeking through the gates at Chawton House. We still had plenty of time before we needed to head back to Kent, so we decided to drive to a nearby National Trust property, The Vyne, which I have since found out has a Jane Austen connection, as she used to attend dances there! On our way, we passed through some stunning countryside that I’m sure Jane Austen was very familiar with, and had a wonderful time exploring the house, gardens and extensive surrounding woodland. The Vyne is famous for a roman ring that was potentially Tolkien’s inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, and there is an interesting exhibition detailing the connection. I also enjoyed looking at one of only two remaining maps of London immediately after the fire of London, and was surprised to see how much of modern day London is laid upon centuries-old footprints. As we left The Vyne behind on our drive back to Kent, I found myself thinking how lucky Jane Austen was to live in such a beautiful and peaceful corner of the world. However, a cursory search on a property website to see whether I could afford to live in Chawton came up with a resounding ‘no’; I don’t think Jane would have experienced quite the same mixture of social classes if she was still in her cottage today!