As the car sped through the picturesque English countryside, I leaned back in my seat and took in the beauty that surrounded me - the green fields, the undulating landscape, road side covered with small white daisies, yellow buttercups and bushes with purple rhododendrons. We were heading towards the village of Chawton where Jane Austen lived two centuries ago.
We were soon in front of the museum and cottage which was once the cosy home of the Austen family. Jane was born on December 16, 1775 to Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Leigh, at the Steventon Rectory, Hampshire. George Austen served as the Rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon. Jane was the seventh of eight Austen children. The family lived on a modest income and relied on the patronage of their family. The girls, Cassandra and Jane, were sent to Oxford to be educated but soon returned due to illness and were schooled at home. Later they were sent to the Abbey School in Reading but were brought back as the school fees were too high for the family.
In 1800, when Rev Austen unexpectedly retired and decided to move to Bath, it was a bit of a shock for Jane, who did not write much during her stay there, though the place is often mentioned in her novels. The sudden death of her father in 1805 put Jane, Cassandra and their mother in a difficult financial position, though their brothers supported the family.
The women stayed in rented houses and spent the next four years moving from place to place. Jane’s brother Edward had been adopted by a wealthy family and had inherited the Chawton estate. He offered the Chawton cottage on the estate to his mother and sisters rent-free for life. Thus, in 1809 they moved to Chawton and Jane lived there till 1817, when ill health caused her to move out of the village seeking medical help in Winchester, where she died at the age of 41.
The beautiful cottage nestling in the heart of the village speaks of the author’s life and time.
Though many of the pieces of furniture have been recreated, they exude the charm of the period and let you imagine the novelist working here. The entrance, covered by a white rambling rose leads you into the drawing room.
There are no guides, with placards providing all the information needed. So you see a piano and a bookcase in the drawing room, and you picture of the family entertaining visitors, playing music, reading, and engaging in conversation.
Although the house and museum is run by a charitable organisation, we were pleasantly surprised when a gentleman received us in the drawing room and introduced himself as a descendent of the Austens. He briefed us about the museum and added that he was born in India.
Next to the drawing room is a vestibule which leads into the dining parlour. It is said that Jane was in charge of arranging breakfast and tea. An interesting point to note is that tea was a precious commodity and Jane kept it under lock and key to prevent pilfering.
Her writing table retains its original walnut top. After breakfast Jane would sit at it near the window and write. The wall plaque says that she did not get the creaking door repaired because it warned her of people approaching and she would quickly hide her manuscripts.
Jane’s sister Cassandra took the responsibility for running the household, which freed up time for Jane to write. Four of Jane’s major novels were published in a span of four years while she lived here in Chawton: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma.
On the first floor are Jane’s bedroom, the family room, the Admiral’s room and a smaller dressing room. Jane shared the room with her sister Cassandra. Their mother occupied the living room, where the women spent most of their leisure engaged in sewing and needlework.
Jane’s elder brother Francis and her younger brother Charles were both in the navy, and Francis was an Admiral. The Admiral’s room is dedicated to them and is filled with paintings, a model of a globe, medals and related objects. Among these is a huge bronze bell presented to Francis in Burma with his name inscribed on it. Jane introduces naval officers in Mansfield Park and Persuasion, depicting them with great sympathy – the inspiration may well have come from her brothers.
The dressing room holds all the Austen treasures – there are small pieces of jewellery, prominent among them being Jane’s ring with a huge blue turquoise. A large patchwork quilt cover made by the mother and the daughters is displayed in a showcase. The intricate design and the perfect symmetry reflect the patience and delicate work that went into it.
Near the staircase stands a figure in blue with a bonnet on her head, looking out of the window. Actually, it just a dress draped on a frame. Towards the end of her life in Chawton, Jane was very ill and confined to her room. Did she stand at the window this way, longing for a walk in the garden?
Downstairs, there is the donkey carriage bought by Edward for his mother, and used extensively by Jane and Cassandra. The kitchen has a back entrance, and the baking house is across the courtyard. Both these rooms retain their original brick oven, and the copper vessels used for boiling water.
The cottage is surrounded by a pretty garden filled with late spring blossoms.
Jane’s books were popular in her lifetime but did not fetch her much money. And because they were published anonymously, they did not bring her fame either. It was only after her death on July 18, 1817, that her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote A Memoir of Jane Austen, introducing the writer to the world.
All photographs by Vidya Shankar.