Tag Archives: Chawton Cottage

Chawton, Jane Austen’s Great House

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Jane was born on December 16, 1775. She lived the last eight years of her too-short life in the famous cottage on the grounds of Chawton House, where she wrote and polished four of her six surviving novels. Jane’s clergyman father had died, leaving his family dependent on the kindness of relatives. But thanks to a quirk in the family’s fortunes, Jane’s brother was able to provide a home for his impoverished mother and his two spinster sisters, Jane and Cassandra.

The cottage is a pilgrimage site for Jane’s admirers (including me). But until 2015, we could not visit the “great house” where Jane and her family were grateful guests.

From the cottage in Chawton Village, Jane often walked up the country lane, past the village church, on her way to visit her brother.

Chawton House must have seemed imposing. How did all this come about?

Wonder of wonders, Jane’s brother Edward had won the 18th-century version of the lottery by being adopted out of the Austen family as a child. This was a great stroke of luck, but it made perfect sense to everyone concerned. As Jane would be the first to explain, people with any wealth to speak of really wanted a male heir to inherit their property and keep it in the family name. Edward fit the bill for the Knight family.

Above is Edward’s silk suit, which he wore as a very lucky adopted teenager, around 1782.

By adoption, Edward acquired the wealthy ancestors above, Jane and Thomas Knight, parents of his adoptive father Thomas. Thomas and his wife had no children of their own. So Edward Austen, son of a cleric of modest means, became Edward Knight and eventually inherited several grand homes and a lot of valuable property.

But nothing lasts forever. Over the years after Edward’s time, the house had various owners and proceeded to fall apart, as neglected houses do.

In 1992 the American businesswoman and philanthropist Sandra Lerner bought the lease and began pouring money into restoration.

In 2003, the house opened as a center for the study of early women’s writing. The house is still a study center and hosts exhibits.

Finally, in 2015, the house opened to tourists like me. (Weddings are also held there, no doubt tempting a lot of Jane-admiring brides).

Today, the house is charmingly old-fashioned, with a bewildering floor plan, creaky old floors, and cozy corners perfect for settling in with a good book.

It’s easy to imagine Jane, her mother and sisters at the dining table.

The house reminds me of my very favorite Jane Austen movie, the 1995 version of Persuasion starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The novel is set eight years after Anne Elliot has been persuaded by a well-meaning friend to break her engagement to the love of her life, Captain Frederick Wentworth, because he has no money or connections. Anne also refuses the proposal of a perfectly nice but uninspiring young squire who then marries her sister. Anne is destined to be a sad spinster.

But Captain Wentworth suddenly reappears as a now-rich man looking for a wife. Of course his pride has been hurt, so Anne is out of the question. Until this and this and this happens, and we’re off into the story. Much of the action takes place in a manor house very much like Chawton House, where Anne is often a guest, just as Jane was at Chawton. I think Anne Elliot has a lot in common with her creator, Jane Austen.

As in all of Jane Austen’s novels, there’s sharp satire of the British class system, the precarious financial position of most women, and the unavoidable importance of marrying wisely. There’s unbearable suspense hinging on the timely arrival of a secret love letter. There’s the tremulous joy of a long-awaited kiss. There’s true love at last for the intelligent woman who stubbornly waits for it, willing to be poor rather than suffer through a loveless marriage. It’s a fine, fine movie.

And Chawton House is a fine place to imagine Jane’s life as a spinster with a whole semi-secret life as a writer of genius.


Travels with Jane

Reuters image from artsbeat-austen-blog480, featured in NYT article cited below Reuters image from artsbeat-austen-blog480, featured in NYT article cited below

I have to comment again on the new ten-pound banknote that will begin featuring Jane Austen in 2017.  I was curious about the images in the background.  The image in the center of the round seal shows Jane Austen bent over her little writing table.  She famously wrote in the drawing room, in the middle of family life.  Some years ago I visited Chawton Cottage, where Jane spent much of her time during the last years of her life.  She wrote on a little round table placed in front of a window overlooking the road outside.  I stood awhile in front of the table, trying to imagine the drawing room door creaking.  That was the signal for Jane to tuck her pages away and turn her attention toward a visitor.

I wondered if the mansion in the background was meant to represent Pemberly, the home of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. But then, Pemberly was a fictional creation.  Instead, it appears the mansion pictured is Godmersham Park.  Jane’s brother was adopted by a wealthy family and eventually inherited the mansion and property.  Jane and her family spent a lot of time there–welcomed as poor but genteel relations, I gather.

The planned quote below Jane’s portrait is “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”  Some people object because the line is spoken by a decidedly mercenary character, Caroline Bingley.  In The New York Times article I cited in my last post, “Jane Austen, Wallet-Sized,” there’s a suggestion for a different quote.

John Mullan, a professor at University College London, proposed another line from Pride and Prejudice.  His suggestion comes from the middle of the novel, when Elizabeth Bennet is invited on a road trip with her aunt and uncle.  The dastardly Mr. Wickham has just deserted Elizabeth for a certain very rich Miss King.  On a three-week trip, they hope to travel as far as the Lakes.  Elizabeth was not in love with Wickham, but still she welcomes the diversion.  She exclaims, “What are men to rocks and mountains?”


Then as now, getting to the Lake District in northern England takes some doing.  As it happens in the story, Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle have to cut their trip short because of business–they are in a class that works for a living.  So instead of going to the Lakes, they can go only as far as Derbyshire.  “Elizabeth was excessively disappointed; she had set her heart on seeing the Lakes…But it was her business to be satisfied–and certainly her temper to be happy; and all was soon right again.”   Every reader of the novel knows that the shortened trip put Elizabeth Bennet at Pemberly at the same time Mr. Darcy happened to be there, sealing her fate and his.

Her biographers agree that Jane Austen herself was traveling in Derbyshire at the time she was writing the novel.  I can only imagine that she was as agreeable and happy a travel companion as her beloved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.