I have just returned from a trip to England and Wales. I traveled with my good friend, Lynn, who is a fellow ‘janeite’. It was essential to visit Chawton where Jane Austen lived and wrote her novels. We took the train from London to Alton, the nearest large(ish) town, and walked the remaining few miles. Alton is a modern town but there are several buildings and churches from the 17th and 18th century. So, despite fast moving cars on roadways and roundabouts we knew somewhere beneath the concrete our favorite writer had trod this same path. The village of Chawton is quaint in that English pubs, grand houses, peaceful way.
As you can see from the pictures it is a 17th century estate. The connection and story behind it is one of my favorites to relate. Jane’s oldest brother, Edward, by changing his last name to Knight, inherited the estates and fortunes of a childless relative. This was one of his homes. Because of his wealth he was able to support his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters (Cassandra and Jane). They lived in a cottage down the road and they visited here and the other estates (as well as the other relatives) with great regularity. The Austen extended family provided comfort, support and entertainment in a time when women’s activities were limited, especially if they had no money of their own.
The second part of the story which I love as much is that sometime in the 1990s this house and land went up for sale. The myth is that Nigel Nicolson (Vita Sackville-West’s son) spoke to a group of Janeites and mentioned that ‘if anyone here has an extra million dollars the house is for sale’. Lucky for all, Sandy Lerner, a co-founder of Cisco Systems was in the audience. She is a lover of early writing and decided to take on the project. Over the years she has restored and renewed this lovely manor house and grounds, and has transformed it into a research and learning center for the study of early women’s writing from 1600-1830. Among other books one can find the original libraries of Jane Austen’s brother….and by extension some of the very books Jane Austen read. I plan to apply for an internship to study there. Here is more information if anyone else is interested. firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.chawtonhouselibrary.org
We then wandered down the road to the JA house museum. This is a lovely place to drift through, seeing the world she lived in and getting a feel for what that life might have felt like. I was humbled beyond all expectations by the sight of her writing table, and scolded myself for requiring a computer, a room of my own, and just the right paper and pencils. Genius doesn’t require more that a table and a quill pen, a quick wit and lively imagination.
We returned to London having spent a time out of time.