Sunday, January 07, 2007

Jane Austen Weekend
Chawton: Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Jane Austen House, Chawton, Hampshire

From Winchester, we drove on Sunday morning to the small village of Chawton, where Jane Austen lived with her mother and beloved older sister, Cassandra, from 1809 to just before her death in 1817. Jane was born and grew up in Steventon, just west of Basingstoke, where her father, Rev. George Austen, was the vicar. In 1801, Rev. Austen retired from his living in Steventon, and moved the family to Bath. Jane was twenty-six, and it was difficult for her to leave the only home she had known. For the next seven or eight years, she had no real settled home. The family took various lodgings in Bath, and after Rev. Austen died in 1805, his widow and unmarried daughters moved to Southampton. 1806 found them staying with their Leigh cousin at Adlestrop and Stoneleigh Abbey.

Chawton church, and a glimpse of Chawton House, one of the homes belonging to Jane's brother, Edward Knight. The house is now a center devoted to research on 17th-19th century women's writing.

Meanwhile, Jane's brother Edward had been adopted by the wealthy Thomas Knight, of Godmersham Park, Kent (near Canterbury), and Chawton House, Hampshire. Knight and his wife were childless, and needed an heir. Edward, who changed his last name to Knight, became that heir, and in due time inherited Chawton House and Godmersham Park. In 1809, he offered his mother and sisters a home either in Kent or in Chawton. Mrs. Austen chose Chawton, and there Jane settled down to revise Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, and to write her other three novels.

She sat at this small table and wrote after breakfast each day. The door to the room creaked, and was left unoiled so that the sound would alert her if anyone was entering the room. She would then quickly hide her manuscript. In the afternoons, she walked for an hour or two with her sister, Cassandra. In the evening, she worked on her needlework; on display in the house is a large quilt that she made with her sister and mother.

The house is full of other little treasures that call to mind the novels. Cassandra's fortepiano (a Clementi) reminded me both of Marianne Dashwood and of poor Mary Bennet, who is so embarrassing on the piano. An amber cross with a gold chain, given to Jane by her beloved sailor brother, Charles, reminded me of a similar cross given to Fanny Price by her beloved sailor brother, William. The house is filled with so many reminders of how Jane Austen turned her quiet life in a small Hampshire village into great literature. Displayed in her bedroom are the words of Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in his diary:

Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen's finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!

She died on July 18, 1817, at the age of forty-one. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral before morning prayers on July 24. Her mother lived another ten years, and died at the age of eighty-seven. Cassandra lived to be seventy-two. They are buried side by side in the churchyard of the Chawton church.

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