As for ourselves we’re very well;
As unaffected prose will tell. –
Cassandra’s pen will paint our state,
The many comforts that await
Our Chawton home, how much we find
Already in it, to our mind;
And how convinced, that when complete
It will all other Houses beat
That ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise, or rooms distended.
You’ll find us very snug next year,
For now it often does delight us
To fancy them just over-right-us. –
Jane Austen in a letter to her brother Francis Austen, 26 July 1809
2009 marks the 200th anniversary of what may be one of the most important moves in literary history. On July 7, 1809, Jane Austen moved into Chawton Cottage with her sister Cassandra, mother Mrs. Austen, and family friend Martha Lloyd. What Jane described shortly after their arrival in a poem to her brother Frank as “our Chawton home” is where her six novels were written or revised for publication. It is also where she lived the last eight years of her life before her death in 1817. Today, her home is The Jane Austen House Museum in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, England. This year the museum has undergone an extensive face-lift and expansion including renovation of the interior, restoration of the Austen kitchen and a new learning center. The grand re-opening marks a new phase in the life of the museum which opened 60 years ago, offering more events, exhibitions, and newly created audio-visual presentation about Jane Austen’s life.
Jane Austen’s years at Chawton Cottage were her most productive, seeing her return to writing after a ten year lapse. Their move was a bit of a rescue by her wealthy brother Edward Austen-Knight, who offered them the choice of two homes, one near his estate at Godmersham in Kent, and the other in the village of Chawton near his other home Chawton Manor in Hampshire. Since the death of Mr. Austen in 1806, the ladies had been living an unsettled life. Their finances were slim requiring them to rely upon the generosity of the Austen brothers to augment Mrs. Austen’s and Cassandra’s small income. As a spinster, Jane had no income of her own, a position that must have been both distressing and humiliating. After her father’s death, they had moved from Bath to Southampton into the home of her brother Frank, a sea captain in the Royal Navy and his new wife Mary, and later into a home of their own at Castle Garden in the same city. This period in her life between her family’s move from Steventon in 1801 to Bath, and her arrival in Chawton have been called her “wilderness years”, as she moved frequently and visited extensively with family. It was only upon her return to Hampshire and the countryside that she loved that she was again inspired to revise Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and write her mature novels Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.
Chawton Cottage represents a respite for a writer who only needed a corner of her own to rediscover and foster her talent. Visitors today to The Jane Austen House Museum will certainly enjoy a more enhanced experience from these new improvements. I hope one day to enjoy them myself.
- Visit The Jane Austen House Museum website
- View Alicia M.’s photostream of her recent trip to England and The Jane Austen House Museum on Flickr
- Read “Settling at Chawton” chapter XVI of Constance Hill’s family remembrance Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (1923)
- Enjoy a bio-fic on Austen’s life, Cassandra & Jane, by Jill Pitkeathley
*illustrations by Ellen G. Hill, from Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends, by Constance Hill (1923)