In July I had the chance to visit Chawton Cottage where Jane Austen lived from 1809, during her late thirties. Tired of having to visit relatives and move houses, Jane didn’t hide her delight when her fortunate brother, Edward Austen Knight, offered the cottage on his Chawton estate to his widowed mother and two sisters. A permanent home, at last!
Chawton Cottage was built in the late 1600’s and was previously used as an inn. The house has eight rooms in it, outbuildings and a lovely garden.
As you enter, the first thing you see is the bakehouse ahead of you.
The bakehouse is where bread and cakes were baked in the large oven on the right. Dishes and clothes were also washed there – on the left, you can see the wash boiler.
On the right, there is a donkey cart, which was used as modest transport by Jane when she became terminally ill and was too tired to walk. Visualising her on the donkey cart somehow made me feel sad.
As you come out of the bakehouse, you enter the lovely garden behind the cottage. Jane must have enjoyed spending time sitting on a bench in the shrubbery, reading a letter or a book, or admiring the plants and fruit. These days the garden is, of course, extremely well tended and has plenty of blooming flowers dotted around it. I wonder how it will have looked 200 years ago?
In the days when allopathic medicine was at its basics, herbs were used aplenty to heal all kinds of ailments. The Austens grew several herbs for medicinal uses in the garden.
Next, you enter the kitchen, which is connected to the cottage. The kitchen looks light and spacious and very inviting. Again, one wonders how it would have looked in those days?
The first room at the back of the cottage is the drawing room. The drawing room was used for entertaining guests and spending time in the evenings - reading, doing needlework, or playing music, among other pastimes.
Rev. George Austen’s – Jane’s father’s – bookcase is one of the authentic pieces of furniture in the cottage. No doubt, this won’t have been the only bookcase that the Austens had had earlier, as they were avid readers, and George Austen is known to have had a large library for the use of his children as well as his pupils.
Another interesting piece in the room is the piano. This was not the original piano from the house, but similar to the one that Jane played. Jane was in the habit of getting up first in the morning and practising the piano while the others were still asleep. The museum encourage you try the piano, and it did have a very ‘old’ sound to it when I tried it, nothing like the modern pianos that I’m used to!
The closest room to the road is the dining parlour. It was here that Jane prepared the tea for the rest of the family, with the tea things being kept locked in the drawer on the left-hand side. Mrs Austen is said to have been happy to have the dining table so close to the windows, as she enjoyed observing the carriages and people go by.
By the window you can see the iconic writing table. Jane wrote under natural light from the dining room window, and famously requested not to have the creaking door to be oiled, as this would signal when people were about to enter the room and she could hide her manuscript under some sheets on the desk! The desk really is tiny, but it just goes to show how it takes very little physically to produce great works of literature.
Jane and Cassandra’s upstairs bedroom felt comfortable and cosy. The room is quite small, though, but this will not have bothered Jane as she had shared a bedroom all her life and never had the luxury of privacy as such.
The wash things – a water bowl and a chamber pot – were kept in the drawer on the left. There is an interesting article on this topic in Jane Austen’s world.
There was also a room displaying objects from Jane Austen’s naval officer brothers, as well as copies of Jane Austen’s letters in one of the rooms. The museum was very well done up, but of course it would have been interesting to see more of the objects owned by Jane Austen herself. However, what is left of her few belongings, has been well preserved.
Chawton Cottage seems a comfortable home even to modern eyes, and it’s no wonder that living in the cottage, surrounded by her dear friends and family, in her beloved countryside, must have inspired Jane Austen to begin writing again after a gap of many years – years of insecurity and sadness.
Jane expressed her delight in the following words to her brother Francis:
“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,
Perhaps with Charles and Fanny near…”