I’m not sure why it took me 10 years of living in Thames Ditton to drive the 50 minutes down the A3 to Chawton and Jane Austen’s House Museum, but it definitely won’t be my last visit. Admittedly I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen’s work, but even if you’re not, the house and village is a lovely spot for a day out.
One of the reason’s I was keen to make the time to go is that this year is 200 years since Jane Austen died, prematurely at just 41. Just imagine how many more books she might have written if she lived longer. And this from a woman who only went to school until she was 11 years old.
The first part of a visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum is watching a short film in a small screening room. It’s really well put together, giving a helpful overview of her life and the various places she lived before moving to Chawton with her mother, sister and a family friend in 1809.
Jane Austen’s father had died by then, so it was one of her brothers, Edward, who offered them the cottage for life. The previous few years following her father’s death had been unsettled for the Austen women, so moving to Chawton was the perfect opportunity for Jane to really focus on her writing. Her tiny writing ‘desk’ was one of my favourite things to see at the museum.
It was at this desk that Jane Austen is said to have revised the three unpublished manuscripts she had written previously. She then wrote three more novels and started a seventh, which remained unfinished when she became ill. Needless to say there are some wonderful old copies of her novels on display.
Even though its quite small there are plenty of different rooms that offer an insight into how the women lived in the house. The outbuildings include a Bakehouse with a copper that would have been used for boiling water for washing household linen and in the kitchen you can try your hand at writing with a quill pen or even try on a bonnet.
Inside the house the rooms have some original artefacts, like Jane Austen’s writing desk, as well as other items designed to recreate the period. There are also some fabulous framed Hugh Thomson illustrations from the Peacock edition of Pride and Prejudice, the first fully illustrated edition of Jane Austen’s most popular novel.
A copy of the original book is on display too as part of ‘Jane Austen in 41 objects’, a special evolving exhibition to mark the 200 year anniversary. Items are revealed alongside a series of online posts by guest writers being published weekly throughout the bicentenary year. Each object and text explores a different aspect of Jane Austen’s life and work.
Upstairs you can see the small bedroom Jane Austen shared with her sister as well as the much larger room her mother would have used. Further along the narrow corridor is a room with a display that includes Jane’s gold ring set with a turquoise stone (pictured above) and an embroidered muslin shawl and quilt that Jane is said to have worked on.
Outside the house there is a lovely garden with a range of plants known in Jane Austen’s time including wild flowers common to this part of Hampshire. Visitors are encouraged to picnic in the garden and I could just imagine Jane and her family doing the same.
It was a bit cold for a picnic when I visited, so instead I had lunch across the road at Cassandra’s Cup, a lovely little tea room named after Jane Austen’s sister. Or if you fancy something stronger than tea the Greyfriar’s pub is practically next door.
Although before leaving the house you really have to spend some time in the shop. And if you’re anything like me you’ll come away with at least a couple of purchases. They literally have everything related to Jane Austen that you could ever want.
You can also continue your Chawton experience and visit Chawton House Library, the home of early women’s writing. Just a short stroll from the museum, the route was regularly taken by Jane to visit her brother Edward and his family at ‘the Great House’. It’s a lovely walk passed some gorgeous thatched cottages.
In front of Chawton House is the church where Jane’s sister and mother are buried (Jane moved to Winchester for treatment when she was ill and is buried in the cathedral there). The house itself looks impressive and I was keen to see the library, but didn’t think I had enough time left to do it justice. Then before I could even take a photo the heavens opened, so it was clearly time to head home.
But as I said at the start it won’t be my last visit to Chawton. As someone who loves to read and to write I found it inspirational to walk in the footsteps of one of my favourite authors and learn more about her. I already re-read Mansfield Park earlier this year with my book club to mark the 200 year anniversary and I suspect it won’t be long before I’m again turning the pages of another Jane Austen classic.
It currently costs £8 to visit Jane Austen’s House Museum and the same at Chawton House Library, but you can save £1 by showing your ticket from the other location. I was also able to gift aid my ticket to the museum to get a year’s free entry.
Click on a photo below to scroll through the gallery and visit the UK section of my blog for more ideas on places to visit and days out.