Friday, 22 June 2018

It is a truth universally acknowledged...

...that Jane Austen wrote some of English literature's most beloved novels. 
And last weekend we visited the heavenly village in which most of those novels were written and sent out into the world to be published (and still read, quoted and adored 200 years later).

That village is the picturesque Chawton, where roses ramble up Hampshire-brick cottages and the village cat is called Marmite. He is known to every household as he visits each in turn every morning for his breakfast.

Jane came to live in Chawton, in the South Downs National Park, after her father died. Jane and her sister Cassandra were rendered socially and financially vulnerable upon his death, so moved to the shelter of a cottage (below) on the Chawton House Estate, owned by their wealthy brother, Edward. That cottage is now The Jane Austen House Museum, visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year. The cottage is beautiful and has some of the most profoundly important objects relating to the life and legacy of Jane Austen on display, not least the very writing table on which she wrote and reworked most of her published works. It is quite the experience.

The Chawton Estate is beautiful. An Elizabethan Mansion, surrounded by the most verdant green countryside you could possible imagine. It is the quintessential English idyll. 

Inside, Jane is of course celebrated, but so are other female novelists. This year, as it is the 200th anniversary of Northanger Abbey, the gothic novel is the main focus. Chawton House is home to some of the most precious first edition and rare books in England, kept in a locked and climate controlled library, it is an exciting room to get a peek at. 

The Jane Austen rose growing in the walled garden at Chawton House.

Below is the parish church, situated on the estate, it is the burial place of Jane's mother and sister. Jane herself is buried in nearby Winchester Cathedral. Jane travelled to Winchester at the end of her life to be near a doctor due to her failing health. She never returned to Chawton, dying a short time later just a couple of doors away from the cathedral.  

The bronze of Jane at the top of this post was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her death. It was displayed next to her grave in Winchester Cathedral. The original 1817 plaque erected at her grave gave no mention of her novels, and her funeral was attended by only four people. Later, a second plaque was inscribed more fittingly,

'Jane Austen, known to many by her writings..'

The most beautiful thing about Chawton, and indeed The Jane Austen House Museum, is that although it is a year-round tourist destination and a sort of Mecca for Austenites the world over, it does not feel at all touristy, gimmicky or commercialised. It so sympathetically and gently celebrates Jane's contribution to English literature and indeed popular culture. We arrived, entirely by coincidence, at the start of regency week, and even then the village was relatively quiet and devoid of unseemly commercialisation. Perhaps illustrating my point best is that the tickets you purchase to visit her cottage and her brother's estate are valid for a whole year. I can't think of anywhere else I have visited in England that is less mercenary than that!

And we, having had a small chunk of our hearts stolen by Hampshire and Chawton in particular, will certainly be back to take advantage of such a benevolent gesture.

Kate  x

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