Persuasions #4, 1982 Pages 10-13
CHAWTON COTTAGE TRANSFIGURED
CHAWTON COTTAGE. A contemporary unsigned watercolour, probably by Anna Lefroy, in the possession of the author of this article. Shown is the pond, “Our Pond is brimfull & our roads are dirty …” (Letter 125) and the road to Winchester, “We saw a countless number of Postchaises full of Boys pass by yesterday morng – full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools, and Villains.” (Letter 130)
Chawton, in Hampshire, is the shrine to which all devotees of Jane Austen make pilgrimage.
Those of our members who have been there know how beautifully maintained is “Jane Austen’s House,” as Chawton Cottage is now called. They’ve admired the fresh paint, the period furniture and wallpapers, the prettily-kept garden. They’ve recognized the loving care and the good taste with which every room is arranged and presented, as if the Austens were still resident, as if Jane, herself, might open any door or come walking round a corner chatting with Cassandra.
How could one imagine it any other way? Yet for a century after Cassandra’s death, in 1845, the house was a seedy habitation divided into tenements and occupied by labourers. Mrs. Austen’s garden became a shambles. The glory of Chawton village stood disregarded and neglected.
Then in 1940 Miss Dorothy Darnell founded the Jane Austen Society. (The annual subscription was half a crown!) In 1948, Mr. T. Edward Carpenter purchased and restored Chawton Cottage in memory of his son, Lt. P. J. Carpenter, killed in action, 1944. To him, founder of the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, all lovers of J. A. owe gratitude. Jane Austen’s House has a friendly informal atmosphere which would not be the case were it a National Trust property replete with the usual guards and prohibitions.
Our era, fortunately, is one that accords honour and respect to writers and the places they made famous. One of the joys for North Americans on vacation in England is to seek out and to visit the homes of their favourites.
Long ago (and sixty years apart) two men, one English, the other American, went looking for Chawton. They described for others what they found in the house where Jane Austen once had lived. The actual, physical descriptions are remarkably similar. But the style proclaims the man – and the age. The first is Lord Brabourne, son of Fanny Knight, and Jane’s great nephew. In 1884 he published the first partial edition of her letters, with an introduction and critical remarks. In his account of Chawton, he refers to the Memoir of Jane Austen by his cousin, J. E. Austen-Leigh, which had appeared fourteen years earlier:
“I suppose that the associations connected with Hampshire caused the selection of Chawton Cottage, and there was passed the remainder of Jane’s life; there were composed or completed most of her novels. ‘Chawton Cottage’ had formerly been the steward’s house, enlarged and improved by Mr. Knight; there was nothing particular about it; the vicinity to the high road was somewhat inconvenient, but balanced by its proximity to the ‘great house,’ and it seems to have answered very well the purpose for which Mr. Knight had converted it into a habitable residence.
Mr. Austen Leigh gives a kindly warning to admirers of Jane Austen who might take it into their heads to make a pilgrimage to the place. There is nothing in it either beautiful or romantic, nothing to associate it with the memory of the immortal Jane. [My italics, Ed.] When Cassandra Austen died in 1845, it was turned into dwellings for labourers, and so altered that it cannot now be seen as it was in Jane’s days. Very recently I paid a visit to it, whilst staying at Chawton House, in order that I might satisfy myself with my own eyes as to its present condition. As you come through the village of Chawton, along the road from Alton, the cottage is the last building upon your right hand, at the turning where the Winchester road branches off to the right, just before you reach the park in which stands Chawton House. It is built in rather a straggling, irregular style, and as you stand opposite it in the road, the first thing that strikes you is, that a large window between the door and the end of the cottage furthest from Alton has at some time or other been bricked up. This was, I believe, the window of the drawing-room of the house when Jane’s family lived there, and this part of the place has now been converted into a labourers’ club – an excellent institution, of which it would be well if there were more in England. I entered this club, the windows of which look away from the road, and there, perhaps upon the very spot where Jane had often sat in old days, was a young labourer diligently perusing the ‘Standard,’ whilst opposite to him another was engaged on the ‘Graphic,’ and a third was contemplating with evident satisfaction the arrival of a foaming glass of beer, having, to judge from his appearance, just come from a hard day’s work. There are three dwellings in the building besides the club; a low range of out-buildings, probably little touched since Jane’s days, flanks the cottage on the Alton side, and behind it is a large garden, now divided among the cottagers, extending beyond the building, also on the further side, and altogether of sufficient size to have afforded plenty of space for the former occupants to indulge their taste for flowers and shrubs, and to have quiet walks therein when they wished for privacy. I pictured to myself the figure of Jane Austen walking up and down, intent upon deciding the fate of one of her heroes or heroines, or maturing the plot of her next book. This, however, required a somewhat strong effort of imagination, inasmuch as no signs of shrubs or walks remain, the ground is all under cultivation, and the only living creatures which met my view were two worthy rustics engaged in ordinary agricultural work.”1
In September, 1946, Mr. Scott Adams, sent by the U.S. government to look at libraries in Germany, also found his way to Chawton. He wrote to Barbara Winn Adams to whom we are indebted for permission to publish the following letter:
“Sunday morning, I was up and out by 8:15, happy to ditch the Col, rain or no rain. I found my way to Waterloo Station via Underground (and let me say here that the London subway system is magnificent. It is extremely simple to use; the ticket system is no complication, it’s quite speedy & efficient. I’m all for it). True the system of “booking” (by machine sales or by window) for 1d, 1½d, 2d, 3d, 4d, etc. depending on how far you go is cumbersome but you get used to it. At Waterloo, I got some breakfast at a snack bar (coffee & a bun) and “booked” to Basingstoke. It cost me, as I remember, 2/8 for I was given a service man’s rate for HM Army. I traveled third to see what it was like. I got into a carriage with a young man, his wife, and very attractive baby, and we fell into conversation immediately. We chatted about rain & food & atom bombs & babies & had a very nice time. So, I arrived at B.stoke, had another cup of coffee in the station, & tried to find out about local transportation. Eventually, I found out that The Venture Co. runs busses in the neighborhood, & that there was no other transportation to be had. I boarded the Alton bus at 10:40 & had a good 15 mile ride through back country. It was a local bus, making detours to reach various crossroads, so I saw a good bit of the country. It is rolling, wooded in many areas, mostly farming with very few estates. Everywhere there are hedges, sometimes of woven thicket, sometimes of a dense holly. Many of the houses are old with thatched roofs. Flowers were prevalent, despite the wet weather. There are many horses about, good looking draft animals. We crossed an RAF field halfway to Alton – the concrete runway bisected the road, which bore a sign “Dead Slow – Airplanes.” Alton was a fine old farming village with narrow streets & old houses. I got my directions for Chawton (1½ miles out on the road to Winchester) & started out, when it began to rain again. After ducking under trees for shelter, I reached Chawton to find the house, opposite The Grey Friar’s Inn at a Y intersection on the main road to Winchester. The house is in fine condition. There is a sign outside “St. Nicholas Club”, but I learned from Mrs. Stevens, the tenant, that the war disbanded The Club. I had to knock & knock, with three silly & shy girls aet. 9-12 coming to the window, but at last, when Mrs. S. came she was very pleasant, & not only acceded to my request to photograph the house from all angles, including the backyard, but asked me in. She showed me just the one room “where Jane Austen did all her writing” and I photographed the mantel, which I believe has been done before, as the original. There is a steel engraving of JA on the wall, along with other incognate decor. The front door did open directly into this parlor, but a hall partition had been put up in recent years. Mrs. S., by the way, has been tenant for 40 years, & the house is still owned by Edw. Knight (who owns nearly all of Chawton). She has evidently sublet parts of the house, for there was another family to whom the children belonged. All was neat & in good repair (except the outbuildings). Mrs. S. told me that there is a movement afoot locally to start a J. A. Society, & to turn one of the rooms over into a museum. She would stay on as tenant. She could not tell me the name of the Sec’y, but suggested we write Mr. Knight for details. There are two oak trees planted by J. A. which I photographed. The backyard is all garden, and, if you think it at all appropriate, I tried to pick some leaves there & got stung. They were nettles.
I think this covers my visit to Chawton. I took many pictures, but the light was very poor, & some of the time it was raining.
Then back by bus to Basingstoke, where I made a connection for Deane Gate. The Steventon bus does not run on Sundays. At 4:30 therefore I swung off the bus at Deane Gate in the middle of a downpour, & had rain let up, I started out, 1½ miles down a country road. Again, more farming country, with high hedges along the road. The Railway runs along a high embankment by the northern end of S. Go through a long tunnel & there you are. At the first cottage, I met a man out in the yard, who directed me to Steventon Church, & marked the site of the old parsonage “at the first pump in the field where you turn off.” I had no trouble in finding the spot, but I must say I was somewhat surprized. About ¼ mile beyond the village, a road turns off to the right between two pastures. There were cows grazing by the pump, sure enough near the corner of the road. Then the road runs uphill a full half mile through woods, until at last you can see the spire of the church on top of the hill. I photographed the church, including the cherubs on the doors, and the manor. The latter was a strange affair. I treated it most respectfully, just poking open the iron gate & looking in. Then I gathered courage, and finally walked around. It was entirely deserted. It had been used, evidently as a military post, for there were guard houses, a tank of water for fires, a modern barracks & a game room (empty of all furniture) in what I would say was the new wing. The garden was all grown up; There were dead fish in the pool – a perfect setting for an English mystery story. I say “new wing”. The architecture was in period, but it looked newer inside & out. You’ll be able to tell from the pictures, I hope. The graves around the church are 19th century – The yew (black circle) must be at least 15th century; it’s enormous. It was an eerie visit, being late afternoon on a deserted hilltop, and churchbells were ringing for vespers down in the village as I left. So back to Deane Corner (but no time to go to Deane though I could see the church) and Basingstoke, where I dined at The Railroad Hotel (quite well, too) @ 4/6. Then by train, third, to London & I had to stand in the corridor, what with returning excursionists. I had another interesting conversation, however, with a young man in the fur trade, surprisingly well read and informed. So back to the hotel by Underground, and thus endeth my JA pilgrimage. It was, of course, highly unfortunate that it had to be in the rain, but not unusual, since England had not had a day without rain since the 9th of July.”2
1 Brabourne, Edward Lord. Letters of Jane Austen. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1884.
2 Warm thanks to Barbara Winn Adams, Bethesda, Maryland, whose generosity in sharing a most interesting letter was seminal to this article.