A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
One of the loveliest things I Did On My Holidays was revisit Chawton – the Hampshire village that was home to Jane Austen for the last eight years of her life. Chawton, as all Janeites know, has two locations that just have to be visited – Chawton Cottage, home to Jane, her mother and sister, that now houses the Jane Austen’s House Museum, and Chawton House, the ‘spare’ country house belonging to Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight, inherited from the family who made him heir to their estates in Kent and Hampshire. The big house is now home to Chawton House Library, a unique centre for the study of early English women’s writing, and possibly one of my favourite places on earth.
I shall be concentrating on Chawton House in this Random (because visiting it again was what I Did On My Holidays, and because of what I’ll have to say about its future) – but let me say at the outset that the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton Cottage is both important and charming, essential to visit, and, goodness knows, deserving of all the support of those who love and respect Jane Austen and her works.
Chawton House was the home of the Knight family (which still survives) until the late 20th century, when its future as a family home and property became unsustainable. It is Jacobean at its core, on the site of an even earlier house, and is surrounded by the remains of an extensive estate. After a few false starts, including plans to turn it into a country hotel and a golf club, it was rescued by Dr Sandy Lerner (Hon) OBE. A tech entrepreneur (co-founder of Cisco Systems) and collector of early women’s writing in English, she took on Chawton House to establish a research library for English women’s writing to 1830, with her collection at its core – a uniquely imaginative and generous vision that has paid tremendous dividends in our knowledge of women’s literary endeavour. As a librarian with an interest in rare books and early writing, I am passionate about Chawton House as a library, as a place of literary pilgrimage and as a location of rare, quiet beauty.
Now after more than 20 years Dr Lerner is stepping back, and her charitable foundation is moving on to fund other interests. The running costs of Chawton House Library are covered to the end of this year (the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death) and Dr Lerner leaves a gift of money with the challenge to match it by fundraising to form an endowment fund for future survival. What Sandy Lerner has done deserves the gratitude of all who love Jane Austen, and all who want to see the contribution of women to the literary heritage in English revealed and valued.
The fundraising appeal deserves utmost support therefore, despite striking some chill in my heart with its focus and its promise (which I hope is over-sold) to transform Chawton House from its particular faded, low-key domestic charm and beauty by its ‘ambitious plans to create a cultural literary destination within the wider grounds of the Great House‘. (There is a lot of standard-issue appeal-speak to navigate, but please stick with it if you love the cause). If this ambition is realised, please let it be with an ingeniously light touch, to preserve the sense that is so strong in the house that a Knight or an Austen has just left the room or could be seen at a distance walking in the ‘prettyish kind of a wilderness by the side of the lawn’. Naturally, the appeal makes the most of the connection of the house and estate with Jane Austen. I’ll grit my teeth and live with the latest incarnation of the ice-bucket challenge – #TheDarcyLook – after all, what’s not to like about personable young men raising good sponsorship money to be seen in a wet white linen shirt? When the future of Chawton House is secured, then more can be made of its wider achievement in uncovering the little-known or celebrated literary life of all the other women writing in Jane Austen’s era and earlier.
Let me tell you what you get from a visit to Chawton House. I organised a coach trip in July, and we based ourselves there for the day. The Home Farm has three Shire horses and a Shire cross, who work on the estate as they would have done throughout the tenure of the Knight family (and can you not hear Mr Bennet saying “They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them”?). The horses are often to be seen in the paddocks, or being ridden through the village, and they love to stop for a chat and be petted. Royston and Speedy came to meet us on our arrival, and were likely to de-rail the whole morning, so deeply did we all fall in love with them. Finally, we dragged ourselves away and had a very informative guided tour of the house, covering its past life as a family home for generations, and its present life as a research library, finishing with precious time in the Lower Reading Room, surrounded by the library’s collection of rare books and memorabilia.
Then, after lunch in the old kitchen, or in our case as we were lucky enough to have a beautiful day, in the courtyard, the Gardens Manager then led a walk through the parkland and gardens, pointing out the layers of the landscape, how much and how little would have survived from the Edward Knight’s era. The walled garden is in process of restoration – it was created by Edward Knight, and post-dates Jane’s lifetime, but not by many years. A herb garden has just been established within it, drawing on a work in the library, Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal (1737-9). Features in the park and gardens span the centuries, with the remains of a magnificent 19th century avenue of limes, and a 20th century terrace thought to be the work of Edwin Lutyens. Although Jane Austen’s spirit is strongly felt at Chawton House, much of the fascination also lies in the legacy of other generations.
So, if you love Jane Austen, or care for the preservation of a literary landscape, or both, how to support the future of this uniquely important and lovely place?
First of all, when in Chawton be sure to visit the ‘Great House’ as well as the Cottage – I’m sure (in fact I know from some of those who came on my latest trip) that many visitors to the village do not explore beyond the village centre, and concentrate on visiting Jane Austen’s House Museum. Chawton House is open to the public from Sunday to Friday in the afternoon. If a garden walk is offered I recommend it heartily – the Garden Manager who leads it is knowledgeable and entertaining. If you see the horses, with or without rider, stop and chat – they soak up the attention.
If you are at all interested in women’s literary life, visit the library and use it – it’s open to all.
And finally, put on your sunglasses, visit the very very vivid website for the Appeal, and please support it as far as you feel able, in memory of our beloved Jane, and all the women writers who went before her, now being rescued from the dark.
All photographs are Hilary’s own, taken in July 2017.
Chawton links (all accessed 4th September 2017):
Jane’s Great House – fundraising appeal:
Chawton House Library:
Jane Austen’s House Museum: