A lady sits by the window and sighs. Her sighs send tiny ripples through her curls. The gloomy day invites melancholy. A small jug with cut flowers cheers up the room. Another lady, wearing an Empire waist dress, plays a ballad on the piano. Sounds of hooves filter through the window. A knock on the door. The lady by the window holds her breath. Hands hover over the piano. The servant opens the door.
A scene like this one could easily have taken place in Jane Austen’s drawing room in Chawton, Hampshire. The gentleman caller could have been a suitor, but that’s highly unlikely as both Jane and her sister Cassandra never married. It could have been one of the Austen brothers, back from helping Simon Bolivar achieve his political goals in South America.
Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother, also called Cassandra, moved into this house in 1809. Their brother Edward, who had been adopted by the wealthy Knight family, offered it to them rent-free for life.
The 17th-century house is located in a typical English village, very quiet and charming. There are only a pub and a tea house. We went there on a Saturday and were lucky to get on of the last available tables without a reservation. The Greyfriar Pub is big but a reservation is always advisable.
There aren’t that many objects left that belonged to the Austen family. When Cassandra died in 1845, the house was divided into three farm cottages. A Mr. T. E Carpenter bought the house after an appeal by the Jane Austen Society and donated it to the nation in 1949 in memory of his son, who died in the Second World War. It’s been open to the public since then.
You come in through the shop and make your way through the buildings around the courtyard, like the alcove, which houses Jane’s donkey carriage, or the bakehouse. Here, servants baked bread and heated water for baths and doing laundry. The kitchen was added a century after the house was built and still has a small original brick oven.
The ground floor comprises the drawing room, where we can see the piano Jane used to play before breakfast and her father’s bookcase. A young woman sat and played the piano. I felt instantly transported to the Regency period.
There are a few Wedgewood dishes with the Knight crest in the dining parlour, as well as Jane Austen’s desk. It looks tiny and rather uncomfortable, I don’t see myself working there. However, it’s from a different era with different customs and needs.
The bedrooms are on the first floor. The stairs groan and the floors are uneven because of age. Houses, like, people, grow old and creaky. Jane shared a bedroom with her sister, maybe out of habit since childhood. The modern wallpaper’s design was based on bits of original wallpaper found during renovation work. In the bedrooms are displayed objects that belonged to the Austen family, like Cassandra’s silver teapot, garments, a ring that belonged to Jane, or the commemorative sword awarded to commander Charles Austen by Simon Bolivar in 1827. I thought this South American connection was unexpected and amazing.
Jane Austen’s House Museum, Winchester Road, Chawton, Hampshire GU34 1SD
How to get to Chawton, Hampshire, by train: from London Waterloo to Altona and then a few minutes’ walk.
Check visiting times here.