Jane Austen's final home, in Chawton, Hampshire, is less than an hour's drive from West Berkshire -- where I live -- and yet as far as I can tell, none of my English acquaintance have ever heard of it, much less visited. I have a good friend who lives almost next door to Basildon Park, which served as Netherfield for the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, but has she ever toured this grand house? In a word, no. The Vyne, Winchester Cathedral, Steventon, Bath: all of these Jane Austen haunts are within the close vicinity, but do any of my neighbors bother to make the brief pilgrimage? Not as far as I can tell. Presumably, one values a place a great deal more if one has to travel many miles to see it.
Of course, there might be another explanation -- much as I don't like to entertain the thought. When I asked a close friend if she would visit Chawton with me, she wrinkled her nose slightly, and muttered something about having been scarred by reading Pride and Prejudice for her O-levels. Attempts to cajole my daughters into visiting the house with me were met with outright hostility; (unfortunately, I think we may have exposed them to National Trust properties before they were ready.) Surprisingly, not everyone seems to think that looking at an author's relics is jolly good fun.
This is a Winchester Cathedral rose currently blooming in my garden
It gave me chills to think of her
Happily, I do have one bookish friend who was willing to indulge me in my pursuit of all things Jane.
Last May, during the half-term holiday we visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. (Frankly, it was a bit disappointing and tourist-trappish. Except for an interesting display of the costumes from Miss Austen Regrets, there was little to inform, please or excite.)
For a good supply of Austen memorabilia, though, the house in Chawton is outstanding. Although I would encourage visitors to go to the house on a Wednesday through Saturday (when Cassandra's Tea Room across the street is open for business), we practically had the house to ourselves on the Tuesday after the recent Bank Holiday. (Although, strangely enough, the famous children's author Jacqueline Wilson entered just as we were leaving.) We were able to admire family jewellery, a quilted bedspread that the Austen women made, copies of letters and manuscripts, and pieces of period furniture without any jostling or jockeying for position. I was also able to debate the merits of various Austen film productions with one of the volunteers there, and learned of an expansion which is currently taking place. In the next six weeks, a period kitchen and research library will be added to the house museum -- and thus, there will be a need for more volunteers.
Without pausing to reflect, I found myself lobbying for the (unpaid) job. Surely my qualifications are impeccable! I'm a teacher, graduate student of English literature, former museum docent, and mostly importantly, lover of all things Jane Austen.
Later, as I shared this exciting news with my husband, a peculiar half-grimace appeared on his face.
My friend Jenni said something along the lines of I wish that I could put into words the expression on your husband's face.
Indulgent ridicule, said I?
Yes, I think that's probably it, said Jenni.
When we arrived at the Chawton house, I was positively transfixed by the sight of this elderly woman and her pack of rough collie dogs. Apparently, (and if you know me, you won't be surprised to know that I asked), she and her equally elderly husband are driving around England with their beloved pets. What you can't actually see in the picture, though, is that there were actually eight of these sizeable dogs. Only later did I pause to wonder at the vehicle which was transporting this pack all over greater Hampshire.
As the incomparable Jane Austen said . . .