Last May, I visited Jane Austen's house for the first time. The roses 'round the door weren't in bloom yet; but bee that I am, the place had an irresistible lure for me.
As luck would have it, the place was undergoing an expansion/renovation (kitchen, reading room, bookstore . . . yes, all of my favorite places) and they needed more volunteers. It seemed a tailor-made opportunity for me, and believe me, I'm not one to look a gift-house in the mouth.
One of the reasons that I adore my blog-friends is that they seemed to think that this was a splendid idea. And because I have received many emails asking if I did indeed ever go to work at Jane Austen's house, I thought that I'd throw a little light on the subject . . .
One of the delights and privileges of being a "steward" to the house is opening it up before the guests arrive. Although Jane lived here 200 years ago, she must have risen in the morning to open the same sash windows that I do. As she looked out of her bedroom window, she must have gazed with pleasure at the greenness of her garden. As she folded back the shutters of the dining parlour windows, she must have watched, with keen interest, as the little village of Chawton came to life.
Each window has wooden shutters that fold back, each in their own idiosyncratic way. Behind the shutters in Mrs. Austen's room, you can still glimpse traces of the 18th century green and white wallpaper.
After we open the windows and turn on the lights, we put vases of fresh flowers in the deep windowsills. Jane had her own morning routine: She kept the keys for the tea caddy, and it was her task to carefully spoon out the precious leaves. After breakfast, she practiced the piano for two hours . . . at least that is what we tell the children who visit.
When Jane's father retired from the rectory at Steventon, in 1800, he sold most of the house's contents -- including much of his extensive library, and Jane's piano and sheet music collection. For nine years, Jane and her sister and parents drifted from rental houses in Bath to the homes of friends and family. In 1809, after Mr. Austen's death, Mrs. Austen and her daughters moved to the house in Chawton -- and Jane began to write and make music again.
Although the piano in the drawing room didn't belong to Jane, it was made in 1810 by Clementi. (We like to think that she played on something quite similar.) Surprisingly, house visitors are allowed to play on it. Yesterday, this young man from Germany opted for some Mozart. You never know when you are going to be treated to an impromptu concert. A few weeks ago, a group of W.I. women gathered around the piano to sing Jerusalem.
There are three kinds of visitors, really: those who want a private experience; those who ask questions of the stewards; and those who want to share their own knowledge, opinions and feelings about Jane. That latter category is certainly the most entertaining.
Although I have spent the summer boning up on all things Jane Austen and Regency period, I'm rarely asked to show off my command of the subject. (Annoyingly, when I am asked a question, it is often something obscure about the house and I am flummoxed. I wonder when that learning curve will start flattening out?)
Jane Austen's fans are notably possessive of their idol; unusually, for a historical figure, she is almost always referred to as "Jane" -- hardly ever "Austen" or Miss Austen.
Interestingly, the house allows for the really personal relationship. Unlike most historical homes, which are circumscribed by velvet ropes, Jane Austen's house is warm and welcoming. Visitors are allowed to wander around on their own, and may even take pictures (with the flash off, please).
Yesterday I had a memorable encounter with an irascible man who reminded me a bit of Squire Western, from Tom Jones -- one of the first English novels. As soon as he entered the house, he pounced: "Jane Austen would have been part of my family if she hadn't done a runner!" (Further questioning revealed that he was related to Harris Bigg-Wither -- the unlucky man who proposed to Jane, and was accepted, only to have her change her mind during the night.) Although the almost-relation had never read any of the Austen novels, and kept insisting that his wife had a shelf of them as long as your arm, he was awfully proud to be related to the man who has gone down in history as being jilted by Jane.
I've been asked, more than once, if the stewards dress in Regency costume. Sadly, the answer is no; we are not so picturesque.
(pictures from the Heritage Day at Chawton House)