Friday, 11 September 2009

Dispatches from Jane Austen's House





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)





38 comments:

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

How wonderful to be there so much and to feel a part of her world just a bit. I adore touring the homes of the writers I admire. Hill Top was a favourite for me. And my husband and I were fortunate to tour both Paul McCartney and John Lennon's childhood homes in Liverpool a couple of years ago, which was completely fascinating. Visiting places such as these seems to make years evaporate and one feels a part of the history that took place there.

Christina said...

This post brought tears to my eyes. For many reasons, but mostly because I think this is as close as I have come to feeling a bit of Jane Austen, outside of her books. As a child, reading was my biggest escape. Books took me on travels, I could only dream of. Jane Austen's books, came to me at a time where I became uncertain about so much. Her books, gave me strength.
This is a lovely post. : )
I stopped by to thank you, for the beautiful card you sent me.
xo
Happy tears.

willow said...

Bee, I just got chills reading the part about you opening the house before the guests arrive! What a thrill to be there, alone with the spirits of the past. You are one lucky girl.

Beth said...

How wonderful that you did indeed become a steward! For someone with such a fascination (and with such knowledge) of both history and English literature, what a dream job.
Too bad about not being able to wear a Regency costume – wouldn’t that have been a fun thing to do? An opportunity to play dress-up as an adult! I can just imagine you walking (gliding!) through that house – and the garden - in your beautiful gown...

Star said...

What an interesting post about Jane Austen's house. I really enjoyed it. The pictures were lovely too. I've never been but would like to see it. Maybe I'll get down there one day.
Blessings, Star

najork said...

Wow, thank you so much for this entry from a big Austen's fan :).

Lisa said...

What a lovely volunteer position! How wonderful to be in her space, doing the things she might have done. I'm just tickled by the idea!

It's a shame that she did not live longer. Her books have brought so much pleasure to so many.

Thank you for the link. I love how you worked it in. And the fact that you use the phrase mordantly funny is delightful!

Alaine said...

I loved this post; thank you Bree.

Anne~fiona and twig said...

What a remarkable experience! Jane has formed my worldview and inspired the creative spark within since I was just a wee one. Lucky girl, thank you for sharing!
~ Anne

Alaine said...

Oops, sorry, Bee!

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

This sounds utterly wonderful. Those few minutes before the public arrive must be so precious. And my wife would utterly concur on the reverence paid to and value placed upon "those precious leaves"!

I am definitely one of the first kind of visitor. I've never been to Jane's house, but I remember walking around Goethe's house in Weimar. It was possible to become so lost that you were almost there, sitting at his desk, thinking his thoughts. I still havea ppostcard of his desk above mine.

Anne said...

Hooray! I've been thinking about you and your volunteer work (though it probably doesn't feel like work, does it?) at Austen's house. What a treat, to be all alone in the peace of her house at the start of the day.

Like you, the U.S. health insurance reform issue is on my mind--for purely self-interested reasons as well as a general wish that the system be replaced with something more... civilized. It does not sit at all well with me that we as a country are so cavalier about others' health and well-being.

ewix said...

Green, green with envy.
Such a wonderful account mixing the personal with the informative.
Loved it, Bee.
Write lots of posts about it.
So grim that she died so young.

ArtSparker said...

Sweet post, thank you for the window into your life.

steven said...

bee i've never read any jane austen but i was absolutely blow away when you described your morning ritual as a steward in her home. that's incredible!!!! i love the details you share of your experiences as a steward and can only imagine the frustrations and little pleasures that would go with that position. thanks for this!!! it was really cool to read. steven

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Bee
How lucky you are to live in England and to visit such wonderful places. Thank-You for sharing this story with your readers--I hope you will write more on Jane Austen(I love her book
Sense and Sensibility).Masterpiece Theater did a wonderful program on this book and I fell in love with the area where the program was film!
:)

Sarah Laurence said...

The image I will carry is of you in Jane’s house before the visitors arrive, but you aren’t really alone, are you? Your knowledge and your imagination brings her to life. Sometimes to ask the right question, you have to already know the answer, and then it isn’t really a question. You sound happy.

Reya Mellicker said...

This is wonderful! You are walking in Jane Austen's footprints every time you act as steward. Surely you are picking up bits and pieces of her vibration from across the centuries.

I love looking out the window as they might have, thinking of you contemplating her daily routines. This is great!

Love the word "flummox," and yes, I, too would become annoyed with Jane Austen Know-It-Alls!

Dick said...

A great account, Bee. For 17 years I lived only 20 minutes from Chawton and I think I only visited the house once!

Dave King said...

Superb post. Quite delightful. I live only a few minutes from Chawton and have been to see the house a few times. Might see you there some day! Many thanks for the post.

Sheryl said...

I loved this post! I'm glad you became a steward. I am new to reading your blog and love it. Your "complete profile" could have been written by me! Except I still fret about my "calling" and the scattered files and writing on my desk frustrate me. I am trying to catch up with your past posts.
Sheryl

kristina said...

wow, that's amazing! I didn't know you did that!

Beccsterr said...

You are so uncool it is rather skillful...

Love the eldest daughter

P.S. Told you I read your blog sometimes

A Woman Of No Importance said...

Stunning, Bee - You are so lucky, and I'll also bet that you work very hard...

How wonderful to know the little features - like the wallpaper that the visitors probably don't get to see. Jane Austen's house is firmly on my list of must-sees, and bumping (or not, I hope, for I'm very clumsy) into you would be a real pleasure - Two wonderful writers' worlds!

Bee said...

Dear friends,
Thanks, as always, for reading and for leaving me such kind comments. I work on Thursday mornings, so please stop by!

Beccsterr - I hope that one day you will appreciate the wit and wisdom of Jane. love, Mommy

p.s. I saw that you left Pride and Prejudice in the living room. Does this mean you are giving it another chance?

B said...

I love this. I didn't know you've volunteered there! And I can't believe I've never been there! I must confess I hadn't read any of her novels before I came to England, but of course, once I decided to stay it was compulsory that I did if I wanted to belong. :) My favourite is still Sense and Sensibility, the first one I read.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely entry! Lucky you, and thank you. Learning that it's warm and intimate not a museum piece makes me determined to visit it too (and play the Clementi!) What music did she play? That would be fascinating to know. You must be an ideal steward.

karen's being bossy said...

wow! as if i could love your blog & your life more! what a gift that you are able to sometimes be alone in the house, opening it up for visitors- what a perfect place for you to get to spend some time. i want you to write more more more on this subject!

Alyson (New England Living) said...

My friend's little 2 year old recently died from Addison's disease. So treatable today, and yet doctors still can make so many mistakes.

I love your new job as steward. That's exactly the sort of job I'd like to do when my children are in school all day. You must let us know if you continue to love it!

herhimnbryn said...

Touching history, literally.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Love this so much! Ah, how I would love to have that house all to myself, even for just a moment or two. It must be magical.

Your story about the Bigg-Wither descendent is cute, Bee.

Tabitha@ichoosebliss.net said...

I love all things about Jane. I'm sure it was a pure joy to visit her home.

I am a new visitor by way of Christina. (:

Pete said...

I loved this, Bee. Made me really happy that I've read (or watched and listened to) most of her novels. I liked the fact that visitors are allowed such leeway. And the pics are delightful. If I'm ever in Chawton I'll make a plan to stop by on a Thursday and ask you a fiendish question ;-)

stephanie (bad mom) said...

May I say, this was a most enjoyable piece. Thank you!

I would fall into the 'private experience' category of visitor - I wept at the viewing of Jane's notebooks in the British Library; I can only imagine what kind of emotions would overtake me in her home.

Again, many thanks for the tour :)

Bee said...

To Anon: There were eight manuscripts of music, most of them copied out in Jane's handwriting, that survived. I had a look at a songbook that we have at the house which lists this music and the names Arne, Boyce, Corft, Pleyel and Dibdin come up over and over again. They were all very popular in the 18th century, but not well-known now. She did know (and play) some of Handel's music as well.

Anonymous said...

I have never been to this site before, but was enjoying it thoroughly until I came upon the bit about the health care debate in the United States. It spoiled the experience for me and I won't be back.

As I have no Google account, it lets me post technically as Anonymous, but I am not that much of a coward. My e-mail is dorothywillis@charter.net

Imogen Crest said...

How wonderful to share in this experience! I just loved reading this, coming across from J.W.'s excellent AustenOnly. Loved your food blog too. Fantastic.

Relyn said...

I am stunned, thrilled with the idea of throwing open a window and viewing the same sights as Jane. I have long thought of how thrilling it would be to work in a historic home. But, a historic home of a writer? Of Jane Austen?? Well, I am sure you do know how very blessed you are. What a dream come true.

I really loved the story of the man who thought Jane did a runner. Hilarious.