Booktopia’s Editorial Director Caroline Baum Takes A Tour Through The House of Austen

by |November 8, 2013

baumI’d been warned not to expect much. There’s not a lot to see, people told me. Basically just a table. But that’s the point.

Jane Austen’s house at Chawton in Hampshire is a modest affair and it’s true that the rooms are few and their furnishings scant. No wonder British Heritage were desperate when American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson outbid Chawton at Sotheby’s for a gold ring of Jane’s set with a turquoise stone. Last month they raised the required sum to keep the simple band in Britain and it will go on display at the house from Feb 14, 2014, together with a topaz cross and a turquoise bracelet that also belonged to Jane. Hardly the crown jewels but to Janeites, these are priceless treasures.

Until then, there are really just two far more mundane objects to look at: a small circular table, set by a downstairs window, barely larger in circumference than a generous pizza , where Jane wrote every morning.

And upstairs, a patchwork quilt bed cover which she sewed with her sister Cassandra and their mother, the colourful hexagons of dress fabric framed by a cream print punctuated with black polka dots like so many full stops. It is the brightest thing in the house by far, a cheery accent of prettiness, countering the low ceilings and wooden floorboards. The original wallpaper in the rooms has not survived, making it impossible to guess what other colour surrounded them but there is a little bed in the garden devoted to plants used for dyeing, which the frugal Austens used to refresh their wardrobe.

Nothing else in the house is as eloquent of how simply they lived as the table and the quilt except perhaps the tented bed in the room the sisters shared. Even with just one bed the room is cramped and it’s hard to imagine how or where they would have placed the second one. Forget privacy. Imagine instead the pillow talk of the young women. Did Jane rehearse scenarios for her novel in bed at night with Cassandra? I like to think so.

As a pilgrimage site, Chawton is low key but there’s an honesty its meagre offerings. Jane would no doubt be much amused by the young women snapping selfies in specially provided dress up bonnets in the kitchen or the fact that the family’s donkey carriage is on display in the laundry. The simplicity and banality of what’s on show here only makes Jane’s writing all the more remarkable.

Forget the turquoise ring, the sparkling gems are her words.

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