An Adventure in Hampshire
If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad
Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey
Visiting Jane Austen Country (Hampshire) for International Women’s Day 2017 seemed entirely appropriate at a first glance (even if my quote is hardly in context). Apart from anything else, it’s also the 200th anniversary of her death this year. She’s the writer I related to most throughout my teens and who I still re-read today, finding something more to love each time. Romantic and yet acerbic – a fine balance of cynicism to which I aspired. So many quotes I can relate to. So many stories with romantic endings. Jane Austen was, and probably still is, the school swot’s heroine.
At Jane Austen’s House Museum I realised that, despite having read all her novels, I knew nothing at all about the author. And, I placed her firmly in Bath – where she only lived for five years and where, by all account, she was unhappy. Jane grew up in Steveton, Hampshire, the daughter of a village rector and the youngest but one child of his large family. The family were not wealthy but Jane and her sister Cassandra were both initially sent to school in Oxford to be educated. Lack of funds meant that they were brought home, where both continued to study with their father and brothers.
Having written plays, poems and stories in her early teens, Jane decided to attempt to write for money and by the age of seventeen, she had already developed her sophisticated satirical style of writing. When her family was uprooted and moved to Bath, Jane stopped writing. But, Jane, Cassandra and their mother returned to Hampshire after her father’s death, to live in the house which is now known as the Jane Austen House Museum. And Jane continued to write, with some success. Her books were published and the income was a useful addition to the household income.
Jane Austen’s house in Chawton was her home for the last eight years of her life – a large cottage that was part of her brother Edward’s estate. Now, it’s a charming place to learn about all things relating to Jane. The house itself has been refurbished even down to the wallpaper, which has been recreated from fragments found in the house, hidden away in a shutterbox for instance. The result is prettily English and, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Regency ladies appearing through the door.
In fact, if you really want to get into character you can dress in Regency costume and try your hand at making a Regency style lavender bag or writing with a quill pen.
And, once you’ve finished immersing yourself in Austen, it’s a short journey up the road to the stately home where Jane’s brother Edward lived. While it is known that Jane herself used to visit the house when her brother lived there, it is unlikely that she wrote there.
Chawton House is now rather a special institution, with a Library that houses a collection of early editions of works by women, mostly within the period 1600-1830. The house now provides facilities for research students interested in studying the collections of writing now in the library. Within the extensive library, there are first editions of ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies’ by Mary Astell, frequently referred to as the first English feminist and of the rather better known ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education.
Definitely worth visiting, whether your interest is Jane Austen or the wider pool of written works by women in England, Chawton House is open to the public during the summer.
While Jane lived for most of her life in the country, there were two periods when she lived in cities. First, in Bath, when her father moved the entire family there. And then, later, for the last few months of her life in Winchester so that she was close to Winchester Hospital. In Winchester you will find the house where she died, at the age of 41 in College Street. And, a few minutes walk away, in the Cathedral itself is her grave, under the floor of the north aisle of the nave. There are a further two inscriptions for her in the Cathedral as her gravestone makes no mention at all of her writing. A memorial written by her nephew Edward is inscribed on a brass plaque on the wall next to her grave and was placed there in 1870. And, there’s a memorial window, paid for by public subscription in 1900, by which time her fame as a writer had increased.
This year, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, there are a number of special events in Hampshire, Bath and throughout England. Amongst the highlights in Hampshire, there’s a special exhibition in Winchester which will run from 13th May to 24 July called ‘The Mysterious Miss Austen’ and Winchester Cathedral will be running ‘Tours and Teas’ exploring Jane’s life. Bath has its own programme, culminating in the Jane Austen Festival with a Regency Costumed Masked Ball! And, anywhere the Austen family visited seems to be commemorating her life and work.
For more English Literary Holiday inspiration check out the Visit England Site
And, if you are a Jane Austen fan why not pin this post for later