I’ve always wanted to visit the house in Chawton, near Alton in Hampshire, where the novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) spent the last eight years of her life and finished the six novels that immortalised her name, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), together with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (both published posthumously in 1818).
Of course, the house doesn’t look like I imagined it. The building had been a pub, the New Inn, which closed in 1787, apparently following the second of two murders on the premises, after which it was adapted as the bailiff’s residence by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight (1767-1852), who had inherited the Chawton estate.
In 1809 Edward moved his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters, Cassandra (1773-1845) and Jane, into the house.
Here Jane Austen quietly wrote her fiction, in between domestic duties, letter-writing, socialising and being Aunt Jane to an extensive troop of nephews and nieces.
The insight, irony and elegance of her fiction-writing places her in the first rank of English writers, and her surviving letters have the same wit and charm.
My favourite is the comment in a letter to Cassandra written in 1800: “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today.” I know the feeling. (The complete letter can be found at I drank too much wine last night – Letters of Note.)
The house opened as a museum in 1949 and is a place of pilgrimage to admirers from all over the world. One of the most precious items is the tiny twelve-sided writing table on which she worked.
It’s understandable that pre-booking is encouraged to prevent overcrowding of the tiny rooms, and the Museum website plays down the alternative of walking in: Plan Your Visit to Jane Austen’s House Jane Austen Museum | Hampshire Days Out Jane Austen’s House (janeaustens.house).
There is a phone-number, but the outgoing message offers no facility to speak to anyone at the Museum. All the necessary information, we are told, is online.
However, I discovered that if you hang on at the end of the message eventually someone might answer.
In fact, walk-ins are possible, but not encouraged:…