The other day I visited Jane Austen’s house museum, recently refitted for the bicentenary. One of the things that had been done was a revision of the guide book, which reminded me of something that I had found tucked in a copy of the first ever guidebook, dating from shortly after the house first opened to the public in 1949.
This is a description of the house, clearly written when the house was newly opened, possibly before the guidebook was published. Whilst we were there a vintage bus arrived, a perfect illustration to the account. Here it is.
Jane Austen’s House at Chawton
It is still in the country & for this I suppose we must be thankful.
The little cottages so near & round about are mostly thatched & very old. They are I feel, exactly as they were when Jane Austen lived here.
No modern housing estate has engulfed them. The countryside is very wooded but there are fields & where there are fields there are cows – all very peaceful.
It is, then, with a sense of shock that when one alights from the bus by the cottages adjoining J.A.’s house a large untidy yard given over to some kind of car business seems to jump into view.
I suppose the J.A. trust will never be rich enough to buy it up and hand it back to the cows but it just shouldn’t be there.
J. Austen’s house itself stands on the corner where two main roads meet & this was always so.
It looks very plain & unadorned – quite commodious – a house not a cottage & very near the road, but with an old world garden.
It is brick built & looks rather strange with two entrances, one on each side – but I imagine the present side entrance was once a door leading into an outbuilding which was indeed the kitchen as a tablet in the side walk indicates.
The front of the house was not improved by a very large window having been bricked up which is often the case with houses in & around Winchester.
I saw the whole side of a house blocked out in this way, the outline of the windows clearly discerned & with the pelmets left as these were.
This very large window with rounded pelmet on one side of the house must have improved the appearance & broken up the plain look of the front of the house.
However it was so blocked up when the Austen’s took over & was left there.
They probably felt it was too near the road was privacy & had another put in at the side of the house.
Inside the house is magic.
Not all the rooms are on view but in those that are I am sure that Jane Austen’s spirit moves.
It is her home & must have been serene & cheerful, cared for & loved.
I was spellbound to see her music on the pianoforte with her name on the cover & titles of the pieces, written in her own hand.
The fine needlework & pencil drawings are exquisitely finished.
The music (much, much of it) that she copied is so beautifully transcribed that it might be printed. I could hardly believe it was hand copied.
The letters she wrote, even in illness have an ease & even flow of language – so lovely – that the most everyday affairs become alive & interesting.
The people she talked about come to life & the world she lived in – no crossings out – no word out of place – all so easy & natural & so enjoyed.
The bedroom seemed just right for her. There is very little furniture in it but the original fire place is still in being & here she sat by the fire in her last illness.
Some of her hair is enclosed in a locket. It is a rich brown.
The patchwork quilt she was making is on view.
Dear Jane Austen
I silently give thanks for all the pleasure you have given me & for your lovely nature without which your books could never have been written.
The Original Guidebook & Written Account
There is no indication who wrote it or why, but I am sure you will agree that it is a lovely piece, written by a true Janeite.