The most striking object in Jane Austen's House Museum is the tiny table on which she wrote. The little, 12-sided walnut table in the dining parlour is barely big enough for a teacup and saucer.
At this table, writing on small sheets of paper that were easily hidden away if she were interrupted, Jane Austen edited and revised Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice (which turned 200 years old in 2013) and Northanger Abbey, and wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.
The substantial village house, once an inn at the crossroads of the Gosport and Winchester roads, is where Jane lived between 1809 and 1817, the last eight years of her life, along with her sister Cassandra, their mother and their close friend Martha Lloyd. Only a few of the author's possessions remain. Besides the table, there are some fine examples of her needlework, a quilted bed cover she made with her mother and several letters displayed on a rotating basis in a special cabinet. The donkey cart displayed in one of the outbuildings was used by Jane when she became too ill to walk about the village.
Art Copying Life
There are also several items of jewelry and two amber crosses that ultimately made their way into a novel. Jane's brother Charles, an officer in the Royal Navy, won a share of prize money from the capture of a French ship. He spent some of it in Gibraltar on amber crosses for Jane and Cassandra. Jane used the episode in Mansfield Park where the character Fanny Price is given an amber cross by her sailor brother, William.
The Precarious Position of Women
The museum, maintained by a trust and supported by members and friends from around the world, is furnished with a number of Austen family portraits and possessions and arranged to illustrate the late 18th and early 19th century life of the Austen family and, in particular, the life of respectable unmarried women and widows of good families but modest means.
If you've read even one Jane Austen novel you'll know that marrying off a family's daughters and finding suitable marriage partners is a major preoccupation of the stories. That's simply because it was also a major preoccupation of the period. Unmarried women lived on the goodwill and charity of their better off relations. Jane had six brothers, five of whom contributed £50 each, per year, for the support of their mother and sisters. Beyond this, they would have been relatively self-sufficient - growing their own vegetables and keeping a few small animals, baking, salting meat and doing laundry in the separate bakehouse.
In a situation reminiscent of Downton Abbey, one of the Austen brothers was adopted as legal heir by wealthy relatives of his father, took their name, becoming Edward Austen Knight, and inherited extensive estates. He provided the village house for the women on his Chawton, Hampshire estate.
But male relatives were not obliged by law - or even strong custom - to provide for sisters and widowed mothers. Jane was fortunate.The Austen brothers seem to have been a generous and responsible lot. But in general, single women could not own property and might be one domestic argument with a sister-in-law away from being put out on the street. During her life, Jane Austen was never identified by name as the author of her own books and earned a lifetime total of about £800 from her writing.
These and other insights into the Austen family and village life in the period make the Jane Austen House Museum a very worthwhile day out, about an hour and a half southwest of central London. The house is in the center of the small, pretty village of Chawton. It's a two-story, tile-roofed brick building facing the main street, next to some interesting thatched cottages and across the road from a pleasant pub, The Greyfriar. If you drive, there is a small, free parking area across the road. There's also access to a pretty walk across the edges of some fields to the village church.
Visitor Essentials for Jane Austen's House Museum in Hampshire
- Where: Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton, Alton, Hampshire GU34 1SD
- Telephone: +44 (0)1420 83262
- Opening Hours: March to May: 10:30 - 16:30; June to August: 10:00 - 17:00; September to December: 10:30 - 16:30; closed 24, 25, 26 of December. Last entry is 30 minutes before the advertised closing time.
- Admission: In 2017, standard adult admission was £8.00. There are discounted tickets for student, seniors, and children 6 to 16. Children under 6 get in free. There are also group prices for pre-booked groups of more than 15.
- Getting there by car: From London, take the A3 west, past Guildford, and onto the A31. At the Chawton Roundabout of the A31 and the A32, the house is signposted. SatNav works well in the area and will guide you to the house as well.
- Getting there by train: Trains run hourly from Waterloo Station to Alton, about a mile away. (Visit National Rail Enquiries to plan your train journey) Taxi from Alton station or take the X64 bus from the station to Alton Butts, then walk (10-15 minutes) along Winchester Road to Chawton.