Jane Austen has a bit of a cult following. While I may not be as rabid as popular culture depicts some of her fans (see 2013 film, Austenland, for an example), she’s one of my favorite writers.
My relationship with Austen’s work began when I was thirteen. Having skipped after school basketball practice to go see the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in theaters with my mom, I loved the story so much I went straight to the school library the next day to check out the book. I loved the book so much that I read it three times in a row.
My fondness for Austen has only grown over the years. I had read all six of her novels by the time I graduated high school and have revisited all of them since. I had the pleasure of getting to study Sense and Sensibility in college. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to understand her characters on a deeper level. When I was younger, I identified with the playful and witty Elizabeth Bennett. These days, I connect most with the sensible Elinor Dashwood and have developed a soft spot for Anne Elliot.
In 2016, I had the privilege of spending three months living in the English countryside. When I arrived, I learned that my new residence was only a fifteen minute car ride from Chawton, the village where Austen lived from 1809-1817. Naturally, I had to go.
My visit to the Jane Austen House Museum took place on a Sunday afternoon. I went with a few friends, whose love of Austen ranged from casual movie-watcher to rabid book snob. We were a diverse group, hailing from the United States, Canada, and South Africa. Isn’t it wonderful that people from all over the world can come together through a love of literature?
We traveled to Chawton via taxi, which dumped us in the middle of town. Thankfully, the village is very small and the museum was easy to find. You have to pay to enter the house, but the gardens are really lovely and free. There is also a gift shop and an exhibit hall with a video in some of the outer buildings.
The tour of the house is self-guided, although there are staff in many of the rooms to answer any questions you may have. Each room takes you through different aspects of Austen’s life–childhood, education, family, publishing history, etc. There are many artifacts and objects that the Austen family owned sprinkled throughout the house. When I was there, they were celebrating Emma, which had just turned 200. Many of the costumes from the 2009 miniseries starring Romola Garai were on display.
The highlight of the tour, for me, was seeing the table by the window where Jane sat and worked on her manuscripts. Just being in the room made me giddy and excited. This was the room where the drafts of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey were likely revised and readied for publication! This was the room where Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion were written! To be in the same space was enough to make a former English major swoon! I could just picture Jane sitting there, pen in hand, scribbling away on small pieces of paper. I could see her quickly hiding her work from our eyes as we entered the room.
When my friends and I were done, we went on a short walk through the village. It was getting dark, so we couldn’t see much. We made a brief visit to St. Nicholas Church and saw the graves of Austen’s mother and sister. We finished the day at the pub, sipping pints and snacking on chips while we waited for the taxi that brought us home.
During my stay in Hampshire, I felt very close to Jane Austen. Frequently, I’d don an old pair of Wellies and explore the local footpaths. One afternoon, I spent two hours listening to Pride & Prejudice on audiobook while walking through the fields. Those hours were some of my literature-loving heart’s happiest and, sometimes, I still daydream about them.
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