Monday, January 28, 2013

My Pilgrimage to Chawton - Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of P&P

Our Chawton Home, how much we find
Already in it to our mind;
And how convinced that when complete
It will all other houses beat
That ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise or rooms distended.

Letter from Jane to her brother James

Like thousands of pilgrims before me, last spring, I journeyed to Chawton Cottage, the residence of Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, mother Cassandra, and friend Martha Lloyd, during the last eight years of her life. It is a lovely house where Jane went to work revising Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as well as writing Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.

Prior to her brother, Edward Austen Knight, providing his sisters and mother with the cottage, Jane had lived in Bath for a few years, and biographers agree that she was not happy there. Despite the pump room, assembly rooms, teas, dances, and gardens, Jane longed for the country and left Bath with “happy feelings of escape.” Her brother’s generosity of providing Jane with a house in the country is a gift to all of us. The years between Jane leaving Steventon Rectory and her arrival in Bath were fallow, but upon her arrival at Chawton, she more than made up for it.

Chawton’s setting is much more rural than it was in Jane’s time as the cottage was at the juncture of three roads, so there was hustle and bustle right outside her door. I was pleased to see just how roomy the house was. With Cassandra seeing to the running of the household, Jane would have had the time, space, and solitude she needed to write her brilliant novels. I especially liked how much the floorboards creaked. As Jane worked, the movements of her family and friend  would have served as a background to her writing.

While standing in Jane’s bedroom, I found the house meant a good deal more to me than I had expected. I have five sisters (four living), and growing up in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in North Jersey, we all shared a bedroom (two bunks, two sisters in one bed, and a folding cot in the middle). So there was nothing unusual about the idea of Cassandra and Jane sharing a bed. The room oozed sisterly affection, and it brought back good memories for me.

I had gone to Chawton expecting to examine the artifacts of a great writer, but it turned out to be so much more than that. I honestly felt Jane’s presence and her contentment at being in a place she loved, with people she loved, and doing what she loved. It was truly inspirational.

Congratulations on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Price and Prejudice. Your writing changed the world.

(This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors blog.)


  1. Lovely post, Mary. It was neat that you loved the creaking floor boards and your reason for it. I liked that! I did not get to see Chawton Cottage when we went to England but I can imagine it being inspirational. Seeing Bath and her place there, the Peak District and other places in England made an impression on me that I will never forget. I long to go back and visit again. There is so much more that I want to see and do. It was like stepping back in time to the world of Jane Austen. Thanks for sharing your feelings with us.

  2. Thanks, Janet. On this trip, we did not go north of London, and I have never been to Chatsworth or the Peak District. I have another trip in my future (I hope).

  3. I shared a bed with my sister, but we fought like cats & dogs as a kid. I moved into a bedroom without heat just to get away!
    Hope to visit someday!

    1. I fought with my sister who was closest to me in age until I was about 25, and now we're best of friends. It was just that we were opposites in personality and outlook. I wanted a VW Beetle, and she wanted a Jag. :)

  4. Glad you had a nice visit to Jane's home! Were you able to see the Chawton House Library as well?

    1. Hi June. My husband and I got there quite late in the day, and it was pouring. So we didn't go over to the library, but I hope to go back.

  5. Hi Mary, it's so cool you got to go to Chawton! I love hearing your impressions of it and the memories it brought to you with your sister. I have no sisters. Thanks for sharing!