Crown Jewels (opened in 1949)
Crown Jewels (opened in 1949)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man
in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s House
Winchester Rd, Chawton, United Kingdom
Jane Austen’s nephew observed of his aunt, “Of events her life was singularly barren, few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course.” Although Jane may have had a seemingly placid existence, she never left England; she nevertheless had her share of sunshine, of storm.
Two centuries after Jane Austen’s passing, her cottage in Hampshire still retains her presence. With those who see the world through an imaginative prism, Elizabeth and Darcy characters from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice stroll along the garden path as Miss Austen peers through her home’s mullioned windows.
In the blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet of Steventon, in Hampshire, Jane was born in 1775. Her father, the Reverend George Austen and his wife, Cassandra, had eight children; with six brothers, Jane and her elder sister Cassandra shared a life-long bond. The full house was further crowded as the rectory doubled as a boys’ boarding school. In 1779, Thomas Knight, a wealthy relative, along with his wife Catherine, were so taken by the twelve-year-old Edward Austen they became his adoptive parents. Another absent sibling from the parsonage was the second-born George; disabled, he lived with a foster family. Cassandra and Jane studied at Oxford, Southampton, where they almost succumbed to typhus. School ended for Jane at age eleven as her parents could not afford the tuition of the Abbey School in Reading.
Eliza Hancock, the daughter of Philadelphia, the Reverend’s sister, helped ignite Jane’s passion for writing. As the wife of the Comte de Feuillide, she shared stories of life in Paris. After her husband lost his life to the guillotine during the French Revolution, financially and emotionally destitute, Eliza stayed for a time at the rectory home. When James, one of the Austen brothers became a widower, he temporarily left Ana, his two-year-old daughter, in the care of his family.
Cassandra and Jane were poised to embark on their search for their Holy Grail: landing suitable husbands. Enamored with matrimony, Jane penned imaginary wedding entries in the parish register. A contemporary described her as “a husband hunting butterfly.” At a 1796 ball, Jane met Thomas Lefroy, and in a letter wrote, “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself…everything most shocking.” When word reached the Lefroys, they disapproved of the girl devoid of a dowry. Thomas left for London, married an heiress, and became Chief Justice of Ireland. He named his daughter Jane.
At age twenty-six, Jane stayed at Manydown Park, a 1,500-acre, home of Hampshire heir, Harris Bigg-Wither. He popped the question-her ticket to escape the stigma of old maid and the specter of poverty. Initially, Jane responded with a practical yes; twenty-four hours later, her heart trumped expediency. Some potential reasons for not grasping the marital life preserver: he had a stutter; she did not want to take on his surname; she preferred the progeny of pen and paper over those of flesh and blood. Thomas Fowle, Cassandra’s fiancé, a minister and former student of her father, died from yellow fever. The sisters never wed their Darcy and lived together for the remainder of their lives.
With the door of romance closed, Jane turned to her true passion. Her writing nook was her twelve-sided wooden table with just enough room for her paper and ink quill. Her father sent Pride and Prejudice to a publisher who rejected the manuscript. Undeterred, Jane began Northanger Abbey.
A wrecking ball to Jane’s soul occurred when George, at age seventy, announced his retirement that entailed leaving Steventon. Along with his wife and daughters, the Reverend relocated to Bath. After his death, his family drifted to various addresses, living off the charity of the Austen brothers. The years without a room of her own proved artistically fallow. Serendipity stepped in when Henry, heir to his adoptive parents’ fortune, offered his mother and sisters the use of Chawton Cottage located near his Elizabethan manor in Hampshire. A delighted Jane wrote, “Our Chawton home when complete, will all other houses beat.” Through another brother’s intercession, a London publisher bought Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. At her table, Jane birthed further literary greats: Mansfield Park and Emma. By 1816, John Murray, Lord Byron’s publisher, took her on as a client. Although her books did not mention her name-authorship was “By a Lady,” her identity leaked. Proof positive of her success was the Prince Regent (the future George IV) kept all her novels in each of his residences. When he requested that she dedicate Emma to him, she complied under pressure as she disliked the profligate royal.
Wrapped in the cocoon of her home and her novels’ success, illness intruded. Some theories are Jane suffered from Addison’s Disease or Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Cassandra took her to Winchester for medical treatment but to no avail. With her head in her sister’s lap, at age forty-one, Jane passed away. Cassandra lamented, “She was the sun…the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow…and it as if I had lost a part of myself.”
The reign of Jane Austen has outlasted her interment in Winchester Cathedral. Sir Walter Scott praised her mastery, Winston Churchill brought her novel on a White House visit, Charles Darwin’s wife read Jane’s books at his sickbed. Helen Fielding, in her novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, christened her character Mark Darcy. The author’s face stared back from the £10 along with a quotation from Pride and Prejudice, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” And part of Jane’s enduring appeal stems from Colin Firth who, as Mr. Darcy in the 1996 film version of Pride and Prejudice, emerged from a lake, his Regency-era shirt clinging to muscled torso.
The Mecca for Janeites is Chawton Cottage where visitors can reverentially view the writer’s sacred treasures. On display is Jane’s writing table, letters, first editions of novels of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. There is a portrait of Edward Austen and silhouettes of the Reverend and Mrs. Austen, A brass frame holds a lock of Jane’s hair that Cassandra took from her deceased sister. A gold ring with an oval turquoise stone passed into Cassandra’s possession, as did most of Jane’s possessions. In 2012, a descendent of the Austens put the ring up for auction at Sotheby’s; the winning bid of $230,000 came from American Idol alumni, Kelly Clarkson. Outraged, Britain declared the ring a national treasure and placed a ban on its export. In stark juxtaposition to the Regency mementoes is a 1990s Clueless doll replete with accessories, (including a feather pen), in the original box. The inclusion is a nod to the movie that director Amy Heckerling based on Jane’s 1815 novel, Emma. Devotees raised the funds to purchase the memento for the museum.
One of the legions of pilgrims who journeyed to Hampshire was Queen Consort Camilla. Giddy after viewing Colin Firth’s Darcy shirt, she lamented, “But he’s not in it, that’s a bit sad.” Alluding to the garment’s wet t-shirt moment, she remarked to the doyenne, “You could give it a good spray.” Cheeky Camilla is not alone in her reverence for the Jane Austen House’s crown jewels.