The UK attractions every Jane Austen fan should visit
It’s her writing table that really sets the pulses racing apparently — the 12-sided walnut surface (scarcely big enough for an iPad and a latte) on which Jane Austen wrote Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park. And revised and brought to perfection Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.
This is the inanimate object that visitors to Jane Austen’s House Museum, in the Hampshire village of Chawton, make a beeline for — its former physical proximity, both to the great author and to the raw form of her immortal work, having imbued it with quasi-religious significance for Jane’s legions of followers around the world. But there is an animate object that for some commands almost as much reverence. This is Jeremy Knight, volunteer guide and descendant of the sainted Jane.
I ran into Jeremy in the drawing room where he was standing next to the bookcase and desk that once belonged to his ancestor, the Rev George Austen, Jane Austen’s father. “Edward (Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight) was my great-greatgreat-grandfather,” he confirmed. This makes him (I think) Jane’s great-great-great-great nephew — no wonder he checked the back of his name badge, where he has jotted down the lineage (“I do actually know it but I get muddled,” he said). As we talked, a woman spotted the badge and approached with a mixture of diffidence and excitement: “I just wanted to ask — are you related to the Knight family?” And Jeremy proceeded to make her day.
Knight will be making many people’s days this summer. For July 18 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, at the age of 41, in 1817 and this significant mile- stone has provided a golden focus for a glut of Jane-related books, events and exhibitions. The longdead novelist — whose scope, in her own words, was confined to “three or four families in a country village” — is the gift that keeps on giving so far as publishing and tourism are concerned. And Hampshire in particular — where she was born, lived most of her life and died — is really going to town, with exhibitions in Alton, Gosport and Basingstoke as well as the major Austen sites of Chawton and Winchester.
New for this year, Jane Austen’s House Museum has redecorated two rooms with reproduction wallpapers based on fragments from Jane’s era found in corners of the house, and there is a relatively new element to the overall Chawton experience that encapsulates the dynamic of her novels — from her 17 th-century, red-brick home you can follow in the ghostly swish of her gown to the Elizabethan manor, Chawton House, that belonged to her brother, Edward.
The Chawton House estate passed to Edward from a wealthy and landed branch of the family named Knight. Overnight he became one of the Regency super-rich (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice), whilst Jane and her sister Cassandra remained in genteel impoverishment following the death of their father in 1805 (the Dashwood girls in Sense and Sensibility are in a similar predicament). Their Chawton home was part of the estate and Edward allowed them to live there rent-free. But the “Great House”, as Jane called it, was close enough for them to be frequent visitors. “I went up to the Great House between 3 & 4, & dawdled away an hour very comfortably,” she wrote to Cassandra in 1814.
The manor remained in the Knight family but by the early Nineties had fallen into disrepair, at which point a wealthy American philanthropist named Sandy Lerner scooped it up and transformed it into a resource and study centre for women’s writing known as Chawton House Library. Academics from all over the world study and stay there and a couple of years ago the house itself and the 270 acres of parkland, woods and walled garden that surround it began opening on a regular basis to the public. Jane Austen fans can see the table where she dined, the creaking firstfloor Long Gallery where the ladies would “take a turn” and the room from which she is said to have enjoyed keeping an eye on the drive.
So it was that I dawdled over there myself, past thatched roofs and cottage gardens, to the top of that sweeping drive. And here I experi- enced what one Austenite described to me as a “Pemberley moment” for the view of the house really does chime with Elizabeth Bennet’s first impressions of the “large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground” that is Darcy’s country estate. When Elizabeth thinks to herself, “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” she is conceivably echoing the thoughts of her creator in relation to the “Great House”.
What would Jane have worn for her upwardly mobile visits? A good guess is the splendid silk pelisse, bronze-coloured with an oak-leaf pattern, that is one of the highlights of The Mysterious Miss Austen exhibition currently on at the Discovery Centre in Winchester. The premise of the exhibition, as the co-curator, Louise West, explained, is that Jane Austen is an “elusive” figure about whom
little is known — even if people presume to know with certainty who she was and what she looked like.
I fell into the trap by telling West I reckoned Jane would have been an entertainingly “waspish” person to bump into at a drinks party. The Bank of England has just committed a much more egregious sin by allegedly “airbrushing” her image on the new polymer £10 note.
The silk pelisse is a clue to her physical appearance, showing she was slim and tall, about 5ft 8in. But the centrepiece of The Mysterious Miss Austen exhibition is the collection of six portraits of Jane — two on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, the rest from private collections — that have never been shown together before. They certainly put in perspective the Jane on the tenner though only two (both by her sister) are authenticated as having been done in her lifetime and one of those shows her from behind.
“Some of her family said that was most like her — but why would they say that when you can’t see her face?“said West. “We’ve been led up the garden path — not just by her but by her family — for a very long time.” In a sense the whole Jane Austen industry is built around that journey through the hollyhocks — but it’s an endlessly fascinating saunter and I continued my version of it by going to see the place where she died (possibly of Addison’s disease).
The rather shabby house at 8 College Street, Winchester, had a Lib Dem election poster in the window — which set me wondering about Jane’s likely political affiliations (tick your own boxes here). Attended by Cassandra, she died on the first floor on July 18 1817, lay in her coffin in a downstairs room for a week, and was buried in nearby Winchester Cathedral on July 24 in the presence of her brothers and nephew (but no Cassandra — it was not considered seemly then for women to go to funerals).
Her brothers were responsible for the inscription on the black marble tomb stone, which makes no men-
For details of events across Hampshire visit janeausten200.co.uk.
Jane Austen’s House Museum (01420 83262; jane-austens-housemuseum.org.uk) at Chawton is open daily March-May 10.30am-4.30pm, June-Aug 10am-5pm, Sept-Dec 10am-4.30pm: adults £8, 6-16s £4, family ticket (2+3) £20. On July 7, in conjunction with Chawton House Library it hosts a Talks and Tours Day on Jane Austen (£60pp).
Chawton House Library (01420 541010; chawtonhouse.org) is open Mon-Fri noon-4.30pm, Sun 11am5pm, till October 27: adults £8, 6-16s £4 family ticket £20.
The Mysterious Miss Austen is on at the Winchester Discovery Centre till July 24: Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 11am-3pm; free (01962 873603; hampshireculturaltrust.org.uk/event/mysterious-missausten).
The Mysterious Miss Austen is on at the Winchester Discovery Centre till July 24
Winchester Cathedral (01962 857200; winchester-cathedral.org.uk) has a summer programme of Austen-themed events (programme can be downloaded from the website). This includes one-hour guided Jane Austen Tours, with coffee and cake (from £12.50 per person), outdoor theatre, talks, concerts and a funeral procession on July 24; booking required for all events. Austen’s last home, in College Street, Winchester, is just around the corner from the cathedral close; it’s marked by a plaque but is not open to the public.
The village of Steventon lies about seven miles south-west of Basingstoke. The site of the old rectory is in the field where the road to the church branches off (look outfor the biglime tree).
In Bath the Jane Austen Festival runs from September 8-17: janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk.
tion of her writing whilst referring to “the extraordinary endowments of her mind” (a small brass plaque put up in 1872 makes partial amends, as does the commemorative window above). This mealymouthed memorial struck me as a poor conclusion to my journey so I decided to finish where she started. I drove to the hamlet of Steventon, tucked in folds of countryside and frothy hedgerows just a few miles south-west of Basingstoke.
The church where her father was rector still stands, containing plenty of memorial tablets bearing the names Austen and Knight. But the rectory where Jane was born in 1775 was knocked down a long time ago. All that’s left are indentations in a field, a towering lime tree (planted by her brother James in 1813), and the well, fenced off to prevent sheep and people falling down it.
From this tranquil spot sprang a literary phenomenon that is now out-Shakespearing the Bard (even if, according to Tennyson, Jane Austen was a mere “asteroid” compared with Shakespeare’s “sun”) and making a global celebrity of her descendant and surrogate, the charmingly unaffected Jeremy Knight. “There’s a picture of me on Facebook with two Chinese girls kissing me,” he told me at Jane Austen’s House Museum. “People get very excited and I don’t really get it!”
Portrait of Jane Austin (1775-1817).