First Impressions

2 Aug 2014

My name is Hannah Francis, and I was fortunate in securing a work experience placement here at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton for a week in the summer. Being a keen reader of the Classics of English Literature, I have always been a great admirer of Jane Austen and have enjoyed most of her works as well as the biography written by Claire Tomalin, so being able to spend a week in and around the house where she once lived was a great privilege.


One of my tasks during the week was to go through the several visitors’ books from 2013, and count the number of visitors to the museum and record each of the countries they had come from. It was interesting to see such a variety of countries of origin of the visitors, with a total of 83 different countries. I was amazed at this. Over a third of the visitors came from the United States, with a large proportion also coming from other English speaking countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia. European countries such as Norway and Germany were also popular, as well as far Eastern countries including China and Japan. For me, however, it was most interesting to see the great number of countries with cultures so different from our own, and for whom the goings on within the Austen novels must be so unusual and strange, so it was wonderful to see that people from all over the world, in every continent, enjoy the works of Jane Austen.


During my time spent around the Museum, it often struck me that there are some obvious parallels between the cottage Jane and her relations lived in, and the houses she wrote about in her novels. For example, her description of Barton Cottage in Sense and Sensibility includes the phrase, “a narrow passage led directly through the house into the garden behind. On each side of the entrance was a sitting room about sixteen feet square, and beyond them were the offices and the stairs”. When you look at Chawton cottage and consider that the front door was originally facing the road, this description fits almost exactly, which suggests that the image of the cottage may have been what Austen had in mind when writing this passage.                                                                                          


Another aspect was the connection between Chawton House and the cottage, which was part of the Chawton estate. InSense and Sensibility the Dashwoods move to Barton Cottage, on the estate of Barton Park which is owned by a distant relative, Sir John Middleton. The Chawton estate belonged to Edward Knight, an elder brother of Jane and Cassandra whom had been adopted by a wealthy and childless family, so the idea of a wealthy relative offering a home to his female relatives has almost certainly come from this situation of the Austen women.                                                                                                                                                                               

A similar idea has an appearance in Persuasion, highlighting the connection between Uppercross Cottage (in which Charles and Mary Musgrove live), and the big house in which their family, including Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, live. Austen writes that the cottage, “was quite as likely to catch the traveller’s eye, as the more consistent and considerable aspect and premises of the Great House, about a quarter of a mile farther on”. Austen herself referred to Chawton House as “the Great House”, so it seems likely that this would have been the inspiration for this particular passage.


I was privileged enough to see inside the Archives of the Museum, where the valuable items not currently on display inside the house are kept. One such of these was a book belonging to Jane Austen about walks and excursions in and around Bath, which was probably in her possession while she lived there. Whilst looking through this book, I found a reference to Stourhead, an 18th century estate in Wiltshire now owned by the National Trust which I myself have frequently visited with my family. Stourhead is known for its landscape garden containing classical temples and follies which surround the central lake, and the book contained an in-depth description of all of these features, including the Temple of Apollo and the Pantheon. I found it fascinating to think that this beautiful estate has remained largely unchanged since the publication of this book at the end of the 18th century, and that I, as a modern day visitor to the site, am able to read the book with an appreciation of the estate, in much the same way that Jane Austen, or any other owner of this edition of the book, would have been able to do 200 years ago.


I found that being inside the Museum helped me put into context everything that has an appearance in the novels, from some of the more unusual objects to those that seem obvious even to a modern day reader. For example, in Pride and Prejudice there is a reference to Lydia dealing with fish, “Lydia talked incessantly of lottery tickets, of the fish she had lost and the fish she had won”. To a modern reader, this seems like an odd sentence, but the fish in question would, in fact, have been small counters made of ivory in the shape of fish. These would have been used for harmless gambling games, hence why Lydia wins and loses them, and there is such a box of fish in the museum.

My week at the museum has been brilliant, as I have not only been able to gain an insight into the running of a museum, but I have also been able to discover more about Jane Austen and her works through the various tasks that I have been set to do. It has been a wonderful experience and I would thoroughly recommend it as a placement for anyone looking for some work experience, particularly a lover of literature like myself.


Hannah Francis

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An independent museum established in 1947
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