Today, in addition to my usual self, I am the newly-arrived ‘resident writer’ at the Museum. Arriving by train from South London, I walk from Alton station through the little town and out into Chawton village. It is chocolate box pretty. At the Cottage, I am kindly and warmly welcomed and tactfully left alone, which is a joy. I walk around the garden. The forecast threatened rain and there are spots and splashes. Celia, whose hard work keeps the garden so perfectly in tune with the house, already has a loaded wheelbarrow and is fully engaged with a hoe. I peer at the names of old familiars and names new to me. All the plants are those which would have been known and commonly grown before and during Austen’s time. Some of them are named in her correspondence: Peony, Sweet William, Columbine, Syringa.
The garden fills and empties as small waves of people arrive and ripple in and out, stooping and lifting a bough or a stem for the definitive scent of an English country garden. The air here is wonderful – a full breath of a Hampshire summer. Later, a little further along in the village, the scent of the Lime trees, the sheep and meadow grasses is an intoxicating mix. The house is brimming and Jane isn’t there but along the village lane towards Chawton House Library there is no-one but the birds and within moments the landscape seems as if it might accommodate her step. I walk as far as the turning, from where I can look down the lane that leads to the Manor and see it turn into the drive and carriage sweep that marks the approach to the House. Chawton House, an Elizabethan Manor House, is now the Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing, a wonderful Library and research resource and here it is, at the end of the prettiest of villages where one of our greatest novelists lived and wrote her most important work. Extraordinary!
Beside it is St Nicholas’s church, where Jane Austen’s Mother and beloved sister Cassandra are buried. I save these for another day and turn back to the Museum.
In the dining parlour I marvel, as everyone must, at the tiny circular table on which Jane wrote. She would hide the papers away swiftly if anyone came to call. For imaginative writing, or the evidence of its creation, makes us all uneasy doesn’t it? Both the writer interrupted and the interrupter who, having disturbed the writer, witnesses the disorder, the furrowed brow, the general air of distraction somehow called to order. I spend a long time with the table.
As I leave, I am about to buy a copy of Deirdre Le Faye’s latest edition of the Letters but it is a big book and my bag is already heavy: something else to leave for the next time. Later, when I get home, I look along the shelves to see if I still have somewhere a copy of The Watsons. I can’t find it. I look in my Mother’s room. She died last year, in her early nineties but after all those years her shelves still hold surprises for me. Instead of The Watsons I find a faded, well-loved copy of the Letters, edited by R. Brimley Johnson and published in 1925. On the frontispiece it says ‘Out of print £1.00’ and inside many phrases are underlined in pencil. A postcard from the Wallace Collection, unwritten, Fragonard’s The Swing, saves a page and I read:
‘An inclination for the country is a venial fault. He has more of Cowper than of Johnson in him – fonder of tame hares and blank verse than of the full tide of human existence at Charing Cross’
(letter to her sister Cassandra, November 1813)
I look forward to my next visit, leaving behind me the pulsing city and looking out for a tame hare.