Something that can be overlooked in a museum is the history of the museum itself. As a "House Museum" part of our story is told through the bricks and mortar, but naturally the focus of our attention is on the house as it would have been at the time Jane Austen lived here (1809-17) and to a lesser degree beyond those years to 1845 when Jane's sister Cassandra died and the cottage was no longer the home of the Austen ladies.
In 1884 in the introduction to his collection of Jane Austen's Letters Lord Brabourne, great nephew of Jane and Cassandra, gave a warning to admirers of Jane Austen who "might take it into their heads to make a pilgrimage to the place [Chawton]" that "It is built in rather a straggling, irregular style."
"There is nothing in it either beautiful or romantic, nothing to associate it with the memory of the immortal Jane... "
A memorial plaque was mounted on the outside of the house in 1917 to mark the 100th anniversary of Jane's death, however there was no thought of a museum at this time. In 1947 Edward Knight, great grandson of Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight, needed to sell much of his Chawton Manor estate, including the cottage which had once been Jane’s home. Miss Dorothy Darnell and her sister Miss Beatrix Darnell, who had in 1940 established the Jane Austen Society with the aim of being able to purchase the cottage to provide a memorial to Jane Austen and her work, wrote to the Times newspaper inviting donations to a fund they were raising to in hope of acquiring the house.
The Hampshire Countryside reported:
"The aim of the Jane Austen Society is to acquire Chawton Cottage and while keeping it in repair and the main part of it in use as living accommodation, to make those rooms which are definitely associated with Jane Austen accessible to the public. Although there can be no question at present of vacant possession of the whole house, the Society will be able to get possession of the drawing-room which would make an ideal nucleus for the place of pilgrimage the Society hopes to establish."
The House first opened as a Museum in 1949; at the time some tenants were still living in parts of the house. The Museum has grown and been developed over the years. It was only in 2009 that a separate entrance to the Museum was created, rather than visitors paying on arrival in the drawing-room, and we were able for the first time to open the kitchen to the public, bringing the majority of the House into the visitor experience. (We do still have a few corners where we have tucked offices away, but generally our visitors are able to see the whole house).
The photograph above shows the drawing-room in the 1950s and features Mr Austen's Bureau, the Clementi Piano, the chaise longue (which was found in the attic) and a portrait of two of Francis Austen's children, Mary-Jane and George. The mirror above the bureau is one that was owned by the Austen family and is currently in need of conservation. The other frame contains fragments of the wallpaper which was discovered when shelving was removed from the area of the window at the front of the house that was blocked off in 1809.
If you look closely it is possible to see that the floor has neither floorboards nor carpet. Although the Austens would have had rugs, this room had a flagstone floor and although the ladies would have spent their evenings in this room it certainly was not a grand room. Floorboards were not installed until 1983.
Below are two more recent photographs of the same room. The first was taken circa 2009 and the second in 2015.
Today the room has a much more homely, and we hope welcoming, feel. The appearance of the top half of Mr Austen's Bureau Bookcase has us all wondering where it was in the 1950s photo. The Clementi can also now be seen with music books in place, inviting visitors to play. Before the mid 1990s it was not possible to play the Clementi as it had not been restored.
In Regency Week this year we took small groups of visitors to visit the attics for the first time, sharing one more of the 'behind the scenes' parts of the museum. Jane mentioned the 'garrets' in a letter to Cassandra when the move to Chawton was first considered, and it is through Jane's letters that we piece together the life at Chawton and how the Austen ladies and their friend Martha lived their lives here. We use all documentary evidence available to us to inform the layout of the Museum and the items we put on display, bringing at one time one story into focus while another recedes. At times, with new knowledge, we have to reinterpret what we have on display and how it relates to the story of Jane Austen. Similarly, at times we need to reconsider what we know of the history of the house and the Museum as they too have stories to tell.
Madelaine Smith - Marketing & Events