‘Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.’ Jane well understood the distractions of everyday life and on Tuesday 18 July, with a diary of media interviews, I was prepared for my own day full of ‘mutton and rhubarb’. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to reach the end of the day having found at least one or two quiet moments to myself.
The first came at 5.00am as I drove to Chawton along the Hog’s Back, an old road, with far-reaching views over Surrey and Hampshire, that Jane knew well. The sun was rising and I was jolted, remembering that Jane had died in the early hours. My thoughts moved to her sister Cassandra’s grief-stricken letters, and the sorrows that are as inevitable to our lives as the dawn is to our planet.
By midday we had waved goodbye to the television crews and it was time to invite everyone to meet in Jane’s garden to hear our colleague Annalie reading from one of those Cassandra-letters. We continued standing in silence for a further minute, reflecting on Jane’s life and her lasting place in our own stories.
Then, after moving on to Winchester for the unveiling of the Jane Austen polymer banknote in the Cathedral where she is buried, it was 5.00pm and I was taking my place for the special Choral Evensong. Incorporating music and prayers that Jane would have known and a wreath-laying by representatives from the worldwide community of Janeites, there could have been no more appropriate a commemoration.
A month on from that important day my thoughts have turned to what Jane herself would have made of this year’s events and our work here in Chawton. Her home a public museum, staffed mainly by women and visited this year by people from countries as far away as New Zealand, Colombia and South Korea? The wallpapers she knew painstakingly recreated, and her private letters on display behind glass?
Or - with a fatigued sigh - the 526 visitors arriving on a single day?