Dispatch from England: Walking through Chawton House

Experience the palace of peace where Jane Austen changed English literature

At the end of a long street lined with cottages, each of them with overflowing flower boxes and sprawling ivy, charmingly neglected, sits Jane Austen’s home. 

A quiet home 

There is a tearoom across the narrow lane, and next to that, the lopsided entrance to a pub. The road is quiet, although the thatched roofed homes have cars in the drive and a few people are wandering about. The fields stretching beyond the lonely village street are stippled with sheep, and peering over the edge of the massive oaks, a church steeple reaches into the air.  It’s not difficult to imagine how Austen came here, made a home within the peaceful stillness of the countryside, in a village that seems accessible only through secret passageway or portal to reach it, and was filled with inspiration.  

Upon entering Austen’s home, the first thing that is made apparent is the respect of the visitors. Each person is walking slowly around the collection of timeless objects; Austen’s muslin shawl still draped in her bedroom; the first edition of Pride and Prejudice preserved in a glass case; Austen’s dark cherry writing table, her blue and white beaded bracelet, her china, paintings, books, furniture, letters and décor, all still perfectly intact, having strongly weathered the test of time. There is an unspoken rule to whisper as though in church –– to gaze upon the writing quills and first editions as though upon an altar. 

A revolutionary career 

While living in Chawton, Jane Austen drafted all six of her major novels: Sense and SensibilityPride and PrejudiceMansfield ParkEmmaNorthanger Abbey and PersuasionDespite the roomy family home, generously gifted by her brother who owned the nearby Chawton Estate, Austen and her family did not intermingle with the neighbouring gentry or entertain many guests. In tranquil seclusion, a happy interim from the world, Austen deepened her talent for introspection and her intelligence for perceiving and comprehending the emotional realm.   

Jane Austen revolutionized English literature for many reasons, but one of the lasting impressions she created on the medium was pivoting from action-centered novels to narrative driven novels with internal developments and thoughtful observations on society. Essentially, her work focused on the minds and hearts of individuals. Though the plots and settings of her novels are not shocking or unusual, Austen’s aim was not to create a dramatic effect or detail a hero’s journey. Instead, Austen described in some of the most beautiful prose of her time and of our own, the intricacies of the human life and mind. This was a drastic turn from the style of other literary figures of the time.  

These points in history are marvellous –– when things change, seemingly spontaneously, as if something new materializes out of thin air, as if inspiration strikes from a realm beyond our reach. However, the setting of Jane Austen’s home in Chawton gives a hint into Austen’s real creative inspiration.  

Jane Austen’s writing desk in her home in Chawton, England. She completed six of her major novels in Chawton House. (Photo by Rachel Cooke)

The charm of Chawton 

Chawton is a place of peace, of windy tree-lined streets edged in crumbling brick walls, of overflowing flower boxes and misty rain, of an ancient chapel juxtaposed with a bustling café. From what is known of Austen’s time in Chawton, the author kept to herself, minded her own business, and rarely mingled with society. Many would say this becomes evident in her novels through the satirical and sarcastic way she discusses the rituals and routines of class society. However, upon attending Austen’s home in Chawton, it is clear the influence penetrated her work in another, more transformative way. Austen’s time in Chawton allowed her mind the serenity and space to sink deeper in her work, to better understand the mental realms of other people and therefore, her characters. Austen was in no rush here. She simply relaxed, let her mind wander and found a talent waiting there for her.  

 Visiting the home of Jane Austen is a surreal experience. With any academic hero, any figure who came into the world with a torch burning, ready to light up the path to new places, there is an element of glory and respect afforded them. To be able to sit where a great mind sat and wander along the paths that inspired her is an experience unparalleled. Upon the first turn of the corner into Chawton, and the first step over the threshold of Austen’s home, a dawning takes place, I realized: This is where incredible things happened that left the world never the same.  

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