|Jane Austen Society of Australia
Chawton Cottage, Jane Austens House Museum
The house pictured here, fronts right onto the road which until recently led to Winchester. It has however a lovely garden, and the interior has many delights for Janeites.
Here she lived for the last eight years of her life, and here she wrote her last three great novels Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. The house is very much as it was when she lived there - the writing table where she wrote those last three texts, the donkey cart which carried her around when she was too ill to walk, and even the squeaking door which, legend has it, she left unoiled to warn her of people approaching, so that she could hide her writing under something before people actually entered.
The resident trustee, Mr Tom Carpenter, has a theory about that squeaking door. It has usually been assumed to be the door leading from the street straight into the living rooms: Tom Carpenter believes that since any visitors using that front door would obviously knock, therefore giving the required warning for our modest author, it is probable that the squeaking door is actually the one leading to the servants quarters of the house, which does in fact (still) squeak, and would be more likely to have servants and family entering unannounced. A persuasive theory.
Tom Carpenter is a most delightful, informative and welcoming trustee. The Granary, across the courtyard at the rear of the House, has been made over into a seminar room, where he addresses visiting groups on the museum aspect of the house, so that their visit will be made with somewhat more informed eyes.
The memorabilia on sale in this museum is diverse: stationery, pictures, postcards, pens, bags, etc. much larger in scope of course, but similar to the items your Society has organised for you in our Regency Fair.
Apart from the sheer atmosphere of the place, the house also contains some other real treasures. To name just a few: the topaz cross given to Jane by her brother, which perhaps prompted the Mansfield Park episode of Fannys similar gift from her beloved brother; the original statement of Janes assets at the time of her death mainly consisting of her earnings from her writings of nearly £600 or (by Tom Carpenters calculation) some £25-30,000 in todays values; music books, handwritten by Jane herself, which are extremely professional, and are increasingly being explored as another facet of her background and talent; costumes of the period, carefully preserved and displayed; and the most marvellous and comprehensive Jane Austen bookshop you could hope to find.
The very efficient lady in charge of the bookshop, Ann Channon, combs the country for every book in print (and a few out of print), to complete her stock of new and some pre-loved works pertaining to the times, social history, music and literature of our favourite author (and cheerfully sends them home for Australian visitors who cant resist so much temptation). There seem to be many of these the turnover for the bookshop is very high, and the House hosts over 200 people EACH DAY, rising to up to 400 in holiday periods. The House is also a much-utilised source of illustrations and information for the spate of publications newly on the market.
I would like publicly to express my appreciation of the welcome, information and time which Tom Carpenter, Jean Bowden and Ann Channon bestowed on your editor, so that I could report to our members. See Archivist Jean Bowdens report on the activities of the House, and two separate (but equally approving) reports from visitors, elsewhere in this Chawton feature.
Drawing Room of the cottage at Chawton.
A JASA member 'converts' an Englishman
This report from an outsider friend of member Mrs Dorothy Bell, who was her host in England.
Dorothy Bell, on one of her recent visits to England, came to stay with us after her visit to Chawton and the home of Jane Austen. Her enthusiasm was infectious and my wife and I had to admit we had never been there, although it is only about a hundred miles from where we live in The Cotswolds.
Naturally, we took steps to remedy this situation and went some months later. We took a pleasant pub lunch in The Grey Friar, just along the road (believe it or not, there is, immediately opposite Jane Austens House, an olde English tea shoppe called Cassandras Cup!).
We spent the afternoon in the house, which, although not large, is of absorbing interest and full of interesting memorabilia. Indeed, we enjoyed our visit so much that we arranged to take 55 members of The Cotteswold Naturalists Field Club there last September.
Mr T F Carpenter, the principal trustee, descended from the founder of the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, gave us an introductory talk in The Granary, after which we split up and wandered at will, some to the pretty garden, others straight inside. The house is late 17th century, of mellow red brick and in no sense grandiose. One enters at the side, through a small porch into the Drawing Room, which is furnished as it would have been in her time, as indeed is the rest of the house. This leads to the Dining Parlour, where the table is laid with Wedgwood. It is in this room that Jane wrote her novels at the little table by the window.
Up the narrow staircase and one comes to Janes bedroom, which she shared with Cassandra. Next to it is Mrs Austens bedroom, while along the corridor is a room called the Admirals Room, housing artefacts belonging to Janes two sailor brothers. At the far end is a room housing a costume display. Everywhere there are numerous momentoes and souvenirs from Jane Austens stay here.
The house has a charming lived-in atmosphere and one must congratulate the Memorial Trust for the effort they have made to bring this about. Should you visit England you must not fail to go there.
Horace Meunier Harris
bedroom at Chawton.
Letter from Jane Austens House
by Jean Bowden, Archivist, Jane Austen Memorial Trust
When your editor, Helen Malcher, visited Jane Austens House recently, she persuaded us that you would be interested to hear news of life here these days. Well, I have to say that there is never a dull moment, and that no one day is ever like another! We have a small permanent staff at the museum Tom Carpenter is in charge of administration and curation of the collection. It was his grandfather, Mr T Edward Carpenter, who bought and endowed the house, and set up the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, in memory of his son, Toms uncle. Ann Channon is our assistant administrator, Anne Cooper combines work as a steward with research into some of the many queries which we get. Anns daughter helps with group bookings and other clerical work, and I have now stepped down as curator and have become the Trusts archivist I was curator here for ten years and used to live in the House, which was very enjoyable, but I now live in a little thatched cottage in Selborne, four miles away. Apart from all of us, we have about twenty stewards, some of whom come in one day a week, others one day every other week, some once a month which all sounds very complicated but works surprisingly well, as there is always someone available if anyone is off sick or goes on holiday. Mostly we have two stewards on each day, but we find nowadays that we need three, especially in the summer months, and at Bank Holidays we need more still.
Ever since Andrew Davis version of Pride & Prejudice was televised in the (northern) autumn of 1995, the wave of enthusiasm for Jane Austen and her works brought so many visitors to the House that our numbers doubled, and the films of Persuasion, Sense & Sensibility, and Emma have kept up the momentum. Luckily, over the previous ten years, we had the whole house gradually restored, so that it has stood up to the onslaught extremely well, and only needs routine maintenance each winter, such as redecoration. In January of this year, we had a lot of work done in the garden. The whole property is only about an acre, and a lot of that is grassed, but there is still more than our one-morning-a-week gardener can cope with, so Ann and I help with planting out, each spring and autumn. We have a long narrow bed down the west side of the House, where we grow masses of winter-flowering pansies, and when they are over, we put in lots of petunias which can cope with hot sunshine (yes, we do get some!).
When we are very busy at such times as Bank Holidays, to spread people out a little we have various entertainments out in the garden and in The Granary, which is our lecture room. One group of actors, called The Salon, dress up in Regency costume and show visitors how to write with a quill pen, or do embroidery and paint pictures, for example, and they chat to us, but only know up to about 1820! We also have a group who dance to the tunes which Jane used to play for her nieces and nephews. Some very talented musicians also play music from Janes music books, on old instruments. We have Morris dancers, all dressed-up with flowers in their hats (the men too!). One of my favourites is a farm cart drawn by an enormous shire horse which takes visitors on rides around Chawton village.
At the moment, we are lucky enough to have a pelisse which belonged to Jane on display in our little costume museum. Now that we have all the right conditions for such a fragile and precious garment, its owners, Hampshire County Council, kindly lend it to us now and again. The other costumes in the display are of the Regency period, but have no connection with Jane Austen. The costume museum was set up a few years ago, when I realised that quite a lot of people imagined that Jane wore crinolines!
I hope this account has given those of you who have not yet visited us, some idea of what there is to see, and maybe recalled happy memories for those who do know Jane Austens House.
writing desk from which Jane Austen produced her last three masterpieces.
A day-trip to Chawton
A member writes his own report of a visit to the area:
I went backpacking through the UK in January and February 1998, and the highlights of my vacation were Brontė and Austen country. For the latter, I had based myself in London and set out one day for Winchester, leaving Paddington early in the morning.
After the two-hour train journey to Winchester, I strolled through the town looking at the King Alfred monument and the visitors centre. Then into the Cathedral, the highlight of which, for me, was Jane Austens tomb, in the north aisle midway between the Cathedral entrance and the altar. Later I walked across to the house in College Street a few blocks away, where Jane spent the last weeks of her life, with her sister Cassandra, until passing away on 18 July 1817 from the effects of Addisons Disease. The house is a private residence and not open to the public.
After College Street, I took the local Stagecoach bus service (X64) to Chawton. The bus does not pass the cottage, one needs to alight at the big roundabout and walk for ten minutes to the village. After visiting the Jane Austen museum, I took a leisurely 20-minute walk from Chawton up to Alton. By then it was about 4pm, the sun was going, going, gone, and I took the train back to London.
Two views of Chawton House
Chawton House The Great House
Chawton House The Great House as most of you know, has been bought by a foundation set up by Sandy Lerner (see the Yvette Field article), to become a Centre for the Study of Early English Womens Writings. So far, millions of dollars have been spent on the purchase, on careful and extensive planning for the restoration of the house and landscape, and on the acquisition of 1000s of books for the crucial library. Yet still a certain amount of imagination is necessary to picture what will be the end result.
As many of you are aware, this house was well known to Jane Austen, being so close to the cottage in Chawton where she lived from 1809, and being the property of her brother Edward Austen Knight. It stayed in the Knight family till very recently, being then purchased by a charitable foundation set up by Sandy Lerner, and is now being restored to its Austen-era condition, as a research centre.
The house is not, under normal circumstances, open to the public, but the director was kind enough to permit me to visit, and landscape architect Cassie Knight, a direct descendant of Edward Knight (was Cassandra ever Cassie?) was kind enough to show me around and explain the plans for the building, the grounds, the library and the Centre all so that it could be reported to the members of the Australian Society.
The first thing that impresses is the amount of research that has been done on the architectural and landscaping history of the property, and it is this research which gives the Centre the edge in negotiations with local and other governmental bodies. Theres even been a (very preliminary) archeological dig, which has unearthed shards of tiles from the original structure dating back to 1250.
Richard Knight added considerably to the building in 1655 particularly the deep, thick, stone, external walls. Later additions were much less sympathetic to the original, but have left some beautiful (if very dark) wainscoting in many of the rooms. Some William Morris wallpaper from the Victorian period has even been found underneath.The house and grounds are, quite simply, beautiful reminiscent of a more leisured, more spacious time and lifestyle than our own. The grounds are immense, and it was Edward Austen Knight, evidently, who appears to have replaced the formal, early 18th century topiary with the more informal Humphry Repton views and aspects. These are still superb, and will be restored, so that glimpses of the building will be possible even as one drives past on the A32.
There are courtyards, currently cluttered with Victorian architecture, to clear and restore, and a wilderness (we would call it a natural area) originally created by Edward Austen Knight, where the beeches he planted are being nursed back to health. Jane Austen gave the word wilderness new connotations by allowing Henry and Maria to wander off into it in Mansfield Park. There is a walled kitchen garden the size of four tennis courts, and a park for deer and native animals covering several acres, which Edward reclaimed from agriculture. The entire area is being carefully planned for restoration to its late 18th / early 19th century beauty by Cassie Knight, who brings to it a personal touch since it was her familys property, and a real feeling for the beauty of the place. The 1831 Prosser engraving of the house is one of the many that Cassie has accumulated to guide the restoration.
The interior is much harder to imagine. The former front entrance (actually at the side!), with its lovely Elizabethan low timber staircase is being restored for the new Library which will be the heart of the Centre as it develops. The books themselves are not of course yet on site the stock of some 3000 titles is still being kept for conservation and cataloging purposes in the US, until the new home is ready. The stock already includes a number of rare books, as well as long lost ones, giving us new knowledge of the women writers who were the predecessors and occasionally contemporaries of Jane Austen. It is fast developing into a very special collection.
The Library, which will be open to researchers but not to the general public, will occupy most of the upper floor, including former guestrooms, with their marvellous deep hidden window seats, some 8ft deep, originally curtained off from the main room, with a view down the long drive shades of Jane Eyre, hiding from her brutish cousin, with her beloved book of birds!
The Centre organisers are particularly delighted with a recent donation to them of the entire Hardy collection. Whilst this is obviously a very special find, they have also been most encouraged with the works found by members and others, and donated to them: they begin to realise that people generally recognise they have something of interest, but havent till now known what to do with their treasures. So the Centre has a solution and a request: do YOU have any early works by or about early women writers?
Would you be prepared to donate them to the Centre? They would not only be well cared for (much thought is going into conservation), but they would be used to add to the body of research material fast developing at the Centre. Do ring me to discuss this if you wish I would be delighted to organise any suitable materials to Chawton.
The Centres Newsletter, The Female Spectator can also be sent (absolutely free) to those of you interested in news of the development. If you would like to have yourself included on the mailing list for this publication, do fax / phone / email our Newsletter editor, and your names will be sent over to Chawton. There has been something of a gap since the last issue of this publication, as they have had a change in editors, but a new issue is due very shortly.
Our interest in all things related to Jane Austen can only be enhanced by the presence in her last village home of two such strong centres the Museum at the public level, with superb resources for further research, and the Centre for the study of Janes contemporaries and earlier writers.
We are fortunate that they exist with aims so closely aligned to our own.
at her 40-room,
By Tracy A. Woodward/
Sandy Lerner Chawton House Philanthropist
A network of One - Washington Post, 25 March 1998
This long article on Sandy Lerner, the woman who has made possible the transformation of Chawton House into a Centre for the Study of Early English Womens Writing, was written by a staff reporter, Linton Weeks. The two subheadings: Cyber-Millionaire Sandy Lerner is Definitely Off the Beaten Track and Revelling in Wealth and Weirdness already give much of the flavour of the article. Since we cannot reproduce it in full, we have resorted to a mix of re-reporting, summary, quotes and occasional comment. Anything in brackets is where the re-reporter could not help herself! Sandy has been called the darling of the Jane Austen world and its no wonder, given the life and funds shes breathing into Chawton House, and into the study of Jane Austens female contemporaries and predecessors.
The Washington Post reporters interview was conducted at Ayrshire Farms, the estate in Loudon County, Virginia which Sandy Lerner bought last year for $US7 million and made her primary residence, having said sayonara to Silicon Valley. The estate is 800 acres of rolling hills and meticulous fences ... a storybook farm with sweeping meadows...stately horses(sic) and a spectacular view (of) purplish mountains the colour of her eyeliner. Her appearance is described in full colour: Purple dye in the long, flowing black hair; storm-cloud blue polish on the nails; and bruise-blue shadow above and below the eyes - computer industry multi-millionaire Sandy Lerner looks a mite like Morticia Addams, the alluring, alarming mother in The Addams Family.
Lerner enjoys the comparison, and loved the TV version of the series. She has no problem with being, as Weeks writes, creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky and likes the Addams family, because on TV they taught us to be tolerant and also they were totally in love with one another.
She lives on Ayrshire Farms with 20 staff, 24 horses, 60 head of cattle, 30 chickens but no permanent companion, because like most nerds, I need a lot of time alone. The house is beautiful Built in 1912-13, the stone residence has a $250,000 copper roof, 17,000 square feet and 40 rooms, including a room for wrapping presents, a trunk room and a gown closet the size of a subway sandwich shop. There is also an elevator. This is where I want to die, Lerner says.
Its not where she wants to live, however. That would be too ordinary. She spends her nights in a two-bedroom cabin near a corner of the farm. The main house is mostly for show and for fund-raisers for groups such as the MS Foundation and the local humane society.
Her neighbours are finding out just how outside the box she can be. Her wealth excites great interest and has attracted an article in Forbes Magazine. When a photographer was sent to take her picture last year, she posed naked on a horse. There has also been some trouble with the neighbours who have successfully objected to plans she had to open a pub in the neighbouring county. She wanted to do this, she said, because there was nowhere to eat lunch. Except the country store that makes terrible ham sandwiches. In her disappointment she was reported in the county paper as saying the most vocal people have very little going on in their life ...The danger of the small town is that the mind sort of takes on the size of the town. She is not moving though; she likes having for the first time ever, her horses and cats in one place. The locals say they have nothing against her personally, and rather revel in her eccentricity.
She was born on Bastille Day in 1955, her mother dressed windows for a local store, and her father was an artist whose work she thought was trite and boring. Her parents divorced when she was four and although her mother kept her younger brother, she was sent to live with her Aunt Doris and Uncle Earl on a Californian ranch. (It was the illness of this beloved uncle which actually prevented her coming to speak to our Christmas luncheon last year.) They were always busy, she recalled. Here she learnt to be alone, tended the farm, read a lot and at nine, joined a 4-H club, (which seems to be a place to learn public speaking) and this experience she considered invaluable. (Perhaps it gave her the confidence to speak out and refuse to settle for any form of a subservient life).
As a young girl, she was a rebel with many causes. She refused to pledge allegiance to the flag in school. She protested the Vietnam War as a 13 year old and was hassled by police. She graduated from high school at 16, and worked for a bank for a year and a half. It was there she first encountered sex discrimination. The President would make us kneel on the floor, she recalls, so he could check the length of our skirts.
Hell it was. But it scared her into California State University at Chico, and once she got there she didnt look back. She took to comparative communist theory like a Bolshevik and graduated in two years, determined to never go back to that bank.
The first time she saw a computer she felt it as a religious experience. This was as a grad student of econometrics. In 1977 she moved to Stanford University to major in computational mathematics, which is where she became part of a group of very hard-core computer nerds who worked until all hours and mostly never washed. She did, and so did Len Bosack (but they were drawn together by more than hygiene). She loved his intellect and humour and he saw her similarly, Shes bright. Shes quick with intelligence and a sense of humour, he says.
The two had a fibre-optic-speed romance and married while still in
school. Together they saw a way to solve a problem.
When Cisco systems became a public company in 1990, Lerner parted company with the management and Bosack walked out too. Between them they had around $US170 million. Their marriage had broken up because, as Lerner says, they didnt talk, but they are still friends and business associates even though he is now in Washington state and she is in Virginia. Much of their money has been put into an irrevocable trust bound for charities when the two friends die. They have formed a catchall company, Ampersand Capital, which has a charitable division overseeing projects for the humane treatment of animals, such as Lab Rat and PetNet. Their present innovative computer work is concerned with sound recordings that are of much higher quality than compact discs. She works long hours on this at home in Ayrshire, as the reporter found:
Rebellion is still an instinct. For every action theres an opposite reaction. Lerner is a reactor right down to her nucleus. After the success of the router made her a multimillionaire, her aunt suggested that maybe now she would start dressing maturely and wearing makeup. Instead, she started a kooky cosmetic company called Urban Decay which sells lipsticks and nail polishes with names like Gash or Storm Drain or Asphyxia.
Linton Weeks writes that Lerner lives an asynchronous life - perfectly comfortable in the 19th and 21st centuries but out of kilter in the 20th. This could explain how a self-styled computer nerd has passion and energy directed to Jane Austen and related studies so that she is the darling of the Jane Austen world.
(In a letter to the friends of Chawton centre she wrote that she bothered to restore Chawton to
give scholars experience of living, working, and writing in 18th century conditions. The residential sections of Chawton House will have very discreet plumbing, electricity and heating, and these may be disused at the scholars discretion. We are hopeful that scholars will choose to make chamber pots, candles, and quilts a part of their everyday existence and to live, work, and write much as their foremothers did. Female Spectator Vol. 1, No.2, Spring 1996
Another example of the asynchronous life?)
Unfettered, rich and 35, Lerner didnt retire. Shes not the retiring type the reporter says of the time when Lerner sold out of Cisco in 1990. Her need to be alone, is more creative than is suggested by the term retiring as the last paragraph of the article demonstrates:
Mostly she wants to be alone to ride Izzy, her adored
gelding, to look at the Blue Ridge, to tinker with her machines. If she didnt
have her other commitments, she says, she would spend the next six weeks, or long-er,
locked away in her recording studio, sleep-ing every once in a while, having her food
brought in, exploring the intricacies of sound. Or she might do something else.