One of the most universally held daydreams of Janeites (perhaps second only to dancing with Mr. Darcy) is a visit to Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen's home where she lived so happily with her sister Cassandra, her mother and their friend Martha Lloyd, and where her writing at last truly flowered. For me, the dream came true in 2012 when I was following the Jane Austen Trail as research for my literary suspense A Jane Austen Encounter.
Last October, at the Jane Austen Society of North America AGM in Montreal, I had the pleasure of visiting with Mary Guyatt, the curator of the Jane Austen House Museum, who was attending her first JASNA conference. I wanted to learn about the challenges of maintaining a world famous museum and to hear her goals for the future of this cherished site.
First, I asked Mary about her background. "Have you always loved Jane Austen?" I asked.
"Yes, I always loved reading, and Jane Austen was certainly part of that," she replied. But she studied architecture, not English literature and she came to Jane Austen's House after 15 years working in museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
"It's important to look after buildings as well as the collections. The thing about the Chawton Cottage Museum is that it has so much character."
Guyatt said that one of the things she enjoys most about her job is that every day is so diverse. "We're a small team, so everybody takes a hand in everything from running the house to the gardening to correspondence."
When asked about her greatest surprise in the job she said, "The amount of press interest. Of course, it's all down to Jane Austen's popularity."
Guyatt said her biggest challenge is keeping the very special atmosphere of Jane Austen's House while building the income and presenting the collection professionally. "It takes balance."
Among her goals for the future are to gain a grant to develop the collection. Chawton Cottage has items from Jane's family and Guyatt hopes the museum can provide a permanent home for more such artifacts.
"2017 will be the last of the centenaries celebrating the publication of Austen's novels. We want to have the house and garden looking its best ever for that. We plan to hold a national exhibition then."
Guyatt said her job at the Jane Austen Conference was simply letting people know about Chawton Cottage. "I just met my first person who didn't know anything about the place," she said with understandable surprise, considering that we were surrounded by several thousand Janeites.
"We have also just launched Jane Austen's ring." The museum commissioned a jeweler who lives near the museum to create authentic copies of Jane's own gold and turquoise ring, which is on display at the Jane Austen House Museum. It is inscribed inside the band with the maker's hallmark and the word "Chawton," copied from Jane's hand. "There are other replicas," Mary Guyatt said, "But we own the original." Details here
Elizabeth and Richard thoroughly enjoyed their visit to the Chawton Cottage Museum in A Jane Austen Encounter, in spite of Elizabeth's being accosted by a suspicious young man in the garden. As in all my books, I attempt to give my readers a you-are-there experience by sharing some of my own impressions through my characters:
They began in the drawing room. Elizabeth admired the small spinet piano in the corner where Jane was said to practice almost every morning before she fixed her family's breakfast. Elizabeth went on imagining Jane's day as she turned to the tiny, pedestal table by the window, now holding only a quill pen in a tiny ink well. She smiled at the tact of the museum curators who had placed a small posey of lavender tied with a satin ribbon on the cane-bottomed chair. Much nicer than a sign saying Do not sit. But who would? It was much to better to see Jane sitting here after breakfast while her mother gardened and Cassandra and their friend Martha Lloyd saw to the housekeeping duties.
Elizabeth longed to run her hand over the table. With a sense of standing on holy ground she imagined Jane revising the books the world now knew as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and then, buoyed by their publication, going on to write Mansfield Park. Emma, and Persuasion all on the little squares of paper she could tuck under a blotter should she be taken unawares. She referred to them as her 'little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.'
. . .
Elizabeth moved on to the dining parlour. Here was the fireplace where Jane prepared the family tea and toast each morning and a square mahogany table like the one where they sat to eat. A sign by the door gave a calculation of Jane's earnings from her writing: £40,000 in today's terms. "That would be close to $80,000. I'm so pleased she saw that much return. It must have been enormously gratifying to her, after not having so much as a farthing of her own before. Such a shame she couldn't have enjoyed it longer."
. . .
In the bedroom Elizabeth was admiring the bowed canopy bed like the one Jane and Cassandra would have shared, imagining how cozy it would have been when the ivory draperies were closed like a tent, when Richard joined her. "I longed for a bed like this when I was a child," she said. The wide, bare floorboards, however, were less appealing. "But I would want a fuzzy rug when I got out of bed on a cold morning with bare feet."
"And think how cold it would have been washing on a winter morning." Richard indicated the adjoining closet furnished with a bowl and pitcher for the ladies' ablutions.
Elizabeth was about to move on when she paused at the framed letter by the door. With a lump in her throat Elizabeth read Cassandra's letter to her niece Fanny, written two days after Jane's death:
My dearest Fanny,— Doubly dear to me now for her dear sake whom we have lost. . .
Elizabeth swallowed. Jane seemed so close to her here, almost as if she might come in at any moment, perhaps returned from one of the shopping trips to nearby Alton which she enjoyed so much.
Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.