Other Worlds, Dame Nellie Melba and Oscar Wilde, Savoy Hotel
Two of the greatest performers of their time had an unlikely friendship, and crossed paths in London and Paris at key points in their lives.
At the end of a verse to her brother celebrating the birth of one of her nephews, Jane Austen expressed delight in her new home.
Our Chawton home, how much we find
Already in it to our mind;
And how convinced that when complete
It will all other houses beat
That ever have been made or mended
With rooms concise or rooms distended
The cottage at Chawton was Jane Austen’s last permanent home before she died. It is the place most associated with her writing, where she revised earlier drafts of her work and wrote three new novels. According to her family, these were the happiest years of her life.
Chawton came after five years of insecurity and anxiety for Jane, her mother and sister Cassandra. On the death of Jane’s father George Austen in 1805, they had been left in a precarious financial position (see here for a story about this period in their lives). Reliant on the goodwill and charity of others, they were obliged to move around, first to less salubrious premises in Bath. For a while they lived in Southampton with the girls’ brother Frank, but shortly after their arrival, he was forced to leave to go away to sea (he was a naval officer). During this period, Jane’s writing had come to a virtual stop.
Then a fortuitous offer came from the girls’ eldest brother Edward. As a boy he had been adopted by a wealthy distant kinsman, Thomas Knight. Now Edward had come into a substantial inheritance and early in 1809 he offered his mother and sisters the use of a large cottage rent free on his estate at Chawton in Hampshire. Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane, together with their friend Martha Lloyd, accepted immediately and Edward set about making the cottage as comfortable as possible.
On 7 July 1809 they moved in to the two-storey former farmhouse in a pretty village. It had a substantial garden and was surrounded by farmland and hop fields. The relief for all four women must have been immense, and its significance shines through in the novels Jane conceived here. Heroines Fanny Price and Anne Elliot have strong emotions about their homes and the prospect of losing them is akin to losing a part of themselves.
At Chawton Jane came into her own. A Hampshire woman through and through, in these rural surroundings she felt happy and properly settled for the first time since leaving her childhood home at Steventon. As her biographer Claire Tomalin writes, ‘It was as though she were restored to herself, to her imagination, to all her powers: a black cloud had lifted.’ Jane now embarked on the most prolific period of her life.
Certain other factors contributed to this creative flourishing. Mrs Austen was growing old and wanted a quiet life, and the sisters (and probably Martha too) were settling into spinsterhood. With no pressure to find a husband, they no longer had to engage in the extensive social activities that had consumed much of their time, which freed them to pursue their own interests.
And, most importantly, a decision was made by Cassandra and their friend Martha to shoulder the burden of household chores that accumulated despite the presence of a cook and a maid. They brewed the beer, planned the meals, and did a good deal of household work, while Jane’s only task was to prepare the breakfast. Jane had always lived in other people’s houses on their terms, fulfilling her role as dutiful daughter or playful and helpful aunt. Now at thirty-three, she finally had the freedom to write, with virtually the same privileges as a man. Lovers of Jane Austen’s novels owe a considerable debt to her sister and Martha. In one of Cassandra’s absences, Jane wrote to her: ‘Composition seems to me impossible with my head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.’
Cassandra, the senior sister by three years, was Jane’s closest life companion. Her reassuring presence at Chawton gave Jane the emotional stability and peace of mind that helped her creativity to bloom. Since childhood they had developed secret lives of their own, acting as each other’s confidantes. Cassandra’s quiet constancy and sensitivity were a welcome contrast to their overbearing mother, who frequently exasperated Jane.
Cassandra said that Jane was ‘the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure’. After the death of her fiancé when she was in her early twenties, Cassandra had resolved never to recover from her loss. She was content to remain in the background, keeping her deeply felt emotions in check. She settled for making herself useful to her family as a nurse, aunt and sister-in-law. It was sometimes a thankless role; her niece Caroline wrote: ‘I did not dislike Aunt Cassandra – but if my visit had at any time chanced to fall out during her absence, I don’t think I should have missed her.’
The sisters chose to share a bedroom at Chawton, where their two beds would almost have filled the room. In the evenings they treasured their private time to share confidences, and Jane often read aloud, giving her sister ‘a great deal of pleasure’.
They sometimes spent weeks or months apart while visiting family members because Mrs Austen, who was growing frail, liked at least one daughter to stay behind and dance attendance. During these absences, they exchanged letters every few days which provided a running commentary about their lives. Shortly before Cassandra died, for reasons of privacy, she destroyed her letters to Jane as well as some of Jane’s letters to her. But those letters of Jane’s that do survive reveal a teasing, affectionate closeness: ‘I doubt your quite agreeing with me here – I know your starched Notions.’
The letters are packed with detail, Jane sometimes using every bit of the paper, including the margins, to relay her news. Nothing was too silly to be out of bounds. On buying a sprig for Cassandra’s hat she wrote: ‘I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. What do you think on that subject?’ She could be happy, witty, chatty, and freely herself with Cass, with no need for defences.
Now in her thirties, Jane had begun to enjoy the advantages of growing older: ‘…as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of chaperon [at dances], for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.’ Caroline wrote: ‘I believe my two aunts were not accounted very good dressers, and were thought to have taken to the garb of middle age unnecessarily soon.’ In London Jane’s nieces refused to let her wear a cap, the headgear of an older woman. They made her curl her hair and tie it with a ribbon instead, which they said looked charming.
Jane could be prickly and did not suffer fools. Capitalising on her ability to intimidate others, she referred to herself and her sister as ‘we, the formidables’. A country neighbour agreed, writing of Jane:
She has stiffened, into the most perpendicular, precise taciturn piece of ‘single blessedness’ that ever existed…it must be confessed that this silent observation from such an observer is rather formidable.’
To which Jane might well have retorted as she did in one of her letters: ‘I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.’
Another woman wrote that Jane ‘used to sit at Table at Dinner parties without uttering much probably collecting matter for her charming novels.’ And this was exactly so; Jane, fascinated by human behaviour, relished speculating on the lives of others. In her letters she recorded the type of sharp observations that featured in her novels. While staying with her brother Edward and his family in London’s Sloane Street, she described to Cassandra a merry party she had attended the previous night:
…we placed ourselves in the connecting passage, which was comparatively cool, and gave us … the first view of every new comer…Poor Miss B. has been suffering again from her complaint and looks thinner than ever … Miss M. [who] seems very happy, but has not beauty enough to figure in London … Capt. S. was certainly in liquor.
Jane belonged to a large, cheerful, intelligent family who were well liked in their community. Although she could appear haughty and intimidating to acquaintances, through the eyes of her family her warmth and laughter comes to life.
One of her nieces recalled her as:
…a tall thin spare person, with very high cheek bones great colour – sparkling Eyes not large but joyous & intelligent…her keen sense of humour I quite remember, it oozed out very much in Mr Bennet’s style.
Cassandra could be colder, prim and rather dull, and once gave her niece Fanny a lecture that made her head ache – whereas Jane was entertaining, full of imaginary tales and games.
For all their love of peace, Chawton was a hub for the family’s activities. Jane’s brother Frank moved his wife and baby to be near them while he was at sea and his second child was born near Alton just after they moved in. Brother Henry had a banking business in Alton High Street for a time and would arrive in his buggy to take one of his sisters for a spin around the town. James would ride over from his home in Steventon, Charles stayed a stone’s throw away in the ‘Great House’ and at least once a year Edward and his large family stayed there too. ‘We four sweet Brothers & Sisters dine today at the Great House. Is that not quite natural?’ Jane wrote in 1815.
The visits of her thirty-three nieces and nephews while they were young inevitably distracted Jane from her work. As P.D. James points out, for a writer immersed in different fictional worlds it would have been difficult being jolted back to reality by such frequent interruptions:
Every writer of genius needs, for her physical and mental health as well as for her art, a small inviolate cell of mental privacy, and it is precisely this emotional privacy that, for much of her life, Jane Austen was denied.
Jane’s frustration is not on record, but she betrayed it with mention in her novels of her dislike of spoilt and noisy children. Her own sentiments shine through in the words of Elinor Dashwood: ‘I never think of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence.’
But as the children grew older Jane forged strong bonds with some of them. Her nephew James Edward observed,
…underneath [her sunny qualities] there lay the strong foundations of sound sense and judgement, rectitude of principle, and delicacy of feeling, qualifying her equally to advise, assist or amuse. She was, in fact, as ready to comfort the unhappy, or to nurse the sick, as she was to laugh, and jest with the light-hearted.
She was particularly close to her nieces Fanny Knight and Anna Austen Lefroy. In a letter to Cassandra, she wrote of Fanny, ‘I found her…just what you describe, almost another Sister, — & could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me.’ When Fanny sought her advice on matters of the heart, Jane wrote a beautiful reply:
There are such beings in the world — perhaps one in a thousand — as the creature you and I should think perfection; where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own county.
She bonded with Anna, headstrong and clever, over their love of ‘bad’ romantic fiction. Anna was a keen amateur writer and Jane offered her encouragement: ‘I do not perceive that the language sinks. Pray go on.’ She reminded her that in fiction, ‘One does not care for girls till they are grown up,’ and advised her to avoid phrases like ‘a vortex of dissipation’. When Anna began a novel of her own, Jane urged her to write about people and places she knew and stressed the importance of creating consistent and natural characters, achieving topographical accuracy and producing an illusion of truth.
The following advice to Anna reflects exactly what Jane was doing with her own novel, Emma at the time:
You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; – 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on – & I hope you will write a great deal more, & make full use of them while they are so favourably arranged.
Caroline wrote her impressions of her visits for her brother James Edward to use in his memoir about their aunt:
Everything indoors and out was well-kept, the house was well-furnished and it was altogether a comfortable and lady-like establishment, although I believe the means which supported it were but small. My visits to Chawton were very pleasant to me and Aunt Jane was the great charm. As a very little girl I was always creeping up to her and following her whenever I could in the house and out. I might not have remembered this but for the recollection of my mother telling me privately that I must not be troublesome to my aunt. Her charm for children was great sweetness of manner. She loved you and you loved her naturally in return.
At Chawton, routines seldom varied. Jane was the first to rise and while the maid lit the fire, she might write, think, or practice her piano in the drawing room. As one of her nieces wrote:
Aunt Jane began her day with music, for which I can conclude she had a natural taste… She played very pretty tunes, I thought. And I liked to stand by her and listen to them.
After the breakfast of tea and toast at the fireplace in the dining room, Jane’s mornings were mostly spent at her twelve-sided walnut writing table, set by the window to take full advantage of the light. The cottage was close to the road and Jane enjoyed the view, once observing the passage of boys departing for their new school term at Winchester in ‘a countless number of Postchaises….full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools and Villains.’
The sisters were still involved with the sick and needy, as they had been at Steventon, and they helped the local children to read and write. They regularly attended St Nicholas Church, a short walk from their cottage.
Mrs Austen, also relieved of housekeeping responsibilities by Cassandra and Martha, took up gardening with glee and could be seen digging away at her prized potatoes in her ‘round green smock’. She also made a border ‘very gay with Pinks and Sweet Williams, in addition to the Columbines,’ and Jane’s favourite flowering shrub, syringa. The garden was larger than it is now and Jane’s letters mentioned a vegetable garden, a field for donkeys and an orchard. Their efforts to diversify with new fruit trees did not fare well. Jane wrote to Cassandra, ‘I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.’
In the afternoons Jane would usually take a walk, alone or with Cassandra, sauntering past tiny villages and low wooded hills along country lanes with hedgerows that teemed with wildflowers. For shopping they went to nearby Alton. Jane mentioned a walk to Alton with her niece Anna and Anna’s friend Harriet. They planned to buy mourning clothes following the death of the king but Jane was ‘not being sorry to be back again, for the young ladies had a great deal to do – and without much method in doing it.’
She took an interest in the neighbours and enjoyed the gossip, which she would later share with Cassandra. After walking near Steventon while visiting her brother James, she wrote:
At the bottom of Kingsdown Hill we met a gentleman in a buggy, who, on minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall – and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead.
Jane quickly established her own rhythm of work. She revised her draft of Sense and Sensibility, begun nearly ten years before in Steventon. Her brother Henry secured a publisher who was willing to take the book ‘on commission’, meaning Jane would be liable for any losses but entitled to a share of the profits.
After an agonising wait the novel was published in October 1811. Austen-land was launched: that carefully crafted world of country villages, parsonages and the occasional grand house; those flawed and defiant heroines; Austen’s psychologically acute voice.
In Northanger Abbey we are told that a novelist must express ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature’ and ‘the happiest delineation of its varieties’. As a novelist Jane is interested people’s behaviour within their carefully defined social roles. The preening, the narrow minded and the greedy are playfully skewered. There are beautifully wrought portraits of the sorts of people she knew, brought together as she described it by ‘the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.’
Jane was full of knowledge and deep thought about the world she witnessed. Her stories of love and marriage are far from frothy and light. She observed at first hand that marriage could be a deadly serious enterprise. Three of her sisters-in-law died in pregnancy or childbirth, while another died at thirty six from what is believed to have been a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. For a woman, marriage entailed giving up her money, her legal status, her body, and possibly her life. Wives could be raped or have their children taken away, all within the bounds of the law. In widowhood they might find themselves in the same perilous circumstances as spinsters, possibly evicted from their homes, rendered poverty stricken and dependent on the whims of others. Early feminist writers Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Charlotte Smith were just beginning to explore these injustices in Jane’s lifetime.
Marriage was the defining event in a woman’s life: her acceptance or refusal was the only decision she could make for herself, the one form of control she could exert in a world that could so easily cast her aside.
It is interesting that although Jane and Cassandra had been raised to dream of marriage as their ultimate goal, Jane created endings for her heroines and heroes that are remarkably unromantic. In Pride and Prejudice Lizzie marries Darcy with reservations about their different social rank which detract from ‘the season of courtship much of its pleasure.’ In Mansfield Park, Edward falls in love with Fanny off-stage, and the event is related almost as an afterthought. Emma and Mr Knightley’s union is just a ‘wedding very much like other weddings’. And in Sense and Sensibility Marianne marries Colonel Brandon, whom she does not love, simply because he is kind, good, and fondly attached to her: ‘what could she do?’
Jane seems to suggest that marriage is not necessarily the best thing to have happened to her heroines. While technically providing the happy endings necessary for the commercial market, it is as if Jane is also writing for herself, Cassandra and the other clever, unmarried women she knows. Lucy Worsley notes, ‘You don’t have to believe in Jane’s happy endings if you don’t want to. I like to think that this is the band of spinsters’ last laugh.’
In February 1812, sales of Sense and Sensibility were boosted by its first review in the Critical Review which praised the characters as
…naturally drawn, and judiciously supported. The incidents are probable, and highly pleasing, and interesting…it reflects honour on the writer, who displays much knowledge of character, and very happily blends a great deal of common sense with the lighter matter of the piece.
The modest print run sold out and Jane made a tidy profit but she was completely unknown, for the title page declared the novel was written ‘By a Lady’. This was common in Regency times, when it was considered vulgar for genteel women to write. Jane, the most private of people, never told anyone beyond her immediate family about having written Sense and Sensibility. This led to an amusing episode after its release, when Anna, together with both her aunts in Alton library, came across a copy. She threw it down on the counter in contempt, exclaiming: ‘Oh that must be rubbish I am sure from the title’. Her aunts were hugely amused, although they did not yet let her in on the joke.
According to Jane’s nephew James Edward,
She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.
Yet as Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin points out, she could not possibly have juggled the revisions of the complete manuscript of Sense and Sensibility using just single scraps of paper in such a busy household that was ‘subject to all kinds of casual interruptions’. There must have been times when members of the immediate family protected her privacy. And the person probably most vigilant in this regard would have been Cassandra.
The money Jane received from publishing her books meant a great deal to her because she had never had an income of her own. The novel had gone to a reprint and Jane wrote to her brother Frank in July 1813:
You will be glad to know that every copy of Sense and Sensibility sold and that it has brought me a hundred and forty pounds beside the copyright….I have now, therefore, written myself into two hundred and fifty pounds which only makes me long for more.
Probably in the winter of 1811, Jane revised the book originally called First Impressions, that she now renamed Pride and Prejudice. She was immensely fond of her worldly heroine Lizzy Bennet, telling Cassandra, ‘How I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know’.
She took delivery of a finished copy, her ‘own darling Child from London’ in January 1813. That evening Jane and her mother tried it out on their unsuspecting neighbour Mary Benn, the impoverished sister of a clergyman. ‘We set fairly at it & read half the 1st vol. to her,’ without revealing the author. ‘I believe it passed with her unsuspected…She was amused, poor soul!…she really does seem to admire Elizabeth.’ It seemed that Jane and her mother performed the book out loud, taking on the various parts like a play. It became the family’s favourite of all her novels.
Pride and Prejudice brought Jane wide acclaim. News spread in her Hampshire circle and beyond, that she was the author of the book of the season and neighbours viewed her with fresh eyes. According to Mary Russell Mitford:
Till “Pride and Prejudice” showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire screen or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quiet. The case is very different now; she is still a poker but a poker of whom every one is afraid.
Jane’s many nephews and nieces were now in on the secret. Her niece Marianne remembered how Jane and Cassandra had once shut themselves in one of the bedrooms at Chawton Cottage to read aloud, possibly from Pride and Prejudice. Hearing ‘peals of laughter through the door [we] thought it very hard that we should be shut out from what was so delightful.’
Mansfield Park came next, the first novel to be conceived from scratch at Chawton. It bears the stamp of the unrest and instability in England following the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Inherent in this novel is a hint of criticism about the established order. The estate of the Bertrams, owners of Mansfield Park where the heroine Fanny has found refuge, is funded by wealth accrued from the slave trade in Antigua. Although slavery was illegal in England, the country profited hugely from its dealings abroad, which were entirely legal.
The heroine Fanny is the only one who makes (an admittedly timid) attempt to discover the source of Sir Thomas’s wealth. A parallel is drawn between slavery and her own circumstances as a poor beneficiary who was regarded as a nuisance and relegated to the attic like a servant on her arrival. The genteel household carries on its hedonistic interests without a care for the unsavoury business that funds it. Although Jane refrains from any explicit judgement, the duplicity of the elite, their excesses and disregard for ethical issues, are there to be seen.
Jane put the finishing touches to the novel at her brother Edward’s home Godmersham in Kent. Her niece Louisa later remembered how,
Aunt Jane would sit quietly working beside the fire in the library, saying nothing for a good while, and then would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on quietly working as before.
This is a lovely observation of the private imaginative world that Jane inhabited in tandem with that of the day-to-day. Here, sewing by the fire which she enjoyed, seems to have been a conduit for her fictional ideas. And her solitary afternoon walks would have provided a similar opportunity to work through plots, imagine conversations and deepen her understanding of her characters.
Jane took took her portable writing desk with her whenever she travelled and her head was full of characters that were perhaps just as alive to her as those people she knew in life. And long after they had been fixed in print, she continued to imagine further outcomes for them. She confided to Cassandra that Kitty Bennet had eventually settled for a clergyman near Pemberley, and that her sister Mary married one of her uncle’s clerks. Mr Woodhouse had survived Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightly and kept his daughter and son-in-law living at Hartfield for two more years.
It is this other, interior life, that she built into the lives of her main characters too. As she progressed as a writer, the psychic space of her heroines began to predominate. Instead of focusing on a plot full of external action, the action increasingly takes place inside the head of her heroines. This was a completely new ingredient that she brought to the novel.
Mansfield Park was not reviewed in the press but, having been promoted as being written by the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, it sold well. Jane recorded their family’s and friends’ responses to the book. Most preferred Pride and Prejudice but Jane would have been pleased that many felt Sense and Sensibility to be true to life.
Before starting Emma in January 1814, Jane told her family, ‘I am going to make a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’
By now her favourite nieces Fanny Austen Knight and Anna Austen had grown old enough to embark on their love lives. Both were motherless and unhappy at home and Jane offered them support just as, in her novels, Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Weston had mentored their respective surrogates Lizzie and Emma. Their travails in love evoked deep sympathy and interest in their aunt and it appears she incorporated aspects of their personalities and experiences into the novel. Anna was an impulsive, wilful, and flighty woman, who often lacked judgement. After she called off her first unsuitable match, Jane wrote to Cassandra that it was a ‘miscellaneous, unsettled happiness which seems to suit her best.’
Jane revelled in the progress of Fanny’s many love interests, writing to her:
Who can keep pace with the fluctuations of your Fancy, the Capprizios of your Taste, the Contradictions of your Feelings? It is very, very gratifying to me to know you so intimately. Oh! what a loss it will be, when you are married.
She was amused by Fanny’s account of an illicit visit to her lover’s room in order to retrieve a relic to worship.
The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite! – Such a circumstance ought to be in print. Much too good to be lost.
And it was not lost: Fanny was soon to read about Harriet Smith worshipping ‘the end of an old pencil, – the part without any lead’ because her beloved Mr Elton had tossed it away.
A family member recalled that when Emma was released, ‘many of the neighbours found in the description of her person no less than in her character a strong likeness to Anna Austen. Certainly such a likeness existed.’ Like Anna, Emma was headstrong, but she also exuded the entitlement of the wealthier Fanny Knight.
Jane was right in her prediction: not many readers did like Emma much, yet her moody, independent spirit holds a huge appeal for modern readers and she has now come into her own.
Jane was now in her late thirties, a confident woman of some means, sought after by publishers and flushed with success. She went to London to negotiate a new publishing contract, now travelling alone on the public stagecoach rather than waiting for one of her brothers to collect her. A new excitement bubbles through her letters home during such trips, which combined business with family visits and shopping. ‘I have so many little matters to tell you of, that I cannot wait any longer before I begin to put them down’, she wrote to Cassandra.
In London she would sometimes take a hackney carriage for sightseeing and once was delighted to find herself in the carriage alone: ‘I liked my solitary elegance very much & was ready to laugh all the time, at my being where I was.’ But she added wryly, ‘I cannot but feel, that I had naturally small right to be parading about London in a Barouche.’
She reported faithfully to her sister about the latest fashions: ‘I learnt, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the Bosom up at all; – that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.’ She was also ‘amused by the present style of…enormous Bonnets’, and pleased to see an emerging trend to cover the arms and chests.
On publication, Emma received an impressive eight reviews. One praised Jane’s ‘easy, unaffected and fluent’ style of writing and its author as ‘a woman of good sense, knowledge of the world, discriminating perception and acute observation.’ And she must have been delighted with the review by Sir Walter Scott, a writer whom Jane much admired. He lauded Emma as a new form of novel, one that did not represent ‘the splendid scenes of an imaginary world [but] a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place…’
Until the early nineteenth century novels, including Scott’s own, had featured florid improbable plots and adventures. He was generous enough to recognise that Jane was carving out a totally new novel form, one engaged in social realism. In a radical departure her writing showed people wrestling with life’s dilemmas – relationships between lovers, parents, children and neighbours.
It is cruel that just as Jane was fully flourishing as a writer, she began to sicken. Persuasion was her last complete novel before she died. It is more sombre than the others, coloured by a series of setbacks that had been experienced by members of the Austen family. About regret and redemption, it is mature, autumnal in feel, but no less compelling than the other novels. To read more about Persuasion as it relates to its setting in Lyme Regis read here. And there is another story about Jane Austen’s final years yet to come.
Over fifty years after Jane’s death, in response to a growing interest in his aunt, her nephew James Edward-Austen Leigh wrote A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections. It contains recollections of his sisters, Anna Lefroy and Caroline Austen, and despite the saccharine flavour of these largely whitewashed portraits, remains the only primary source of Jane’s life.
Caroline recalls that Chawton Cottage was a
…cheerful house – my Uncles, one or another, frequently coming for a few days; and they were all pleasant in their own family – I have thought since, after having seen more of other households, wonderfully, as the family talk had much of spirit and vivacity, and it was never troubled by disagreements as it was not their habit to argue with each other – There was always perfect harmony amongst the brothers and sisters, and over my Grandmother’s door might have been inscribed the text ‘Behold how good – and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity.’
Of course, there was not always ‘perfect harmony’ between the siblings, and Jane would have baulked at such sentiment: ‘Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked’, she once confided to Cassandra in a letter. But without a doubt, this was a vibrant and ‘cheerful’ house, full of life and spirit. As P.D. James points out, without this unpretentious home in Chawton it is possible that ‘Jane Austen’s name would be little more than a footnote in literary history.’ It provided the right mix of stimulation with peace, stability, domestic routine and family interaction for Jane’s genius to reach its fruition. Like the beautiful patchwork the women created at Chawton, all the essential pieces and threads came together to make the whole.
Photographs taken by kind Permission of Jane Austen’s House and Museum.
Go, and on my Truth Relying, Julianne Baird, soprano, Karen Flint, piano
This song by an anonymous composer appears on the recording: Jane’s Hand: The Jane Austen Songbooks. The music was written in Jane Austen’s own hand into one of her eight songbooks. Like Thomas Hardy Jane thoroughly enjoyed music, was a competent player herself, and incorporated music into her novels. She played the piano every day, and danced when others played.
Making music or dancing were the few instances in Regency society where women could publicly perform and be admired, and Jane made good use of both in her fiction. There is the music rivalry scene in Emma, the dance scene where Mr Elton spurns Harriet Smith; the smouldering looks over the pianoforte between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and the moment in Sense and Sensibility when Colonel Brandon falls in love with Marianne while she plays the pianoforte.
In Persuasion, music is used to define Anne Elliot’s character, revealing her intimacy with others or its lack, and showing her gradual movement back to life and love. Anne sits at the pianoforte in tears while making herself useful by playing for others who are ‘wild for dancing’, when the approach to the piano of her lost love Wentworth foreshadows their reunion.
Recently, Helen Garner, one of Australia’s finest writers, wrote an amusing short piece about her first impressions of reading Pride and Prejudice. She started tackling the book at her kitchen table, sharpened pencil at the ready, and dove straight into the opening conversation between the ‘appalling’ Mrs Bennet and her ‘teazing’ husband, that introduces the main business of marrying their five daughters.
She noted with approval that Mr Darcy is labelled by Elizabeth early as the most disagreeable man in the world, ‘ate up by pride’. Struck by the lack of description in the book, she remembered that Joseph Conrad had been exasperated by Austen’s books for this reason. He wanted to see things and Jane does not oblige, although Garner noted the small ‘visual thrill’ of Elizabeth’s ‘weary ancles and dirty stockings’.
The atrocious sisters Lydia and Kitty serve to provide the impediment to the coming together of Elizabeth and Darcy. And once the oily Wickham appeared, Garner
lowered the blinds against the heat, unplugged the phone and moved operations to my sopha, where, dispos’d among charmingly group’d cushions, I settled in for the duration.
She read for the writing too, noting Austen’s ‘psychologically piercing narrative voice, her striding mastery of the free indirect mode’.
When Garner reached Darcy’s first marriage proposal to Elizabeth, which was refused ‘in a scene of breathtaking muscle and spark,’ this felt to her premature. Seeing that the scene occurs exactly halfway through the novel she said, “The cunning minx! She was going to make me wait another 218 pages for a resolution! This required ‘a turn around the drawing room.’
The narcissistic ‘piece of trash’, that is the sixteen-year -old Lydia Bennet, had Garner laughing ‘with heart in mouth’. And she was writhing with joy when Elizabeth got the better of the monster that is Lady de Bourgh. But close to the ending Garner became anxious: it was all looking too tidy, too pat. Until, that is, when on the third last page came Lydia’s ‘outrageous’ request to Elizabeth that she ask Darcy to secure a place at court for her disgraced Wickham. ‘Any place would do, of about three or four hundred a year.’ At that, Garner ‘sprang’ off her sopha, went to the kitchen for a slug of vodka from the freezer, and raised her glass:
A toast to the Empress, Jane Austen. God bless Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, and the current of deep, warm erotic attraction that flows between them. And long live the Lydias of this world, the slack molls who provide the grit in the engine of the marriage plot; for without them it would run so smoothly that the rest of us would fall into despair.
Now a museum, the cottage at Chawton has become a treasured site of pilgrimage. I arrived too late to visit the museum, so took a blissful walk through the village instead. It was a late summer’s afternoon, and everything seemed about to teeter into autumn.
Back at the cottage first thing the next morning, what struck me was the array of items that had belonged to the family and the stories they tell about their day-to-day lives. In the drawing room is Jane’s father George’s mahogany bureau bookcase, that had survived all the moves since Steventon. He probably wrote his sermons and prepared lessons for the children at its desktop. It now contains early editions of Jane’s novels. In the evenings after dinner, the women would retire to this room to read, sew, and talk over the day’s events.
The piano George had bought for Jane was sold when they moved to Bath, after which she had made do with renting a similar one. But once settled at Chawton, she decided to buy ‘as good a pianoforte as can be got for thirty guineas’, a hefty sum at the time. The piano now in the drawing room is a slightly later version of the one she would have bought, but similar in style and quality.
The dining room is where Jane spent most of her time furtively writing on small blue scraps of paper, at the battered twelve-sided writing desk that remains beside the window. A volunteer told me that some people burst into tears when they see it.
A recipe book produced by Martha Lloyd survives. It contains recipes (or receipts as they called them) for humble fare such as hog pudding, cabbage pudding, toasted cheese and vegetable pie. A friend has added in the margin of one of the pages: ‘Good luck to your jamming!’ They took an interest in their food and swapped recipes with one another. In the postscript of a letter to a friend, Jane wrote an amusing request for a recipe:
The real object of this Letter is to ask you for a Receipt but I thought it genteel not to let it appear early. We remember some excellent orange Wine…
There is also a beautiful patchwork coverlet made by Jane, Cassandra and their mother, constructed from over 3000 diamond shapes made from clothes and furnishing materials, hand stitched together. On wintry evenings it would have been intensely satisfying to sort, design and stitch these pieces together. Each side harmoniously mirrors the other in an old English medallion design, with a large central motif of birds and a basket of flowers. In May 1811 Jane wrote to Cassandra: ‘Have you remembered to collect peices [sic] for the patchwork – we are at a standstill’.
Chawton House, that belonged to Jane Austen’s brother Edward, is close to the cottage and can also be visited.
The documentary Jane Austen’s True Home: A Life in Hampshire.
In this documentary, Lucy Worsley explores the different houses in which Jane Austen lived, to discover how much they shaped her novels.
Jean Bowden worked for ten years as curator of Jane Austen’s House and Museum from September 1984 and lived in the Chawton cottage. During her time, she forged close ties with the Jane Austen Society of North America and they asked her to provide them with a ‘Letter from Chawton’ twice a year. You can read some of her recollections here.
Jane Austen’s letters are fascinating and you can read them online at Gutenberg.org. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42078/42078-h/42078-h.htm
A Jane Austen Facebook Discussion group: The Republic of Pemberley.
Visit Hampshire features accommodation, visitor information and a Jane Austen Trail walk from Alton to Chawton.
Amy, Helen. The Austen Girls: The Story of Jane & Cassandra Austen the Closest of Sisters, Amberley, 2019
Austen, Jane. The Complete Novels of Jane Austen, William Heinemann Ltd, 1928
Bowden, Jean K. ‘Living in Chawton Cottage: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire’, Jane Austen Society of North America
Brabourne, Lord Edward, Letters of Jane Austen (on Gutenberg).
Currey, Mason. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Picador, 2013.
Garner, Helen. ‘How to Marry Your Daughters’, in Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing, 2016
James, PD. ‘Jane Austen, Chawton, Hampshire’, in Writers and Their Houses, Ed. Kate Marsh, Hamish Hamilton, 1993
Kelly, Helena. ‘The Many Ways in Which We are Wrong about Jane Austen: Lies, Damn Lies, and Literary Scholarship’, Lit Hub, 3 May, 2017
Penton, J.G.R. ‘The Slave in the Drawing Room: Jane Austen’s Masked Criticism of Slavery in Mansfield Park’, Medium, 13 April, 2016
Sutherland, Kathryn, Jane Austen: The Novel and Social Realism, The British Library
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life, Vintage Books, 1997
Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, Hodder & Stoughton, 2017