Their lives, She Wrote

The lady with the quill pen sat in front of the window watching village life go by, writing, writing, writing.

Not extraordinary to look at: a beloved aunt with an impish sense of fun, she had never moved to marriage, but supported herself with scribblings which began on a cream-paper page and continue to resound to this day, in the minds of people centuries later and thousands of miles apart.

The window at which Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility, as most of her mature writings, looks out on a village road, and I suppose the pedestrians on the village road looked curiously in on her.

What was she writing, they wondered in her early days? Was she love-sick for some gentleman who would never look at her and her paltry financial state, a dependent in every sense?

Later, as the same villagers passed, Jane at the window was a woman of means, and wrote with the confidence of one whose writings were already becoming coveted.

But in the early days, note, she was an unknown.

She would write every morning, directly after breakfast; and sometimes. in the evening, she would be known to rush from the dinner table, smiling, to write down an idea before it escaped her.

We know not where our lives will take us.

But a life could do worse than bring one, aged 33, to this sunshine-filled house opposite the tavern, along the way from the church, surrounded by timbered thatched cottages, impossibly lush and green.

It is said her interest in writing revived within months of arriving at Chawton, near Winchester.

What should one expect of the house of one of the greatest novelists who ever lived? Pomp and circumstance? Grandeur and opulence?

No: because the very thing which made Jane, Jane, filled this house as we walked around it. It was a light, comforting, unpretentious place; a commonsensical household filled with silent echoes of the unaffected love of a very large family.

You could almost hear the thunder of children’s’ feet on the staircase as their aunt devised yet another game for them to play. If you squinted you might just be able to see the ladies absorbed in their novels in the reading room, or servants cooking in the kitchens.

If ever a spirit of place bore out a woman’s words, this place does.

In the kitchen, a farmhouse table is strewn with things to do: would we like to stuff a little bag with lavender, a sign enquired politely? Or try writing a message with a quill pen?

Someone had written, among the other greetings: “Dear Jane, I’d have married you.”

The ladies would meet in the drawing room to sew or talk and look out at that lovely garden. A light room filled with indefinable gaiety, with a tall walnut bureau of books, it boasted a Clementi square piano with which the ladies could entertain themselves.

The room in which Jane’s table sits, furnished with quill, looks out on the street and fresh wild flowers fill a vase at the window.

And up narrow stairs, flooded with light, is Jane’s bedroom: a small affair with a covered bed, table, bathroom closet and a wardrobe. It looks out on the yard and gardens. Even for a dependent, it’s a happy view.

Today as I walked round so much made me smile: yet one thing hurt my heart.

For Jane had to leave. On May 24, 1817, she was taken away from her writing window to a house just outside Winchester Cathedral. The good physicians were at Winchester and her health was worsening. Her sister Cassandra came with her: I wonder if Jane knew she would never see the view from her little writing table again.

For the house at Chawton tugs at you, when you leave.

When you write at your window: remember Jane. For we know not where our lives will take us.

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54 thoughts on “Their lives, She Wrote

  1. You took me through Jane Austen’s rooms and life with such clarity and mood that I felt as if I were with you, Kate, and with Jane, sitting at her table. The pictures are such a rare treat to see. That writing table is really small, isn’t it, for such great words and works. This was a terrific way for me to start my day here. Thank you.

    1. You are welcome, Penny: it did strike me as small, but there was something free and unfettered about her choice of place and equipment. This, like everything else about her, speaks volumes.

      1. I am actually very awestruck by the size of table. I sit here, typing away, with so many piles of papers and such all over the place and there she sat, writing volumes, with a quill pen, at this charming little table.

        I felt the same sense of wonder when I saw Louisa May Alcott’s desk.

        Just starting to catch up via the television on some of the festivities I missed with the celebrations. How wonderful.

  2. It’s difficult to choose, but I think this has to be among my favourite posts of yours, Kate. I really enjoyed it a lot. And because my desk is under a window, thanks to you I will think of Jane when I write at it! πŸ™‚

  3. She came from a good sized family, warm and caring, so of course their homes would also have the same attributes.

    I suppose the road was quieter back then?

    1. I don’t know….it was a route to Winchester, a really important city(it was once our capital and it is still the seat of the Bishops of Winchester . The traffic would have been carts and horses, but my guess it gave Jane plenty to watch.

  4. What a wonderful little window, Jane’s and yours into her world. I remember struggling with my first school reading Emma (my first) and finally, making like a Shakespeare-student and reading it aloud. It was like flipping a switch. The language came alive, and I might have devoured three or four of them all in a row.

    Has the tourism board considered hiring you? You really do incite a riot of travel cravings with all these peeks at lovely landmarks.

    1. Cameron, as you know I am a journalist at heart and my heart’s desire is for someone to pay me to write a column on a regular basis….must try the Tourist Board πŸ™‚

  5. Ah, I feel I could live there happily, puttering in the garden, writing at my window… Thanks for the virtual tour – Austen is among my best-read authors.

  6. Two things that I’ve taken from this post. That Jane had remarkable discipline as a writer, having a schedule must help. And that she lived opposite a pub! What did she make of that?! Or did the Victorians do too much damage to our vision of her? πŸ˜‰

  7. Lovely, lovely, lovely glimpse back to Jane’s world . . . but, my what a small writing desk for such a prodigious pen.

    And the poppies . . . oh, the poppies!

  8. Lovely post, Kate. And great pictures. Look forward to seeing more of the pictures on FB. I love how uncluttered the house looks, and the desk.

    1. The whole house is like that, Banno, though I find myself wondering if the 11 children of the household would have left things so pristine in Jane’s day πŸ˜€

  9. Oh what a wonderful tour, Kate! i really enjoyed this! It was a lovely day with the sun streaming through the windows, so that perhaps gives the house some added life. It might have felt a little more sparse on a cold and rainy day, but her family must have also provided some of the nurture that allowed her to bloom into such a wonderful novelist. Don’t you just wonder what she’d have thought to think of how much she continues to delight readers and inspire writers! I am so glad to have seen where it all came from, and it hurts my heart, too, to think of her needing to leave! Debra

  10. Thanks for the tour! It adds weight to her writing, seeing the evidence that she was indeed writing about that which she saw each day.

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