Monday, 5 September 2016
My shameful secret was that, until yesterday, I had never visited Jane Austen's cottage at Chawton. It was on my 'one-day' list, for sure, but for some reason I'd persuaded myself that it was out of range for a day trip without a car even though I knew that Darlene had visited from Canada and managed perfectly well. But, hey, we're all more resourceful on holiday when it's 'today or never.'
Then yesterday I actually got up and went. (It helps to book the rail ticket the night before, then you can't roll over in bed and think, 'Another day!') Turns out it's an hour from London by train and the bus stops right outside the cottage. So how difficult was that?
Even from the bus, I'd been imagining Jane and Cassandra tripping - no, walking purposefully, I think - down every country lane. Could a lady novelist have been better situated than here at the crossroads with all of village life passing by her window, with the inn across the road and the forge only a couple of doors away? Happily, the village is remarkably unspoiled; there's a Cassandra's Cup tea-room ... I looked at the menu, hoping for rout cakes or a seed cake from Mrs Rundell (historically bang on as Mrs R and Jane shared the same publisher) but, no, it was just standard 21st century tea and cake. But despite all the tourists (pilgrims?) who come here, that's it: there's no Ye Olde Lizzie Bennet Gift Shop or Pemberley Ice Creams, Chawton has retained a sense of decorum.
Perhaps I was lucky that it wasn't too crowded - so I got the chance to be alone for a few minutes in Jane's bedroom. (It must have been a tight squeeze when Cassandra's bed was there, too - so little privacy.) I tried the squeaky door that warned Jane of interruptions to her work and was impressed by her tiny writing-desk. It was rather poignant to see the page from her father's parish register (only a copy, not the original) where Jane, as a young girl, had doodled her name in the marriage banns, linking herself with a fictional Henry Frederick Howard (??? couldn't quite read her writing) Fitzwilliam of London. So she was already day-dreaming about her prototype Mr Darcy and marriage.
I knew that Jane was an accomplished needlewoman but oh, the daintiness of her embroidered muslin shawl. Then there was the patchwork quilt she worked together with Mrs Austen and Cassandra. Made from 64 fabrics and I guess mostly they'd have been bought specially for patchwork. But the tiny diamonds around the edges ... that pretty striped cotton, that dainty rose print, another print that looked like tiny thistles ... could I possibly have been looking at one of Jane's recycled summer gowns? Well, maybe, perhaps - who knows?
Somehow I hadn't been expecting to see so many personal items. The mourning brooch containing her hair. Her turquoise ring and dainty bead bracelet and the topaz cross bought from her naval brother Charles's prize money for capturing a French ship. Jane's muff chains ... I imagined her fingers fidgeting with them, maybe during a boring sermon in church or a tedious visit. But, no, a lady wouldn't fidget. There were hairpins discovered under the floorboards ... could they be Jane's or a servant's? There was cousin Eliza's tiny rouge pot and puff ... how racy and French to wear cosmetics! How delightful to know that Jane was a tea-drinker and kept the keys to the tea cupboard ... but wasn't Cassandra's teapot tiny, no second cups!
Later I walked up the road to the village church and saw Cassandra's and Mrs Austen's graves. There was a sign on the door: 'Please close .. to stop swallows from entering the church.' Then one of the nicest things I've ever seen in a church - a bucket filled with beautiful bouquets of lilies and a notice inviting visitors to help themselves. So I did. And 'Jane's lilies' are scenting my study right now.
Finally I walked up the long drive to Chawton House, the 'big house' belonging to Jane's brother Edward - and felt as if I were walking in Jane's footsteps every step of the way, for how often she must have run up here with a message or a piece of news or visited for dinner or a party. As soon as I walked in the door, it came to back to me that I'd seen this room before - for this was where the BBC filmed the Netherfield ball.
There was an exhibition of exquisite needlework inspired by Jane's novels. But more than anything, I was thrilled to have tea and cakes sitting by the range in the kitchen. Can't you just imagine all the bustle before a big party ... I mean, someone made cakes here that Jane Austen actually ate! Or white soup. They always had white soup at a ball. I'd have probably spilled it down the front of my best muslin gown.