Jane Austen has been a household name for more than two centuries.
Hampshire was not only her birthplace, but its people, and the society in which she moved, also provided inspiration for many of her novels. Known for proudly reminding people that she was “a Hampshire born Austen”, she was finally laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral, in 1817 at the age of just 41.
As good-a-starting-place as any for this virtual guided tour is Jane Austen’s House Museum in the quiet village of Chawton.
It was here that Austen wrote and revised six of her most famous novels – four of which were subsequently published while she was living in this house. This was Austen’s last home, where she lived with her mother and her sister Cassandra from 1809 to 1817, and where she sat at a little table revising her manuscripts for Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudiceand Northanger Abbey, and also wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.
Chawton was the place where Austen found most peace and security. More than 200 years later, the house and gardens retain much of that same atmosphere; making it the ideal starting point for anyone wanting to find out more about Jane Austen and her books, as well as her family and the life-and-times in which she lived.
Elsewhere in the village, Chawton House has become an internationally respected research and learning centre for the study of early women’s writing from 1600 to 1830. This Elizabethan manor house once belonged to Austen’s brother, Edward, and is the main reason why Emma, her mother and her sister moved from Southampton to live in this village.
Jane herself was born on December 16, 1775 in the Old Rectory in Seventon which, sadly, no longer exists. It is where she lived the first 25 years of her life, and where she created first drafts of three of her published books. Today, a giant lime tree planted by Austen’s brother, James, is all that remains in the spot where the rectory once stood. Jane regularly attended St Nicholas Church with the rest of the family to listen to their father preach; and this is where a small bronze plaque is dedicated to her memory.
Having collected sufficient inspiration from the people she had met and the places she had been to begin her writing, Jane’s life was interrupted when the family moved to Bath following the retirement of her father.
Depressed and missing her beloved Hampshire countryside, Emma was thrilled when she, her mother and Cassandra were able to move to Southampton- at that time, an old seaport with medieval streets tumbling down to a quay. It was also reinventing itself as a fashionable spa town; and many locations within the remains of the old city walls have strong associations with Jane Austen.
A little more than two years later, they would all be living happily in Chawton, and Jane would be relaxed – and most importantly of all – writing again.
Sadly, illness began to shape her life in her final years, but she recovered sufficiently to revise and complete Persuasion, which would be later published posthumously along with Northanger Abbey. But after starting her seventh (unfinished) novel, Sanditon, her health once again started to fail, and she agreed to being moved to Winchesterunder the care of Giles Lyford, a surgeon at the County Hospital.
Lodgings were arranged for her and Cassandra there, at 8 College Street in Winchester but she died on Friday 18 July 1817. She was buried in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral, and while the inscription on her tomb makes no reference of her literary talent, a brass tablet was added at a later date confirming that she was “known to many by her writings”.
[This feature has been produced for VisitHampshire: https://www.visit-hampshire.co.uk]