A Tale of Dreadful Attics and an Enthusiastic Curator
Chawton, an 18th Century redbrick cottage, was once home to Jane Austen. It was here that the writer worked on all six of her novels, either creating or revising them. The cottage is now a museum where examples of Jane’s jewelery, needlework and original handwriting are on display. Sight of these artefacts is joy indeed for the avid Janeite and the atmosphere at Chawton is friendly and warm. The house itself is rather a humble building that almost belies the literary import of its famous occupant but this simplicity serves to retain the feeling of Chawton as a home before being a museum.
During my first visit to the cottage I was struck by the feeling that the interior was not as tea-stained as I had thought it might be. The liberal use of white gloss paint, Laura Ashley wallpaper and rather harsh modern lighting to some of the rooms can seem incongruous. Still, despite these minor but understandable concessions to the present it is possible to capture some essence of the past.
When I visit Chawton I want to feel something, and while looking at exhibits in glass cases is interesting I always hanker for something more. I want to breathe in some of the magic. I want the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. I want to feel a shiver down my spine. I ask for spirit from a place that was once home to a great spirit. It’s not always easy to slip into the desired reverie. Oh yes, gazing out of Jane’s bedroom window at the view, albeit markedly different now, that she once took in does conjure images of daily life; the imagined sound of the Austens' donkey cart in the courtyard comes quickly. The sight of her patchwork quilt brings an image of deft fingers and a furrowed brow but it’s all too easy to lose the moment. One Marks and Spencer carrier bag and the odd Adidas T-shirt have the effect of changing the channel and I’m suddenly looking at ‘now’ when I really want to be feeling ‘then’.
Tom Carpenter, curator at Chawton, is an energetic if slightly eccentric man who comes to my rescue. Think Mr Parker (Sanditon) with a dash of Patrick Moore. He lives and breathes Austen and seems never to be in one place for very long. During the visit I recount here Mr Carpenter treated me to an impromptu and very insightful personal tour of Chawton. While it would have been professional to take notes it actually proved impossible given Mr Carpenter’s fervour and the speed at which he answers questions you haven’t had the chance to ask yet. I placate myself over my empty notebook with the thought that some moments in life are given only to be lived. Therefore this written account is merely that, a memory shared and put to paper without the use of notes.
Ask a question about Chawton Cottage once being an inn and Tom Carpenter will tell you that Mrs Austen was rather embarrassed about the house’s previous history. From there, apropos of beer barrels, you could well find yourself down in the Austens’ cellar. Any normal person might think this a singularly uninteresting place to be but I find it fascinating. I like the dark cobwebby aspects of the past and I relish the fact that I’m looking at the dusty day to day part of Jane’s family’s life which none of the priceless museum exhibits in the main house can invoke.
It’s the same with the attics. I’d dearly love to say that they’re dreadful for obvious reasons but of course they are unremarkable except for the fact that they’re Jane’s. Again though I am struck by the notion that I am experiencing something of a privilege. I have close friends whose attics I haven’t seen, so being in the Austens’ loft space is at once strange and worryingly exciting for me. I think it has a lot to do with Tom Carpenter’s passionate and constant commentary, he is indefatigable; dashing off, his huge ring of keys jangling, in several different directions at once; to get me a floor plan of the house, to take a telephone call, to answer a query about the one of the portraits. This last enquiry brings us back into the house proper where we spend a good deal of time discussing a silhouette of Cassandra. I don’t think it is Cassandra. The profile shows a nose that is a little too retroussé. There follows a lengthy debate about Austen noses and other facial features. Again, a peculiar subject to the uninitiated, but it is the love of minutiae that bonds devotees. Of course we can’t stop at the portraits, there is the bake-house, the grain-store and the kitchen to see. More keys are rattled, a little known fact about the famous Creaking Door is revealed with a nod and a smile and when a good few hours have passed I leave Chawton with an empty note-book and very happy memories.
Acknowledgments: My thanks to Tom Carpenter for the wonderful day, my apologies to him for describing him as eccentric in this article and my assurance that the secret of the creaking door is safe with me although I suspect that this is something he says to all the girls.
Juliette Shapiro lives in a Sanditon-like town in East Sussex. She writes for Verbatim, the Language Quarterly, QWF and Nexus media. Her sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Excessively Diverted
Softcover - 236 pages (September 2002) Virtualbookworm.com Publishing Inc. ISBN 1-58939-264-7
Chawton pictures by kind permission of William Kemp. See more Austen related photographs on his page A Jane Austen Scrapbook.
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