1775-1817 - Jane Austen

The great chronicler of the follies and foibles of society moved to this 'cottage' at Chawton in Hampshire in 1809. In some accounts it is identified as a 17th century posting inn but many of its details are pure Georgian. The front opens directly on to the village street, which was then the main Winchester-Gosport road, so the family had the sitting-room window on the left bricked up for privacy. What would she have found interesting in the life of such a village?

'Emma went to the door for her amusement, and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.' The passage is from Emma, but it is easy to picture Jane Austen herself standing in Chawton Cottage, looking out of the hall window by the door at the comings and goings along the village street. She was a very acute observer of people, with an eye and ear for the subtle nuances of human behaviour, and in her exquisite comedies of manners she was wise enough to restrict herself to the world she knew best. She had lived for several years at Bath, the very epicentre of fashionable society, and now the cottage gave her a complementary outlook, the rhythmic ebb and flow of village life contrasting with the steady stream of traffic along the busy road outside the house, the coaches and carriages, the gentry and farmers, constantly surging back and forth through the Hampshire countryside between Winchester and Gosport. It was in the quiet and security of this old brick house that Jane Austen the artist began to emerge. She never married, and her life at Chawton with her mother and sister Cassandra was quite uneventful. Because they could not afford a carriage, opportunities for visiting were limited. But it was a happy house, and Jane Austen's tone of amused detachment suggests a writer who was comfortable with herself and her surroundings. Beautifully restored by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, its modestly proportioned rooms, with their lack of any unnecessary ornament or ostentation, suggest something of the private values of the writer.

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