In 1817 Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra travelled from their home in the Hampshire village of Chawton to Winchester to lodge in a house just behind the Cathedral close. Jane’s health had been deteriorating over the previous year and now she moved to Winchester to be closer to her physician. It is thought that Jane was suffering from Addison’s disease, but the hoped for improvement did not come and a few weeks later she died, aged only 41, her head resting in the lap of her beloved sister Cassandra.
Jane Austen’s books were popular in her day but I believe it’s the TV and Film adaptations in recent years that have really raised her to super-star status in the eyes of a new generation. I’m a sucker for a Sunday night costume drama and Jane Austen’s stories seem to have the perfect balance of interesting characters and amused observation of social manners with the ridiculous and the romantic thrown in. I’ve enjoyed seeing Colin Firth as Mr Darcy emerge dripping from the lake and sung along to the Bollywood version of Bride and Prejudice. At the end of the day we’re all fascinated by love, power and money aren’t we?
On my visit to the perfectly English market town of Winchester it seemed quite appropriate to follow the trail of this most English of writers and find out more about the woman who wrote so entertainingly about love and courtship even though she never married herself. My exploration of the Jane Austen story started in Winchester cathedral, where her much visited gravestone speaks of her benevolance of heart, her sweetness of temper and the extraordinary endowments of her mind, but makes no mention of her achievements as a writer. By the time she died, Jane’s books had achieved popular success but were published anonymously under the title “By a Lady” which perhaps accounts the fact that her literary achievements weren’t mentioned. This, however, was rectified in 1872 when a brass plaque commemorating Jane Austen was added close to the grave which mentions that she was known to many for her writings.
A short walk from Winchester cathedral, in College Road is the house where Jane lived for the last few weeks of her life and where she died. The house is a private home and not open to the public, so I feel a little sorry for the owners who must get a little fed up with a constant stream of visitors pointing and taking photos. There’s a pretty bay window where one can just imagine that Jane or her sister might have sat when she was too ill to venture out, just watching life go by on the street below.
Following the Jane Austen trail, I drove half an hour out of Winchester, to the village of Chawton where the house where Jane and Cassandra lived with their mother and their friend Martha Lloyd, is now a museum with information and memorabilia from Jane’s life.
This is the house where Jane lived for the last 8 years of her life and where she wrote some of her greatest novels. Here she was able to concentrate on her writing and where she reworked previous manuscripts of Sense & Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and also wrote Mansfield Park and Emma. As you drive into the quiet Hampshire village it seems that not much has changed since Jane’s day. There’s a village car park next to the pub and the Cassandra’s Cup Tea room just opposite, but the thatched cottages and fields where Jane and Cassandra would have walked seem just the same.
The cottage was provided for the Austen ladies by Jane’s brother Edward, who had been adopted by wealthy but childless relatives, the Knights and had inherited the estate. Edward himself also lived in the village at Chawton House and their household was regularly visited by Jane’s brothers Francis and Charles who were both serving in the British Navy as well as assorted nephews and nieces. The house is charmingly arranged with furniture that either belonged to the Austen family or would have been typical of the period, with household objects and other family mementos on display in each room to give a flavour of life in the Austen household.
In the Drawing room is a piano similar to the one that Jane would have practiced on and in the dining parlour where the ladies would take their meals, the polished copper kettle is ready in the hearth to make tea and the table laid out with a dinner service similar to the one that Jane helped her brother Edward choose from the Wedgewood showrooms in London. In this room is the small occasional table and chair where Jane would settle down to write each day, with a view of the garden and life passing by on the street outside. In display cases are the topaz crosses that were given to Jane and Cassandra by their brother Charles from his share of prize money from the capture of a French ship and other family jewellery such as mourning jewellery containing locks of hair.
Upstairs the exhibitions continue with the bedroom that Jane and Cassandra shared furnished with a campaign bed similar to ones made for the Jane and Cassandra. Although the sisters could have each had their own bedroom they chose to share one together, even though there were adjoining bedrooms that were used as guest rooms for visiting family. There is a pretty patchwork quilt made by the Austen ladies from floral fabrics of their old dresses and those of their nieces. I was struck how even a genteel family with rich relatives, such as the Austens, had so few possessions compared to our overflowing wardrobes and trinket boxes. One or two items of gold jewellery or a string of pearls would be considered very fine and clothes such as Mrs Austen’s red felt riding jacket would be cut down and re-used. The letters and displays gave the feeling of a close and affectionate family, often writing to and visiting each other and following keenly the family news.
The garden of Chawton House is very pretty and in the learning Centre at the back of the house you can sit and watch a video about the life of Jane Austen for 10 minutes or so. There is a bakehouse containing a donkey cart that the Austen ladies could use to get around the countryside and the kitchen with its open range is also open and when I was there lavender bags were being made on the kitchen table.
If you want to extend your exploration of the Jane Austen trail, you could visit the village of Steventon where Jane’s father was the Rector at St Nicholas Church but the Rectory where Jane grew up has been demolished. Jane also visited her brothers in Portsmouth while they were serving in the Navy and lived for a while in Southampton where she and her sister took excursions on the River Itchen and visited Netley Abbey.
If you’ve enjoyed the books and film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels you’ll find it fascinating to visit Winchester and the village of Chawton to catch a glimpse into her world, both the one she lived and the one she created in her stories.
Visitor Information for Winchester and the Jane Austen Trail
There is helpful website for the Winchester Austen Trail, with information about Jane Austen’s life in Hampshire and around Winchester, where you can download a leaflet that is also available at the Tourist Information centre in Winchester
You can visit Jane Austen’s home in Chawton which is open as the Jane Austen House Museum
Visit Jane Austen’s grave and memorial in Winchester Cathedral and see the house where she died behind the cathedral, on College St, which is a private house and not open to the public.
There is an interesting blog, Jane Austen’s World with more detailed information about her life and times
We stayed in Winchester at The Winchester Hotel, a modern and stylishly decorated hotel and spa within walking distance of the town centre. Check for the best hotel prices in Winchester and book here.
For more information on things to do in Winchester and the surrounding area you will find the following websites useful;
Visit South East England – Your guide for fun things to do and places to visit in south-east England covering Kent, East and West Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire