Jane Austen and Her Times
Chapter 15 - Chawton
In 1809 another move was contemplated. Edward Knight had found it in his power to offer his mother and sisters a home rent free; and he gave them the choice of a house in Kent, probably not far from Godmersham, or a cottage at Chawton close to his Manor House there.
The latter offer was accepted, and preparations were made to alter the cottage, which had been a steward's residence, into a comfortable dwelling. The cottage is still standing, close by the main road, and may be seen by anyone in passing; it is of considerable size,and there are six bedrooms besides garrets. It stands close to the junction of two roads, one of which passes through Winchester to Southampton, and the other through Fareham to Gosport. Chawton lies about as far north-west of Winchester as Steventon does north.
The considerable country town of Alton, which would be convenient for shopping, is only about a mile from the village. 'The cottage, dreary and weather-beaten in appearance, is of a solid square shape, and abuts on the high-road with only a paling in front. It is not an attractive looking dwelling, but probably at the time was fresher and brighter in appearance than it is now. It had also the advantage of a good garden.
It is now partially used for a club or reading-room and partially by cottagers. At the junction of the two roads aforesaid is a muddy pond, that which was playfully referred to by Jane in writing to her nephew, who had not been well, when she says "you may be ordered to a house by the sea or by a very considerable pond."
A short distance along the Gosport Road is the entrance gate to the Manor House, and about fifty yards up the drive is the pretty little church, considerably altered since Jane's time, with pinnacled and ivy-mantled tower. Just above it is the fine old Elizabethan house.
In 1525 one William Knight had a lease of the place; the house itself was probably built by his son John, who bought the estate, and it has remained ever since in the hands of the Knight family, if we may count adoption as ranking in family inheritance.
The move to Chawton was evidently some time in contemplation before actually taking place, for writing in December 1808, Jane says that they want to be settled at Chawton "in time for Henry to come to us for some shooting in October at least, or a little earlier, and Edward may visit us after taking his boys back to Winchester. Suppose we name the fourth of September."
Of the actual settling in at Chawton we have no details, for the next batch of letters begins in April 1811, and Jane, with her mother and sister, had been there about a year and a half.
Chawton was her home for the rest of her short life, though she actually died at Winchester. At Chawton her three last novels were written, as will be recounted in detail. It is curious that the periods of her literary activity seem to have been synchronous with her residence in the country; at Steventon and at Chawton respectively she produced three novels; at Bath only a fragment, and at Southampton nothing at all.
The life at Chawton during this and the next few years must have been part of the happiest time she ever experienced. Her first book, Sense and Sensibility, was published in 1811; she had tasted the joys of earning money, and, what was much greater, the joy of seeing her own ideas and characters in tangible shape; she lived in a comfortable, pretty home, with the comings and goings of her relatives at the Manor House to add variety, and she had probably lost the restlessness of girlhood. If the conjecture of which we have spoken in a previous chapter was true, she had now had time to get over a sorrow which must have taken its place with those sweet unrealised dreams in which the pain is much softened by retrospect. That she fully appreciated her country surroundings is shown by frequent notes on the garden at Chawton. "Our young piony at the foot of the firtree has just blown and looks very handsome, and the whole of the shrubbery border will soon be very gay with pinks and sweet williams, in addition to the columbines already in bloom. The Syringas too are coming out. We are likely to have a great crop of Orleans plums, but not many greengages." "You cannot imagine what a nice walk we have round the orchard. The row of beech look very pretty and so does the young quickset hedge in the garden. I hear to-day that an apricot has been detected on one of the trees." "Yesterday I had the agreeable surpnse of finding several scarlet strawberries quite ripe. There are more strawberries and fewer currants than I thought at first. We must buy currants for our wine."
Thus the seasons are marked. The Austens ate their own tender young peas from the garden, and "my mother's" chickens supplied the table.
Mrs. Austen at this time seems to have taken a new lease of life, she busied herself with garden and poultry, and did not shirk even the harder details necessitated by these occupations.
Her granddaughter Anna, James's eldest daughter, now grown up, was a constant visitor at the cottage, and speaks of Mrs. Austen's wearing a "round green frock like a day labourer" and "digging her own potatoes." Anna enjoyed the little gaieties that fell to her lot as freshly as her aunt had done at her age, indeed with even more simplicity, for Jane remarks of one ball to which she went "it would not have satisfied me at her age." And again, "Anna had a delightful evening at the Miss Middletons, syllabub, tea, coffee, singing, dancing, a hot supper, eleven o'clock, everything that can be imagined agreeable," as if the freshness of Anna's youth were very fresh indeed.
The beautiful park stretching around Chawton House, with its fine beech trees, was of course quite open to the inhabitants of the cottage, who must have derived many advantages from their near relationship to the owner.
Altogether, with the freedom from care for the future, the companionship of her sister, the increased health and energy of her mother, the solace of her writing, the comings and goings of the Chawton party, and the occasional visits to London and elsewhere, to give her fresh ideas, Jane's life must have been as pleasant as externai circumstances could make it. We can picture her sauntering out in the early summer sunshine, her head demurely encased in the inevitable cap, while the long stray curl tickles her cheek as she stoops to see the buds bursting into bloom or triumphantly gathers the earliest rose. We can picture her standing about watching Mrs. Austen feeding the chickens, and giving her opinion as to their management. Then going in to the little parlour, or living-room, and sitting down to the piano u;hile Cassandra manipulated an old-fashioned tambour frame. In this little parlour, in spite of frequent interruptions, Jane did all her writing sitting at the big heavy mahogany desk of the old style, like a wooden box, which opened at a slant so as to form a support for the paper; at this time she was revising Sense and Sensibility for the press, or adding something to the growing pile of MS. called Mansfield Park. We cannot imagine that she wrote much at a time, for her work is minute, small, and well digested; probably after a scene or conversation between two of the characters, she would be interrupted by another member of the household, and stroll up to the Manor House to give orders for the reception of some of the Knight family, or go into Alton to buy some necessary household article. Occasionally a post-chaise would rattle past, or the daily coach and waggons would form a diversion.
For six months, during the year 1813, the whole of the Godmersham party lived at Chawton, while their other house was being repaired and painted, and this intercourse added greatly to Jane's happiness. She cemented that affectionate friendship with her eldest niece Fanny, and Lord Brabourne gives little extracts from his mother's diary to show how close the companionship was between the two, " Aunt Jane and I had a very interesting conversation," "Aunt Jane and I had a very delicious morning together," "Aunt Jane and I walked into Alton together," and so on.
But during these years there was no abatement of the fierce turmoil in Europe, the Peninsular War, demanding ever fresh levies of men and fresh subsidies of money, was a continual drain on England's resources, and the beginning of 1812 found the French practically masters of Spain; but in that year the tide turned, and after continual and bloody battles and sieges in which the loss of life was enormous, Wellington drove the French back across the Pyrenees, and in the following year planted his victorious standard actually on French soil.
But the effects of the continuous wars were being felt in England, in 1811 broke out the Luddite riots, nominally against the introduction of machinery, but in reality because of the high price of bread and the scarcity of employment and money. Austria had signed the disastrous Peace of Vienna with France in 1809, and during this and the following years the Continent with small exception was ground beneath the heel of Napoleon, who in 1812 commenced the invasion of Russia which was to cost him so dearly. In 1811 there is rather a characteristic exclamation in one of Jane's letters apropos of the war: "How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!"
Napoleon's tyranny and utter regardlessness of the feelings of national pride in the countries he had conquered now began to bring forth for him a bitter harvest. The Sixth Coalition of nations was formed against him, including Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain and Sweden. After terrific fighting his armies were forced back over the Rhine, and the mighty Empire he had formed of powerless and degraded "Republics" melted away like snow in an August sun. In March 1814, Paris, itself was forced to surrender to the triumphant armies of the Allies. In April, Napoleon signed his abdication and retired to Elba. Ever since he first appeared as an active agent on the battlefields of Europe he had kept the Continent in a perpetual ferment; cruelty, bloodshed and horror had followed in his train. His mighty personality had seemed scarcely human, and his very name struck terror into all hearts, and became a bugbear with which to frighten children.
We have two letters of Jane's in the early part of March, written from London where she was staying with her brother Henry. There is not another until June, and that is dated from Chawton. Of course it is difficult to imagine that any intermediate letters she wrote can have been entirely free from allusion to the great news at which the whole Continent burst into paeans of thankfulness, and which must have made England feel as if she had awakened from a nightmare, but as we have no proof either way it must be left open to doubt.
In the June letter she says to Cassandra, who was in London, "Take care of yourself and do not be trampled to death in running after the Emperor. The report in Alton yesterday was that they would certainly travel this road either to or from Portsmouth." This referred to the visit of the Allied monarchs to England after their triumph in Paris, and the "Emperor" was the Emperor Alexander of Russia, who but a few years ago had formed a secret treaty with Napoleon to the detriment of England!
Here we must leave political matters, to take a short review of the work which Jane had produced in the years since she had come to Chawton.
In 1811 the first of her books, Sense and Sensibility, was published at her own expense, and produced in three neat little volumes in clear type by T. Egerton, Whitehall. Her identity was not disclosed by the title-page, which simply bore the words "By a Lady." She paid a visit to her brother Henry in London in order to arrange the details, with which Henry helped her very much. When in London with this object she writes, "No, indeed, I am never too busy to think of Sense and Sensibility. I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child, and I am much obliged to you for your enquiries. I have had two sheets to correct but the last only brings us to Willoughby's first appearance. Mrs. K. regrets in the most flattering manner that she must wait till May, but I have scarcely a hope of its being out in June. Henry does not neglect it; he has hurried the printer, and says he will see him again to-day."
Sense and Sensibility did not come out until she had returned to the country, and when she received £150 for it later on, she thought it "a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing." And certainly, considering her anonymity and the small chances the book had, she had good reason to be satisfied. The gratifying reception of Sense and Sensibility seems to have awakened the powers of writing which had so long lain dormant from want of encouragement. In 1812 she began Mansfield Park, perhaps in some ways the least interesting, though by no means the least well constructed, of her novels. Edmund and Fanny are both a little too mild for the taste of most people, and are far from taking their real place as hero and heroine. However, Edmund's blind partiality for Miss Crawford is very natural, and, as Henry Austen himself said, it is certainly impossible to tell until quite the end how the story is going to be finished. The minor characters are throughout excellent; it is one of Jane's shining qualities that no character, however small the part it has to play, remains unknown, she seems able to describe in a touch or two some human quality or defect which at once brings us into intimate relations with either man or woman. Mr. Rushworth's self-importance, "I am to be Count Cassel and to come in first in a blue dress, and a pink satin cloak, and afterwards have another fine fancy suit by way of a shooting dress. I do not know how I shall like it . . . I shall hardly know myself in a blue dress and pink satin cloak," is excellent.
Lady Bertram's character might be gathered from one sentence in the letter which she sends to Fanny, telling of her elder son's dangerous illness: "Edmund kindly proposes attending his brother immediately, but I am happy to add Sir Thomas will not leave me on this distressing occasion as it would be too trying for me."
Mrs. Norris, with her sycophantic speeches towards her well-to-do nieces, her own opinion of her virtues, her admonitions to Fanny, her habit of taking credit for the generous acts performed by other people, her spunging, and trick of getting everything at the expense of others, is the most striking figure in the book. When poor Fanny, having been neglected and left alone all day, the odd one of the party, is returning with the rest rather drearily from Rushworth Park, Mrs. Norris remarks--
"Well, Fanny, this has been a fine day for you, upon my word! Nothing but pleasure from beginning to end! I am sure you ought to be very much obliged to your Aunt Bertram and me for contriving to let you go. A pretty good day's amusement you have had." This, when she has done her best to stop Fanny's going at all, depicts her character in unmistakable colours. On another occasion she tells the meek Fanny, "The nonsense and folly of people's stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us, and I do beseech and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and t talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins, as if you were dear Mrs. Rushworth or Julia. That will never do,believe me. Remember wherever you are you must be the lowest and last." In the same book Sir Thomas Bertram's conference with his niece on the proposals he has received for her from Mr. Crawford is a wonderful commentary on the opinions of the time, but is too long to quote in entirety. That Fanny should refuse a handsome eligible young man, merely because she could neither respect nor love him, was quite incredible, and not only foolish but wicked. Sir Thomas speaks sternly of his disappointment in her character, "I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit and every tendency to that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which, in young women, is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence."We know what Jane herself thought of coercion of this kind, and how fully her sentiments were on the side of liberty of choice.
Among the other excellencies of Mansfield Park we may note the sketch of Fanny's home at Portsmouth, with her loud-voiced father and noisy brothers so distressing to her excessive sensitiveness. With all these merits, and to add to them that of excellent construction, Mansfield Park may rank high in spite of its somewhat colourless hero and heroine. We cannot, however, leave Edmund and Fanny in the same certainty of a happy future as we may leave others of the heroes and heroines in the novels; they may rub along well enough, but we feel they cannot but be intolerably dull, though perhaps so long as people are not aware of their own dulness they may enjoy happiness of a negative sort!
Henry Austen read Mansfield Park in MS. while travelling with his sister, and she notes with pleasure, "Henry's approbation is hitherto even equal to my wishes. He says it is different from the other two, but he does not think it at all inferior. He has only married Mrs. Rushworth. I am afraid he has gone through the most entertaining part. He took to Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris most kindly, and gives great praise to the drawing of all the characters. He understands them all, likes Fanny, and, I think, foresees how it will all be." And she adds later, "Henry is going on with Mansfield Park. He admires H. Crawford; I mean properly, as a clever pleasant man, I tell you all the good I can, and I know how much you will enjoy it." "Henry has this moment said he likes my M. P. better and better; he is in the third volume; I believe now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end;hesaid yesterday at least he defied anybody to say whether H. C. would be reformed or forget Fanny in a fortnight."
The first two extracts are from a letter given in Mr. Austen-Leigh's Memoir.
In 1813 came the publication of Pride and Prejudice, apparently at Mr. Egerton's risk. This was evidently Jane's own favourite among the novels, and her references to it are made with genuine delight.
"Lady Robert is delighted with P. and P., and really was so, I understand, before she knew who wrote it, for, of course she knows now." "I long to have you hear Mr. H's opinion of P. and P. His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me." "Poor Dr. Isham is obliged to admire P. and P. and to send me word that he is sure he shall not like Madam D'Arblay's new novel half so well. Mrs. C. invented it all of course." The book had come out quite in the beginning of the year, for in a letter dated Jan. 29, 1813, given by Mr. Austen-Leigh, she writes--
"I hope you received my little parcel by J. Bond on Wednesday evening, my dear Cassandra, and that you will be ready to hear from me again on Sunday, for I feel that I must write to you to-day. I want to tell you that I have got my own darling child from London. On Wednesday I received one copy sent down by Falkner with three lines from Henry to say that he had given another to Charles and sent a third by the coach to Godmersham. . . . The advertisement is in our paper to-day for the first time: 18s. He shall ask £1, 1s. for my two next and £1, 8s. for my stupidest of all."Mansfield Park was finished in the same year, and came out under the auspices of Mr. Egerton in 1814, though the second edition was transferred to Mr. Murray. Before the publication of Emma, Jane had begun to be known in spite of the anonymity of her title-pages. The only bit of public recognition she ever personally received was accorded to her while she was in London, and must be told in the account of her London experiences.
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.