Jane Austen referred to her brother's manor as the 'Great House'. In my childhood we called our home Chawton House. It is now known as Chawton House Library and a major funding campaign has been launched today to 'reimagine and enhance the manor house in Chawton as it was familiar to Jane Austen in her own village'.
Chawton Great House was inherited by Edward Austen, my fourth great grandfather, after he was adopted by wealthy but childless fourth cousin, Thomas Knight II. Edward also inherited from the Knights two other country estates (Jane's childhood home of Steventon and Godmersham Park in Kent), further land and property in Hampshire, Sussex and Essex, and May’s Buildings built by Thomas Knight I in St Martin’s Lane in London.
Jane had lived with her mother and sister, Cassandra, in Southampton on the Hampshire coast with her brother Frank before Edward offered the Austen ladies the choice of their own home on either his Godmersham or Chawton estate. The ladies chose to stay in Hampshire. ‘Everybody,’ wrote Jane from Southampton, ‘is acquainted with Chawton, and speaks of it as a remarkably pretty village, and everyone knows the house we describe.’ On 7 July 1809, the Austen ladies along with their close friend, Martha Lloyd, moved into the newly renovated bailiff’s house, Chawton Cottage, situated in the middle of the village. The village of Chawton is indeed remarkably pretty, with the Great House on a hill at the southern end of the village.
As a child I loved walking the grounds. With limited finances, my family were no longer able to keep a gardener. My father and uncle kept the sweeping lawns well mowed, but other parts of the garden were overgrown.
As we walked through the woods, it was easy to see the traces of the once manicured gardens: paths, long unkempt and overgrown; life-size stone statues of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; and ornamental plaques, depicting coats of arms and foreign travels, set into the brickwork of the walled garden.
My fifth great-aunt, Jane Austen, walked these paths many times. Jane was a frequent visitor to the Great House and mentioned it in many of her letters. ‘I went up to the Gt. House between three and four, and dawdled away an hour very comfortably,’ Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra on 13 June 1814. Jane arrived in Chawton an unpublished author and by the time of her death eight years later had published four novels, to high acclaim. I had often heard it said that Jane’s access to the inner workings of Edward's country estate, manor house and library assisted her writing.
How wonderful it is that there are plans to 'create a cultural destination within the wider grounds of the 'Great House', offering larger and more extensive visitor facilities and providing an enhanced experience of the Chawton estate that was Jane Austen's home throughout the final, productive years of her life'.
Congratulation to Gillian Dow and the team at Chawton House Library for a wonderful vision and campaign, I am excited to see the next chapter in the history of my family home.
For details and to support the campaign, click on the image below: