To begin at the beginningOur sorting of papers in the attic has revealed some fascinating finds, but I would like to start with one of the earliest and most spine-tingling.
Dorothy Darnell (who was one of the founders of the Jane Austen Society) visited Jane Austen’s House and made notes of what she saw on January 2nd 1939. Those notes, in a neat and legible hand, were in our attic. No doubt when Miss Darnell made this visit, she paid a small fee to one of the families living there, and was allowed to look around the building. Her notes do not totally agree with what we now know about the building, but they give us an insight into what was believed at the time and into the fact that visitors were welcomed to the House long before it officially became a museum. Her clarity of writing also gives us an inkling of her enthusiasm for saving this building for all Janeites.
The notes are in two sections. The first look as if they were written whilst she visited the House. They are on small sheets of paper and numbered 1 – 12. She starts by describing the front of the House , then details the rooms in the order in which she visited them. One or two interesting points that she does not make in the fuller notes below include that the room now referred to as the Reading Room was believed to have been the maids’ sitting room and that Mrs Austen’s bedroom gave her a view of the wicket gate opposite, through which Jane went into Chawton House grounds. She also suggests that the room we refer to as the Drawing Room was the family dining room and that Jane and Cassandra had separate bedrooms.
The second set of notes was apparently written up afterwards, using the notes made on her visit.
These are transcribed below:
Jane Austen’s House
The house is now divided into three dwellings, the centre one being used as a Boys’ Club. The one on the right, which can now be seen by visitors, consists of Jane Austen’s own sitting-room, her bedroom, Mrs Austen’s bedroom, a kitchen and staircase. These appear to be almost in the original condition of Jane Austen’s home.
The front door, which used to open straight into her sitting-room, has now a partitioned lobby entrance. The front door is the original one, even to the hinge which was known to have “creaked” and given her timely warning of interruption to her writing. This sitting room is the room usually shown to visitors and in it are some Austen relics.
The staircase and banisters are said to be exactly as in her time.
On the first floor is her bedroom with her fireplace, hanging wall-cupboard and leaded windows, all intact and original. The front room which was Mrs Austen’s bedroom is also as it was. Jane’s sister Cassandra’s room is in the adjoining dwelling and now therefore boarded off. The kitchens, yard with pump and out-buildings etc seem also to be as they were in her time, but are in very bad repair.
In the garden is (sic) the remains of a “box-edging” to a path leading to Jane’s summer-house. This part of the house is now tenanted by a Mrs Jane Stevens, who has herself an interesting connection with Jane Austen, for Mrs Stevens remembers as a child of 4 years old, talking to Jane’s gardener, an old man who lived in one of the thatched cottages on the Fareham Road. He told her that he remembered going over to Chawton House (Jane Austen’s brother’s house) with Miss Austen to get a little oak tree. This they brought back to the Chawton Cottage garden, and she planted it there with his help. It is now the centre tree of the three trees outside the cottage garden wall in the Winchester Road and it is known as “Miss Austen’s tree”. The garden wall has since been moved to the cottage side of these trees in the interests of the traffic of the Winchester Road.
In the yard behind the house there are also a Bakery and stables. The view of the house from there gives the impression of a very perfect whole capable of being restored almost to its original state.
D G Darnell Jan 2 1939
Miss Darnell was instrumental in the foundation of the Jane Austen Society in May 1940 which had the aim of acquiring the House, keeping it in repair and making part of it accessible to the public. Little happened during WW2, but on 7th December 1946 the Times published a letter from several people, including Miss Darnell, asking for help to buy the House. The House was bought by Mr. T.E. Carpenter who turned it into a Museum dedicated to the life and works of Jane Austen, opening to the public in 1949.
Footnote: August 15th 2020
I have been finishing sorting the last few items from the attic and came across a document that records references to Jane Austen’s House made in local newspapers between 1886 and 1949. This was written by Violet Hunt, and whilst not exhaustive is a fascinating document. Amongst other reports it states that on May 12th 1939 Miss Darnell conducted members of the Hampshire Field Club around the House and garden. She also issued them with a set of the notes transcribed above which were printed in the newspaper. Sadly she does not say which newspaper, but it would most likely have been the Alton Herald or the Hampshire Chronicle.