Dining room grateText by Steph Emo, Volunteer at Jane Austen's House
This ordinary cast iron grate is of extraordinary significance to the Museum. Not only does it provide us with a very tangible link to Jane – after her early morning piano practice she would make the tea here for breakfast before settling down to write – but it was also the catalyst behind the formation of the Jane Austen Society and ultimately the establishment of the Museum.
Following the death of Jane’s sister Cassandra in 1845, the house was divided into cottages for Chawton Estate workers and by the 1920’s was described as being in a shabby state.
Walking by the house one day in 1940, local resident and lifelong Janeite Miss Dorothy Darnell was horrified to see this grate lying on a heap of nettles by the neighbouring forge, having been removed to make way for a gas fire. She contacted The Curtis Museum in Alton who agreed to house it until it could be restored to its rightful place. Determined to secure the house for the nation, Miss Darnell formed the Jane Austen Society in May 1940.
Major Edward Knight was approached and agreed to sell the house to the Society for £3,000. After the war ended, the Society launched an appeal in The Times which was seen by Mr T. Edward Carpenter. Miss Darnell’s ambitions were realised when he bought the house in 1948 and set up the Jane Austen Memorial Trust.
Born in Edinburgh in 1877, Dorothy Darnell was the youngest of seven children born to the Rev. Daniel Darnell and his wife Elizabeth. In 1899 Rev. Darnell was appointed Vicar of Portsea and the family moved to Hampshire. Miss Darnell was a talented artist; she studied under Sir William Nicholson and exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. She is described as having “an inexhaustible enthusiasm …with other qualities that do not always go with enthusiasm – her universal sympathy and friendliness, her respect for other people’s point of view…” which were invaluable qualities in achieving the Society’s aim.
It is fitting that a few months before her death in 1953, the dining parlour at the Museum was opened to the public with the grate finally restored to its original position.
In the quiet of the early morning it’s easy to stand in front of the fireplace and imagine Jane here, key to the tea cupboard in hand and the kettle on the hob. That we have the privilege to do so is down to the tenacity of Miss Dorothy Darnell.