Painting of Chawton House and ChurchDr Gillian Dow, former Executive Director, Chawton House Library
This charming picture shows Chawton House nestled behind the trees, as comfortable as it has been since it was built in the late sixteenth century. The house belonged to Edward Austen, later Knight, Jane Austen’s older brother. Edward was made the heir of wealthy childless relations, Thomas and Catherine Knight. Through them, he inherited a large amount of land and property. Although Chawton House was never Edward’s main home – he preferred to live at Godmersham Park in Kent – it was his ownership of ‘the Great House’ and estate that enabled him to offer his mother and sisters a home in the centre of the village of Chawton in 1809.
Jane Austen admired the improvements Edward made to Chawton House in the early nineteenth century: ‘We like to have him proving & strengthening his attachment to the place by making it better’, she wrote in a letter to her brother Francis in July 1813. Indeed, Jane seems to have been very fond of the house herself, referring to it regularly in her letters. It is unlikely that she wrote in the ladies’ withdrawing room in the house, as Knight family legend would have it, but certainly she walked in the extensive grounds, visited family and friends, dined, and took tea there. And she would have seen it surveying the landscape every time she attended a service in the Church, which of course was very much part of the fabric of life in early nineteenth-century England.
Times have changed in the village of Chawton, and although ‘the Great House’ is still the most imposing house in the village today, it is no longer a bustling family home. But Jane Austen herself would surely have been delighted that it is now a library, home to many of the writers she admired, critiqued, aspired to imitate – and improved on!