‘A fine family piece’

This scene veers away from Jane Austen’s life and into the rich and thrilling world of her imagination

Here in this room, at this little table, Jane Austen wrote, rewrote, revised and edited her six great novels. Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and Northanger Abbey were written in Steventon and revised here in Chawton. Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion were written here, conjured from Jane’s mind and imagination as she sat with her quill and ink, gazing out onto the village street or losing herself in this wild green wallpaper.

Whilst she sat here, at her tiny table, a demure figure in a sensible day dress, shawl and cap, writing quickly and neatly on small pieces of paper, in her mind she was building worlds and inventing characters that fairly leap off the page. So let us step into one of those stories…

This is a scene from Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last complete novel.

We must imagine that we are at Uppercross, the seat of the Musgrove family, and it is Christmas time. Mr and Mrs Musgrove are ‘in the old English style’. They ‘were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant.’

Here, then, we will enjoy a comfortable old English Christmas. The room is dressed with greenery from the estate, there is plenty of food and wine on the table, and the room is full of chatter and music, fun and games.

‘Immediately surrounding Mrs Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others.’

Persuasion, Chapter 14

Listen to the extract 🎧

You might imagine that a family Christmas like this wouldn’t be too dissimilar from those enjoyed by the Austen family. They loved games and merrymaking too, and even once Jane and Cassandra were grown up and living in Chawton with their mother, there were plenty of nephews and nieces to fill the house with games and laughter.

However, whilst the Musgrove children entertained themselves by ‘cutting up silk and gold paper’, the Austens were busy with words and stories – they read aloud, wrote stories and poems, and tested each other with riddles and charades.

Do you fancy a charade? Test yourself with one here!

Check the answer!