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Saturday, 17 September 2016

Jane Austen's Life during the Chawton Years, as depicted in her Letters

On 7 July 1809, Jane settled at Chawton in a cottage on one of brother Edward's estates. It was to be the final and - in literary output - most fruitful period of her life. While preparing for the move to Chawton, Jane wrote: 'Every body is very much concerned at our going away, & every body is acquainted with Chawton & speaks of it as a remarkably pretty village, & every body knows the House we describe – but nobody fixes on the right. – I am very much obliged to Mrs Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me – & she may depend upon it, that I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own. – I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice' (Letter 62). Mr. Papillon was the Rector at Chawton, where he lived unmarried with his spinster sister.

The family joke about Papillon was sustained for years. In December 1816, when he had arranged to move into a larger house, Jane wrote: 'I am happy to tell you that Mr Papillon will soon make his offer, probably next Monday, as he returns on Saturday. – His intention can be no longer doubtful in the smallest degree, as he has secured the refusal of the House which Mrs Baverstock at present occupies in Chawton & is to vacate soon' (Letter 146).

Jane also decided to have a piano of her own once more – 'as good a one as can be got for 30 Guineas – & I will practise country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephews and neices' (Letter 63).

Five days after moving to Chawton, Jane became an aunt again when Mary Austen, wife of her brother Frank, gave birth to Francis-William. To celebrate the two events, Jane sent this poem on 26 July as a letter to Frank: 


My dearest Frank, I wish you Joy 
Of Mary's safety with a Boy, 
Whose birth has given little pain 
Compared with that of Mary Jane. – 
May he a growing Blessing prove, 
And well deserve his Parents' Love! – 
Endow'd with Art's & Nature's Good, 
Thy name possessing with thy Blood, 
In him, in all his ways, may we 
Another Francis William see! – 
Thy infant day may he inherit, 
Thy warmth, nay insolence of spirit;- 
We would not with one fault dispense 
To weaken the resemblance. 
May he revive thy Nursery sin, 
Peeping as daringly within, 
His curley Locks but just descried, 
With "Bet, my be not come to bide." – 
Fearless of danger, braving pain, 
And threaten'd very oft in vain, 
Still may one Terror daunt his Soul, 
One needful engine of Controul 
Be found in this sublime array. 
A neighbouring Donkey's aweful Bray. 
So may his equal faults as Child, 
Produce Maturity as mild! 
His saucy words & fiery ways 
In early Childhood's pettish days, 
In Manhood, shew his Father's mind 
Like him, considerate & kind; 
All Gentleness to those around, 
And eager only not to wound. 
Then like his Father too, he must, 
To his own former struggles just, 
Feel his Deserts with honest Glow, 
And all his self-improvement know. – 
A native fault may thus give birth 
To the best blessing, conscious Worth. – 
As for ourselves we're very well; 
As unaffected prose will tell. – 
Cassandra's pen will paint our state, 
The many comforts that await 
Our Chawton home, how much we find 
Already in it, to our mind; 
And how convinced, that when complete 
It will all other Houses beat 
That ever have been made or mended, 
With rooms concise, or rooms distended. 
You'll find us very snug next year, 
Perhaps with Charles & Fanny near, 
For now it often does delight us 
To fancy them just over-right us.

(By the final words, Jane meant they would be nearby in the Great House at Chawton.) 

The letters make life at Chawton vivid for us. 'We hear that there is to be no Honey this year. Bad news for us. – We must husband our present stock of Mead' (Letter 145). Mrs. Austen 'will send the Strawberry roots by Sally Benham, as early next week as the weather may allow her to take them up' (Letter 120). 'The Chicken are all alive, & fit for the Table – but we save them for something grand. – Some of the Flower seeds are coming up very well – but your Mignionette makes a wretched appearance. – Miss Benn has been equally unlucky as to hers; She has seed from 4 different people, & none of it comes up. Our young Piony at the foot of the Fir tree has just blown and looks very handsome; & the whole of the Shrubbery Border will soon be very gay with Pinks and Sweet Williams, in addition to the Columbines already in bloom. The Syringas too are coming out. – We are likely to have a great crop of Orleans plumbs – but not many greengages – on the standard scarcely any – three or four dozen perhaps against the wall' (Letter 73, 29 May 1811).

'I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive' (Letter 74).

'We have had no letter since you went away, & no visitor, except Miss Benn who dined with us on friday; but we have received the gift of an excellent Stilton cheese – we presume, from Henry. – My Mother is very well & finds great amusement in glove-knitting ... ' (Letter 78, January 1813). 

However busy Jane was kept by reading and writing at Chawton, she found time for visits and to receive guests for social evenings at the cottage. This to Martha (November 1812) is typical: 'Our next visitor is likely to be William from Eltham in his way to Winchester, as Dr Gabell chuses he should come then before the Holidays, though it can be only for a week. If Mrs Barker has any farther curiosity about the Miss Webbs let her know that we are going to invite them for Tuesday eveng – also Capt. & Mrs Clement & Miss Benn, & that Mrs Digweed is already secured. – "But why not Mr Digweed?" – Mrs Barker will immediately say – To that you may answer that Mr D. is going on tuesday to Steventon to shoot rabbits' (Letter 77).

Miss Benn, who lived in relative poverty at Chawton and seems to have spent much time visiting or being visited by the Austens, was the unmarried sister of a clergyman. 

Part of Jane Austen's Chawton experience (like Emma Woodhouse's) was the bestowing of charity on the poor. Her brother Edward, being the local landowner, invested her with the task of distributing handouts: 'We are just beginning to be engaged in another Christmas Duty, & next to eating Turkies, a very pleasant one, laying out Edward's money for the Poor; & the Sum that passes through our hands this year is considerable, as Mrs Knight left £20 to the Parish' (Letter 77). On another occasion she reports how Miss Papillon (the rector's sister) and she called on the Garnets - 'Dame G. ... surrounded by her well-behaved, healthy, large-eyed Children' (Letter 78). Jane gave them an old shift and promised a 'set of our Linen'. Miss Papillon left some cash. 

Staying at Godmersham at the age of thirty-seven, Jane had settled comfortably into her rĂ´le as a lady chaperoning rather than chaperoned. She liked the resulting comforts: '... as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like' (Letter 96). 

Jane was conscious that 'minutiae' could be tedious: 'We left Guildford at 20 minutes before 12 (I hope somebody cares for these minutiae) & were in Esher in about 2 hours more. – I was very much pleased with the Country in general – ; – between Guildford and Ripley I thought it particularly pretty ...' (Letter 84).

However, historians can find much to savour in the minutiae, as social life is well documented. There are many scenes such as this describing an evening at Henry's home in Hans Place, London, in November 1815: 'then came the dinner & Mr Haden who brought good Manners and clever conversation; – from 7 to 8 the Harp; – at 8 Mrs L. & Miss E. arrived – & for the rest of the eveng the Drawg-room was thus arranged, on the Sopha-side the two Ladies Henry & myself making the best of it, on the opposite side Fanny & Mr Haden in two chairs (I beleive at least they had two chairs) talking together uninterruptedly' (Letter 128). 

Letters from Godmersham in 1813 are full of allusions to the men engaging in political activity or local administration, improving and developing their estates or spending days in field sports and evenings at dinners and cards. In the great house, they would be drawn to the billiard room: 'The Comfort of the Billiard Table here is very great. – It draws all the Gentlemen to it whenever they are within, especially after dinner, so that my Br Fanny & I have the Library to ourselves in delightful quiet' (Letter 92). 

'I can recollect nothing more to say at present; – perhaps Breakfast may assist my ideas. I was deceived – my breakfast supplied only two ideas, that the rolls were good and the butter bad' (Letter 22). 

On many occasions when living at Chawton, Jane walked to Alton and no doubt as on 3 February 1813 'dirt excepted, found it delightful' (Letter 80).

When in London, she did not care for travelling around and was pleased to escape from the dust and lamps (especially, one imagines, when returning from evening theatrical performances): 'We are now all four of us young Ladies sitting round the Circular Table in the inner room writing our Letters, while the two Brothers are having a comfortable coze in the room adjoining. – It is to be a quiet evening, much to the satisfaction of 4 of the 6. – My eyes are quite tired of Dust & Lamps' (Letter 88). 

In Letter 75, we hear about the Wedgwood pottery which had been delivered at Chawton (it is on view at Chawton today). 'On Monday I had the pleasure of receiving, unpacking & approving our Wedgwood ware. It all came very safely, & upon the whole is a good match, tho' I think they might have allowed us rather larger leaves, especially in such a Year of fine foliage as this. One is apt to suppose that the Woods about Birmingham must be blighted. – There was no Bill with the Goods – but that shall not screen them from being paid. ... Martha ... is just now sending my Mother a Breakfast set, from the same place. I hope it will come by the Waggon tomorrow'. 

Other such trivia abound. 'I knew there was Sugar in the Tin, but had no idea of there being enough to last through your Company' (Letter 91). 

From breakfast (at mid-morning) onwards, meals were taken later than they are today. When Jane's family, much reduced in size, had earlier lived modestly at Steventon, she wrote to Cassandra, who was visiting Godmersham, 'We dine now at half after Three, & have done dinner I suppose before you begin – We drink tea at half after six. – I am afraid you will despise us' (Letter 14). Occupants of the great houses were likely to eat later and to have a 'dinner' during the evening.