Home truths

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Darcys and Elizabeths everywhere," commented Tom Carpenter, curator of Jane Austen's House, in Chawton, Hampshire. The 17th-century house, now a museum, was the novelist's home for the last and most creative period of her life.

Mr Carpenter explained that Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, stars of the BBC's adaptation, had sought inspiration here. Mr Carpenter has an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything to do with Jane Austen and can dispense an invaluable introductory talk for schools.

It was Tom Carpenter's grand- father who bought and gave the house to the Jane Austen Memorial Trust in 1948, saving it from ruin. The Trust has since laboured to restore and maintain it.

Jane Austen lived here until 1817 (when she moved to Winchester shortly before her death), with her sister Cassandra, her mother and their friend Martha Lloyd. They took up residence in 1809, at the invitation of Jane's brother, Edward, whose inheritance included this house, which was then a bailiff's cottage. "Cottage" does not do justice to the two-storey house with its pretty gardens and outhouses.

A few minutes' walk away is the Elizabethan Chawton House, one of Edward's residences and known to the Austen family as "The Great House". There are now plans to establish a research centre here for women's literature.

The museum contains a mixture of personal exhibits and evocative material, such as the topaz crosses given to the Austen sisters by their brother Charles, a lock of Jane's hair and and the improbably small pedestal table at which she wrote her novels.

Jane Austen's House is a museum of a museum, so old-fashioned does it seem, with faded labelling and a charmingly eccentric atmosphere.

A tiny back bedroom is lined with photographs of the other houses Jane lived in or that may have inspired the locations in her novels. Another holds copies of the writer's juvenilia. Another room recalls the successful naval careers of her brothers, Charles and Francis.

In contrast to the brother's dramatic life at sea, Austen's neat needlework samples suggest a more mundane life. She had no money, no career, no freedom and she did not marry. On the other hand, she had a comfortable life, critical applause for her novels and and was much admired by her family. She had no need to marry.

Although this might appear now to have been a suffocating way of life, Jane Austen was at the height of her powers here. In the eight years in Chawton she revised the manuscripts of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, and wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, before dying at the age of 41.

Jane Austen's House, Chawton, near Alton, Hants. Adults, Pounds 2, children, 50p. Parties of 15 or more, adults, Pounds 1.50, children, 50p. Tel: 01420 83262.

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