At home with Jane Austen

Austen's classics are intrinsically linked to the beautiful homes she lived in and visited
It is a question that many a Jane Austen fan ponders: just how much are our favourite backdrops, Mr Darcy’s grandiose Pemberley or the depiction of Bath in Northanger Abbey, shaped by the author’s real-life experiences?

The truth is that Jane Austen was so bound up with the places she lived in and visited that it would be almost impossible to imagine her novels set anywhere else. Kim Wilson’s new book, At Home With Jane Austen, is the perfect companion to Austen’s novels; just as the author told of her heroine’s progressions through location, Wilson does it through photographs. We learn of the different sites that inspired Austen and also more about the home, Chawton Cottage, where most of her works were finished.

But as with anything, it is important to start at the beginning, and it all opens in Steventon, a little village in Hampshire where Jane Austen’s relationship with religion – found in abundance in her novels – began.

House-Oct10-01-5901. Chawton Cottage is now Jane Austen’s House Museum 2. Fields near the village of Steventon 3. Godmersham Park (1784), which provided the inspiration for Pemberley

This rural refuge, miles from blustering London, was the setting for Austen’s youth. Her family lived in a spacious 17th-century rectory, which was all Austen knew until the age of 25, even though her mother was less than impressed with it, having grown up in rather grander Henley-on-Thames.

Although a religious house, Jane and her siblings saw it as home. According to her letters, they fondly remembered converting one of the bedrooms into a sitting room fi lled with everything blue and featuring a built-in bookcase.Their father was a thoughtful and literary man with a personal library of some 500 books, and he encouraged his daughters to read widely.

The Austens at Steventon were a tight family unit, living a domestic life filled with their own politics and discussions. Sound familiar? Austen even recorded that ‘our family are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so’: something which perhaps women of the time were made to feel uneasy about.

House-Oct10-02-5904. St Nicholas Church, Steventon, where George Austen, Jane’s father, served as rector from 1761 to 1805 5. Chawton Cottage c. 1911 6. Jane Austen's mahogany writing desk at Chawton 7. The Clementi piano in Chawton's drawing room

You can almost picture Austen and her fictional Mr Darcy enjoying a walk along one of Steventon’s leafy lanes, leading up to their daily place of worship, pretty St Nicholas Church. But what of Darcy’s Pemberley estate? Well, Mr Darcy’s residence in Pride And Prejudice likely owes its foundations to Godmersham Park in Kent. Although Jane was unable to live in grandeur herself, she often visited stately mansions such as Godmersham, which her brother, Edward, inherited by chance. She certainly enjoyed lapping up the life of luxury when given the opportunity.

Although literary historians can’t be certain, it is likely that Pemberley was inspired by the Palladian mansion with its miles of wooded hills and gentle slopes. Set in the Stour valley the estate was surrounded by a large park and extensive pleasure grounds.

This great home may also have provided inspiration for Mansfield Park. In a letter, Austen’s niece Marianne remembered that Jane would ‘run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on quietly working as before’ whenever inspiration struck.

House-Oct10-03-5908. The window in Jane Austen's bedroom overlooks the courtyard at Chawton Cottage 9. The wilderness walk at Chawton House, the home of Jane's brother, Edward 10. A replica tent bed in Jane Austen's bedroom

Isn’t it a ‘truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife?’ Godmersham would have certainly been a prize fit for any of Austen’s heroines. And yet no Jane Austen biography would be complete without mentioning the significance of Chawton Cottage, Hampshire, where the prolific author finished all her major novels and wrote Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Jane’s nephew saw his aunt as a ‘sojourner in a strange land’ until she, her mother and sister Cassandra moved to Chawton Cottage, the small haven that gave her ‘a real home amongst her own people’.

Here, Jane indulged in life’s simple pleasures, working in the garden to grow her own food while living in her ‘humble abode’. The most treasured thing in this cottage, however, was her mahogany writing desk, which was placed, surprisingly, in the living room. With all the constant interruptions in the main family room, it is a wonder she was able to write her classics. Chawton remained her home until her death in 1817.

At Home With Jane Austen ultimately shows how intrinsically linked Austen’s novels are to the places she encountered. A glance at the contents page serves to illustrate the link; just like Jane, her heroines were always on a geographical journey that mirrored their moral compass. Location was crucial to Jane’s literature; it gave her characters a sense of place, one that simultaneously acted as a symbol of their station in society.

At Home With Jane Austen, by Kim Wilson, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £25.