It is always nice to turn up at a country house as something other than a paying visitor. The best part of collecting my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, for example, was turning up at St James’ Palace with an invitation. Compared to that, the two minutes of bob and nod with the Earl of Wessex was something of a disappointment – we didn’t even get Prince Philip. Yesterday, I was not a daytripper but a visiting scholar, and at nine o’clock I was making the 45 minute drive in the pouring rain to Chawton, just outside of Alton – home not only to Jane Austen’s House, but to Chawton House Library, one of my new favourite places to study.
Owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen in the Georgian era, Chawton House was bought by a charitable foundation in the eighties and, as well as being a fine country house in its own right, now functions as a Centre for Woman’s Literature 1600-1850. This means that, with a few days forward notice, even sciolists like myself can turn up and have access to the main library collections. As the public is only allowed in for brief tours at 2:30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I effectively have a fine old country house to myself. The prospect never fails to raise my spirits.
Yesterday, for example, I came in from the rain to find a lovely smell of woodsmoke seeping back into the ancient boards, from the Edwardian Christmas event held a few days beforehand. The (insanely lucky) visiting fellows who dwell in cottages around the back of the house had all wound their projects down and gone home, and aside from me, the librarian and the receptionist, there was hardly anyone around. In the faint December light, it seemed the ideal place for Gothic fantasies, but I had an essay to write and was too busy to dream for long.
The library is on the first floor, blessed with good light and fine, weighty desks to study from, though to someone used to padded deskchairs the wooden frames take some getting used to. The only sound is the whirr as the air conditioner keeps the room cooled to British Library specifications. At my elbow five massive leatherbound quarto volumes of Catharine Macaulay’s History of England sat, second editions from 1766 that I would never get a chance to handle in a university library. I browsed through them, enjoying Macaulay’s republican rhetoric and the wonderful texture of the old book, with its long s’s and strange spellings, and Capitalisation of abstract Nouns. But this was no time to idle, for I had an essay to write, and was swiftly constructing my plan and pulling in quotations from a dozen different sources, scattered through the library – pausing only to divert myself briefly with some of the Juvenelia of Jane Austen.
The library closes for an hour at lunchtime, and I took the opportunity to wander through the old house, whose floorboards roll and buck beneath you like rough ground, looking up at the pictures of famous women they’d assembled, and blundering into rooms I’d never seen before. I finished curled up in a bay window behind a curtain, reading a publishers catalogue and trying to pretend I was Jane Eyre. Then, back to the library again, until by 4pm I had a one page plan and three pages of usable quotations, and saw myself out with some sadness. I would have liked to remain, and read through Austen’s juvenelia until my stomach began to rumble uncontrollably. I would like to have stayed the night in one of the bedrooms, or the cottages of the visiting fellows. But alas! I had to return to my parents modern house, with its televisions and kitchens and conveniences, and leave grand old Chawton House behind.