In the week of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, MISCHA ALLEN visits the house where Jane wrote most of her novels and finds out about her connections with Portsmouth.
It was in the bright early mornings that Jane Austen would write. Scribbling furiously away on a small wooden table at the family home in the Hampshire village of Chawton, she created such iconic characters as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy.
Little did she know that her work would come to be regarded as among the best-loved novels of all time.
Though she did not have a huge amount of fame during her lifetime, now it’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane is one of our literary giants.
On Monday, her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, turned 200. Out of copyright, it’s still selling an estimated 50,000 copies a year in the UK alone. A TV adaptation turned Colin Firth into a heartthrob and it has been used as inspiration the world over.
To celebrate the novel’s publication, the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton near Alton has been busy. The home of Jane for eight years, it was where she wrote and revised most of her novels.
But Jane has several other county connections. Born in Steveton, near Whitchurch, she would often travel down to Portsmouth, where two of her brothers were posted in the navy. And she died in Winchester in 1817 and is now buried at Winchester Cathedral.
Ann Channon, 68, is the house manager at the museum and lives nearby. She says: ‘Her brothers, Francis and Charles, both went to the naval school in Portsmouth, which was quite new at the time, when they were 12 years old. Then at 14, they were made ship men.
‘Both of them were kept on by their captains, which means they liked them, otherwise they would have been pushed around to other ships. But they stayed with them.’
Jane would have visited her brothers when they were docked in Portsmouth and there’s a wealth of correspondence between them.
Ann continues: ‘Obviously we can’t know what they spoke about when they saw each other, but I imagine the Austen family did discuss the brothers and their life in the navy. But she was proud of them, that much is clear.’
Francis and Charles had their own illustrious careers away from their author sister – Charles became a Rear Admiral and Francis became a Captain. He escaped the Battle of Trafalgar as he was stuck in Gibraltar at the time, although he had been on board Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory in the past.
Charles gave his sisters, Jane and Cassandra, a pair of topaz cross necklaces, which can been seen at the museum today. Jane even used Portsmouth in one of her novels, Mansfield Park. Fanny lives there as a child before she is sent away to the country.
Ann says: ‘Apparently she turned around to her brother once and said ‘‘I’ve used the name of your ship in my next book, but I’ve asked you after I’ve used it.’’ That was HMS Elephant, which he had just been posted on.
‘Everything she did was taken from life, not specifically, but she would take parts from here and there that inspired her.’
The museum in Chawton is full of artefacts from Jane’s life, including a lock of her hair and the letter she wrote to her sister Cassandra on January 27, 1813 as a pre-publication version of Pride and Prejudice had arrived, declaring it ‘my own darling child from London.’
For Anne and the museum, it’s not just Monday or this week they are celebrating, it’s the whole year. She explains: ‘We’ve got an exhibition running throughout the year explaining Pride and Prejudice, and we’ve also got a travelling exhibition which we managed to get a lottery grant for and it’s going to all sorts of places, such as public libraries in London.
‘Also, the museum will be doing a 24-hour Pride and Prejudice reading relay. There are lots of writing workshops and they’re getting full.’
Ann adds: ‘There are lots of different people coming in and we try to teach everyone, from the person who knows nothing, to the person who thinks they know everything.’
The museum is normally only open at weekends before the February half-term, when it opens full-time, but all this week they’ve had the doors open to the public. ‘Jane was revising and writing and publishing the whole time she was living here,’ Anne says, ‘and there was nowhere else where she worked as fast or as hard. There’s a constant reel of people coming in and we think it’s important that they do.
‘Pride and Prejudice was very important to a lot of people. It’s not just about love stories, it’s about her amazing ability to get into the people and characters. We want to show people that Jane Austen was the person that changed the idea of the modern novel.’
Ann believes it’s the timeless aspect of Jane’s novels that have kept readers coming back to them.
She explains: ‘Her novels are very modern, even though they are set in a different time.
‘She has created human beings and you can see how she sees people. She rewards her characters who are good with a good ending.
‘Jane herself was pursued by the brother of a family friend, Thomas Lefroy, but for the sake of the family she called it off and he was sent away.
‘I think this is when she learned about love.’
For Ann, it’s all about making her laugh.
‘I love Jane’s wicked wit and she tells the truth. She shows that the human being really doesn’t change at all.’