Jane Austen 200 – Finding inspiration from early women’s writing

‘I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.’

I so often identify wholeheartedly with this quote. Like many other aspiring writers, I feel I have a claim on Jane Austen. Maybe because I also write about ordinary people and everyday settings and am inspired by houses and beautiful countryside. I also love to spend time with my sister, as Jane did with hers, Cassandra. I feel extremely very lucky that my sister lives in the next village along to Chawton, the quintessentially English, chocolate box village where Jane spent the last eight years of her life.

Austen died two hundred years ago, on 18 July 1817. Many of the anniversary celebrations are based around her roots in Hampshire, where she spent most of her life. Hampshire Cultural Trust has a whole year of special festivities lined up – Jane Austen 200: A Life in Hampshire. There is also a ‘Jane Austen Regency Week’ in Alton and specially commissioned artworks in Basingstoke (Jane’s birthplace), and an event showcasing Jane’s teenage writings at the British Library. A new permanent exhibition is to open at her resting place in Winchester Cathedral, as well as outdoor theatre productions of Pride and Prejudice and ‘read-athons’ and afternoon tea parties taking place in Bath and across the country.

Living in Chawton with her mother, sister, and friend Martha, Austen wrote in earnest. (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, were revised here and published. Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion followed. She began Sanditon here, but never completed it.) I was thrilled about visiting as I’d heard such a lot about it and knew I would find inspiration in the lives and works of one of our most famous woman writers. I was eager to walk in Jane’s footsteps at the ‘Great House’, which is only open to the public on rare occasions.

Jane Austen’s House Museum was even more atmospheric than I had imagined. I am ashamed to admit that I reached over the barrier and touched the original small round wooden table at which Jane wrote, hoping that this simple action would bring me luck in my quest to become a successful writer!

Chawton House – a Grade ll* listed Elizabethan manor house, where Austen’s brother lived, contains portraits of famous women writers, and an inspiring collection of women’s writing. Treasures include early feminist works (known as proto-feminist because they were written before the term ‘feminist’ existed) such as Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

I was fascinated by a book in the shop: Bitch in a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen From the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps by Robert Rodi. Originally published as blog entries, this book completely destroys the contemporary depiction many have of Jane as a quaint and romantic woman’s writer and portrays her as the most merciless satirist of her century, as well as allowing the reader to see a different side to Jane’s characters.

Leaving the house, we strolled around the Walled Garden and sweeping lawns, with swallows swooping gleefully around our feet. At the church situated nearby, we sat amongst the tombstones overlooking the rolling fields. Some of Jane’s family members were laid to rest in this graveyard, and we looked upon a memorial to Cassandra and Jane’s mother, Cassandra Leigh.

I felt exalted, humbled and a little sad – as who knows when I will be in this historic part of the country again? Jane’s writing flourished because she was joyful and content to write in her genteel surroundings, and I have been similarly inspired to use the tranquil location as the setting for a chapter in my novel. Let’s hope I can carry the inspiration of this stunning place with me until my next visit.