Chawton House lets you into the private world of Jane Austen, her apprehensions, beliefs and value system.
Well-preserved ambience: Jane Austen's residence. Photo: Sadhana Rao
THE moist effluvia of London's air gradually diminished on the road to Hampshire. As we left the main motorway (the M 25) and turned to the uncluttered passageway, the burnished elegance and the congealed traditionalism of Hampshire's appearance got crystallised. The countryside had a benevolent, archetypical air and the ecology did not look actively plundered.
We were in Hampshire ostensibly on a literary trail. To follow the footsteps imprinted on Hampshire's cultural trajectory by Britain's renowned writer Jane Austen.
As we neared Chawton (the home of Austen), a compelling signpost dramatically proclaimed the bailiwick as Jane Austen's country. Local folklore too unequivocally states Hampshire as Jane Austen's true home. Members of the local chapter of the Jane Austen society believe that in the peripatetic writer's life the years spent in Hampshire proved to be the provenance and mainstay of her works. It is here she spent the insouciance days of youth and then metamorphosed into a mature writer (Her major works were tweaked and perfected and saw the light of publication from her home at Chawton).
Before heading to the museum, we visited places like Basingstoke, Steventon, Winchestor signposted in Jane Austen's life with her birth, baptism and death. This terrain of the Austen trail has really been off the beaten track. It's only in recent years that this trail has been imaginatively and meticulously mapped as there has been a resurgence of abiding interest in Jane Austen's works. The new brand ambassador for Austen's novels is the actress Keira Knightley (The actress essayed the role of the spirited Elizabeth Bennet in yet another celluloid version of Pride and Prejudice).
A charming red brick house in Chawton (called the writer's inspirational home) now operates primarily as a museum. After a flurry of rather quintessential "English" greetings, we were ushered in and allowed to meander. The museum was not crowded but had a reasonable strength of loyal readers (The Easter weekend had begun).
As I roamed around the immaculately kept house, I could not help wondering at the keen sense of preservation. It seemed as if a magical alloy had been used on all artefacts on display, to keep age and withering at bay.
At a cursory level Chawton house represents just the home of a simple writer. A deeper exploration reveals an insightful peak into the private world the author resided in. Viewing all the mementoes, the memorabilia, the flotsam and jetsam of the writer made the narrative theme of her stories come alive. I could almost imagine Emma or Elizabeth (two of Austen's liveliest heroines) come bounding down the steps or airing their point of view.
However, it is the graphic display of her letters (written to her family) that truly reveals the portrait of the writer; her apprehensions, beliefs, value system, romantic sensibilities and historical and economic perceptions. In a way, the letters read like a draft of her novels or a critique of her own works.
The ultimate tribute to an author's legacy is the arrangement of all her rare books, the first editions, the teenage writings and the original illustrations. Chancing upon a table full of rarities is one of the engaging delights and surprises that travels throw up.
What could be termed as Chawton High Street had six or seven shops and a bar incongruously named "Gray Fares Bull". Most from the museum gravitated there. There was raucous cacophony inside the bar. It was clear that the talks centred on Jane Austen. Somebody was reading aloud from Emma. Another argumentative voice lamented why Mansfield Park did not get its due. Yet another voice aggressively dismissed all the movies based on Austen's books as candyfloss where the wit and irony of the writer were completely lost.
Inevitably, we got drawn into the vigour of the infectious moment. Fortunately, I had my slim folder of favoured readings. One of our group members read an extract from Pico Iyer's lyrical essay titled "Jane Austen in Calcutta" (The essay was a review of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy). An elderly English teacher remarked that words of writers do not need visas and immigration stamps; they travel ever so effortlessly.
Later on, I received an e-mail from one of our bar companions. She had bought a copy of A Suitable Boy to occupy the idle hours of her long return journey and thanked us for the recommendation.
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