Can you describe what you do in five words?
Sharing stories of extraordinary women!
As with any great house, its history is chequered with each subsequent generation making their own alterations and additions. That’s why it has such a unique shape with rooms and staircases leading to unexpected places! The House came into the Knight family in the 1500s although not always passing directly from father to son. Hence the Austen connection – Jane’s older brother inherited the Chawton estate from distant childless relatives with the stipulation he change his surname to Knight.
Edward gave the old bailiff’s cottage in the village to his mother and sisters in which to live rent free. In the 1990s American entrepreneur Sandy Lerner bought the lease from the Knight family and totally restored Chawton House, which had somewhat fallen into a state of disrepair. She amassed a huge collection of early modern women’s writing and incorporated the charity, Chawton House Library, into a centre of eighteenth-century research. Sandy stepped away from Chawton House in 2016 and as well as remaining a place for researchers, we also became a beloved heritage site with House, Gardens and Parkland open to the public for visitors to enjoy all year round.
What is your favourite part of this listed building?
I really do love the Oak Room, which would have been the ladies withdrawing room in Jane Austen’s day. As such, we have hung portraits that reflect this sense of a female coterie, displaying artists, writers and actresses, including my favourite portrait, Mary Robinson. It has stunning views of the Gardens and distant Parkland and according to Knight family legend is where Jane Austen used to sit in the reading alcove.
Clio in the reading alcove in the Oak Room.
Do you have fun historical facts about Chawton?
If you look carefully, you’ll find witch marks carved on various points of entry throughout the house: over doorways, by fireplaces, on bannisters. These might look like careless scratches but actually offer protection against evil spirits.
As a postgraduate research student studying English, being surrounded by the best feminist library we’ve ever seen must be so exciting. What first drew you to Chawton House?
The library for sure! The collection offered everything I needed and more whilst researching for my masters in eighteenth-century literature at Southampton, including diaries, manuscripts and some novels found nowhere else in the world. Whilst there, I applied for their live-in internship programme and got to stay onsite for six weeks, which was just magical. After that they asked me to stay on in a temporary role and seven years later here I still am! It’s truly been the making of me.
It’s been a dream for us to collaborate with you on a collection, what is your favourite piece and why?
You’re all no strangers to unusual accessories at Tatty Devine so I would say the pattens from the early 1800s. These are clumsy platforms, nailed to an iron ring to give ladies a bit of elevation, intended to protect their shoes and hems from dirt. Jane Austen wore a pair and referred to “the ceaseless clink of pattens” in her novel Persuasion.
Pattens c.1800s, on loan to Chawton House from the Hampshire Cultural Trust
As certified Jane-ites, we’ve taken a closer look at frequent Chawton visitor Jane Austen’s work in our collection. You have an upcoming event about the scandals of Austen’s family – is there any gossip you can share with us?
That’s right, I’m speaking on all things scandalous as part of Alton’s Jane Austen Regency Week in June. I won’t give too much away but let’s just say there was a bit of a to-do when Jane Austen’s nephew ran off to Gretna Green for a hasty marriage!
Is there anything else exciting coming up at Chawton that we just need to know about?
I’m so excited for our summer season of outdoor theatre! We have some fantastic companies coming to Chawton House for one-off performances, starting with the Handlebard’s Twelfth Night on June 15, followed by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performing As You Like it on July 14. Then the hilarious The Importance of Being Earnest on July 26 before closing with Pride and Prejudice on September 4.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performing outdoor theatre on the South Lawn at Chawton House.
Ready for some quickfire questions…
Favourite Jane Austen book?
P&P if I want a laugh, Persuasion if I’m feeling sentimental.
Which inspirational women should we be following?
Rupi Kaur’s poetry is always a source of inspiration to me and Jameela Jamil’s candid championing of women’s rights is both insightful and at times hilarious.
Bonnets, yay or nay?
Why stop at bonnets?! I say yay to all historical hat wear – I even wore a Regency Casqua a la Minerve to my cousin’s wedding!
On it like a bonnet!
Dying for a look around but not in the UK? Check out Clio’s virtual tour here!