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Chawton House: An Austen treasure in need of support

By Michelle Monaghan

I would describe Chawton House as a hidden jewel in the cosy but charming surroundings of a village that is the house’s namesake. You reach the historic manor as you walk up a gravel drive lined on both sides with the brightest greenery and rolling paddocks stretching off into the distance. Cream stones meet the terracotta-coloured rooftops and a few short but sturdy steps lead to the front door under a slightly worn coat of arms.

The interior of the manor is a walk through times long passed. Hidden doors disguised to look like the walls, portraits of the family members who once walked the halls, exhibitions about women in literature and a library full of work by extraordinary women or about women who were ahead of their time. Even more remarkable is a lonely chair sitting in a quiet spot by a window which is said to be the favourite reading spot of Jane Austen when she visited her family at the house. 

Off to the right-hand side of the house sits the quiet but charming church of St Nicholas. This historic building from 1270 stands apart from the house like its own little estate. A statue of Jane Austen greets you as you walk up to the small winding path to the entrance and a stiff door challenges you to get inside. Once inside, the church has a cosy feel. The high but detailed wooden beams that decorate the ceiling resemble lattice detailing on a gingerbread house. In the churchyard lie the graves of the two Cassandras, Austen’s mother and sister.

The gardens are the final puzzle piece that completes this historic wonder treasure trove. Greens of every kind meet the eye as you walk the grounds, flowers blooming everywhere, a walled vegetable and herb garden just waiting to be discovered and the gentle sheep grazing the paddocks and beyond. The final treat was watching a Harris Hawk up close whose handler, Anita Ebdon runs Hawk Walks along the grounds and nearby.

But what is Chawton House?

Chawton House is home to the Knight family and is over four hundred years old, having been in the family since 1578. Although it’s well-known that Jane Austen visited the house, she never lived there. The house belonged to her brother Edward Austen who changed his name to Knight when he inherited the house from Thomas and Catherine. These distant relations made him their heir. 

Upon taking over the Chawton Estate, Edward gave the former bailiff’s abode to Jane, his mother and sisters. It was a short walk from Chawton House and Jane spent the final eight years of her life there in the most prominent years of her writing. Though Jane never married, she delighted her nieces and nephews by Edward. She would visit them frequently and formed a close bond with her brother’s oldest child Fanny whom she adored.

Today the house is a popular visitor attraction. It contains many portraits and items linked to the Knight family and includes portraits of women writers. Visitors will also find a changing rotation of exciting displays from the library’s unique collection of women’s literature.

April 2023 marked the 20th anniversary of Chawton House opening to the public. To mark this milestone, the heritage site is launching an urgent fundraising appeal to ensure its legacy continues for the next twenty years and beyond.

The chaos of the last three years has seen the charity survive Covid closures and restrictions, destructive storms, flooding, widespread ash dieback and thousands of pounds worth of work to remove dangerous trees. Now, the cost-of-living crisis, historic levels of inflation and an exponential rise in the cost of heating – have left reserves exhausted and finances in a precarious state.  

The house survives through ongoing hard work by the small staff team supported by 80 dedicated volunteers who garden, steward, lead tours, and knit whole Christmas displays. Twenty-thousand people visit every year, more than sixty-thousand have viewed online content since production started in 2020, and thousands more walk the parklands and woodlands for free every day. For the first time since the early 20th century, Chawton House is at the heart of local life. 

Over the next 12 months, Chawton House needs to raise £200,000 from grants, donations and support-in-kind to keep the doors open and realise its potential ahead of Jane Austen’s 250th birthday. Austen’s birthday falls on December 16 and will be a huge cause of celebration to remember her life, her writing and the impact her legacy has had on the world today.

It would be devastating if we lost one of Austen’s most beloved places where she spent her time reading, spending time with family and being inspired to write her most famous novels.

To quote Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “Elizabeth had never been more at a loss to make her feelings appear what they were not. It was necessary to laugh, when she would rather have cried.”

PICTURED BY MICHELLE MONAGHAN: Chawton House and St Nicholas Church.