Austen Chat: Episode 1
July 6, 2023
Jane Austen & Her House: A Visit with Lizzie Dunford
In July 1809, Jane Austen and her mother and sister moved into the cottage in Chawton, England, known today as Jane Austen’s House. As the place where she wrote and revised all of her beloved novels, the house is truly "the most treasured Austen site in the world.” In this episode, we visit with the museum’s director, Lizzie Dunford, to discuss the early history of the house, its influence on Austen's writing, some of the Austen treasures on display there, and much more. You’ll also learn how you can visit and interact with the house without ever leaving the comfort of your own home. Dunford is interviewed by Breckyn Wood.
Lizzie Dunford has worked in the museums and heritage sector for more than 15 years, with a focus on house museums. She joined Jane Austen's House as its Director in April 2020 and led it through the Covid pandemic, working to ensure its financial stability while developing new visitor experiences. She oversaw the creation of a 360-degree virtual tour of the house, as well as a major re-roofing project to ensure the house's integrity into the future. Lizzie holds an MA in Conservation of Historic Objects from the University of Lincoln.
Show Notes and Links
For more about Jane Austen’s House, visit the museum's website at janeaustens.house, or find them on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, or Twitter.
Listen to Austen Chat here or in your favorite podcast app: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and other streaming platforms.
Credits: From our Austen Chat podcast. Published July 6, 2023. © Jane Austen Society of North America. All rights reserved. Photo: © Jane Austen Society of North America. Music: Country Dance by Humans Win.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Breckyn Wood: Hello, Janeites, and welcome to the very first episode of Austen Chat, a podcast coming to you from the Jane Austen Society of North America. I’m your host, Breckyn Wood, from the Georgia region of JASNA. I’ve been an Austen fan for many years, but I still have so much left to learn, which is why I’m thrilled about all the amazing experts we have coming on the podcast in the next few months. My guest today is Lizzie Dunford, director of Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England. As Austen’s home for the last eight years of her life, and also the place where she wrote and revised all of her beloved novels, the cottage truly is, as its website states, “the most treasured Austen site in the world.” Lizzie assumed her role at the museum in April 2020 and immediately faced the challenge of keeping the house running during a global pandemic. She did a fantastic job of organizing and running a whole host of digital offerings until the house was able to reopen to the public and has since moved on to other interesting projects, some of which we’ll talk about later. With over a decade of experience in museum leadership and historic conservation, Lizzie is well equipped to preserve Austen’s legacy for future generations of Janeites.
Welcome to the podcast, Lizzie!
Lizzie Dunford: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an absolute honor to be the first guest. It’s a real privilege.
B: Yeah, we’re very excited. Before we get into the museum, I just want to start with a segment called “Desert Island.” You’re stranded on a desert island, and you can only have one Austen character as your pen pal. Who do you choose and why?
L: I think, and I am aware this is a strong statement to open with, but for me, it would have to be Lady Susan.
B: [gasp] Wow!
L: I think the letters that she writes—I mean, there’s always going to be something happening in her life. If you’re going to have a pen pal, you want someone who’s living a little bit. And I’m afraid Lady Susan is going to continue having a life—and an interesting life—in a way that a lot of Austen’s heroines are just not going to have. So, yeah, for me, it’s Lady Susan.
B: Lady Susan ends really abruptly, too. So, having her as a pen pal, you’d be like, “What else is going on?”
L: What’s going to happen next? It’s got to be Lady Susan, yeah.
B: To pick an epistolary novel—her only epistolary novel, right? We know that several of her novels started that way, and then she ended up changing them. So, her only existing epistolary novel—that’s a good choice for a pen pal. That makes a lot of sense.
Okay, so, Lizzie, for those who don’t know much about Austen’s biography, can you just set the scene for us a little bit? What was going on in Jane Austen’s life in 1809, age 33, she moves into the cottage, which is now Jane Austen’s House?
L: Yes, it’s a really important time for Austen, this period. She’s had a lot of housing insecurity over the past—nearly a decade, since 1801. So, she’d grown up in Hampshire; she’s a Hampshire girl. She’s very much a woman of the rural areas, really. She does love London—she spends a lot of time in London. Not that keen on Bath. It doesn’t really suit her. She loves her childhood home in Hampshire. She leaves there in 1801 and then has this great period of insecurity. She goes from being in what, effectively, is a tiny hamlet on a farm with many, many acres of land surrounding her, to being in flats and apartments and increasingly smaller and cheaper accommodations. There’s a real disconnect from the world and the natural world for her there. In Steventon, they’re pretty much self-sufficient for all the essentials. They have their own dairy. They’re growing their own vegetables; they’re growing their own fruit; they’re growing their own produce. And they go from that to a very, very urban lifestyle.
And what’s really tragic about the time in Bath is, when they first move in 1801 and they’re looking for lodgings, they definitely don’t want to go and live in the street that’s named [Trim Street]. By the end of the time, they’re in this street because it’s all gone a bit sad. And then they move to Southampton. So, this is Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane, where they’re living with her brother Frank and his wife, Mary . . . . She’s happier in Southampton. They’ve got a garden; they’ve got space; and they have a settled home—a little more settled home.
And throughout this period, from sort of 1801 to late 1808, she’s not really been writing, which, when you contrast that with the huge productivity of her teenage and her early 20s years, is really quite striking. The Watsons is pretty much it, and a handful of letters that come out of that period. And, so, she knows in advance that she’s moving to Jane Austen’s House. She’s moving to Chawton. It’s part of a long-standing plan. Her mother wants to go and return to Hampshire. She wants to go around that area. All of the brothers are, sort of, almost in a cartwheel around this hub of it being there.
And before she moves, she writes a letter to a publisher that had bought the copyright of something called Susan. Never been published, bought for £10, and she writes to get it back. She’s looking to start writing, and she is looking ahead to having a settled home. And this is—she knows, the whole family knows—that this move, as far as they can tell, is the final move. This is home for life. This is accommodation, rent free, in a house that’s a similar size to what they knew in Steventon. It’s back in Hampshire. And it is—in many ways it’s a homecoming. It’s a coming back. And I think in some ways it’s also a coming back to herself. It’s coming back to the woman she was able to be in her 20s before she had to be on the social circle of Bath. So, it’s a hugely important time. And it just unleashes this incredible—almost unparalleled for any writer—period of creativity. So, it’s an incredibly, incredibly important period in her life. It’s, yeah, July 1809. Everything’s about to happen. It’s about to start.
B: And I like the little biographical bits from her life that end up in the novels. The father dying and the mother and the sisters having to move around is very Sense and Sensibility. And when they’re moving to the cottage on the grounds at Chawton House—Chawton House belongs to her brother Edward, correct?
L: Sort of. The house isn’t actually in the grounds of Chawton House.
B: Oh, okay.
L: It’s quite a long way away. Well, by a long way away, it’s about half a mile down the lane. And for over half of its life, it was a completely independent house, independent building. It started off as a farmhouse, a single-story thatched farmhouse in about 1500. So, Henry VIII’s time. And at that point, it was known as Petty Johns, so P-E-T-T-Y, J-O-H-N-S, so Petty Johns, Little John’s. And it grew as a farmhouse, and it got bigger and bigger, and it got a second story, and it all got linked up, and it got all these beautiful outbuildings. And then, in the mid-18th century, it was a pub for a while. It was called the New Inn because the house is right on the corner of two main roads: the main road from London, it branches off to Winchester and to Gosport in Southampton.
It’s a pub for a while. At this whole point, it is completely independent of the Chawton estate. Then after the pub closes, it’s bought by the Knight family to be the steward’s house for the estate because they are effectively absentee landlords. They don’t spend much time in Chawton at all. Edward doesn’t spend much time at Chawton while Jane’s there. So that’s how it comes into the estate. And it’s lived in by the steward bailiff all the way up until 1808. And he then passes away, and after he passes away, that’s when the Austen women . . . It’s redecorated, and the Austen women move in then.
B: And so, it had a lot of different lives. It dates back, parts of it, to the 1500s, you said. Around Henry VIII’s time?
L: Yeah, very much so. It’s really old. Originally, the kitchen—the kitchen is old. We think the dining room is the heart of the original house, and then it’s been extended. And the kitchen is never connected to the rest of the house. It was originally a single-story brick building, while the rest of it was timber frame, and the brick and the covering and the tiles come later. The kitchen was kept separate for risk of fire. And then some of the timbers in the outbuildings are just astonishing. They’re really old. You can see all the carpenter’s marks. It’s sort of like Tudor and earlier IKEA. They’d mark all the timbers for how they’d be put together.
B: Oh, really?
L: You can still see them on the outside of the buildings. They’re really gorgeous. Three and three goes together—so that it’d be made flat pack and then erected. You can see that in the buildings.
B: That’s amazing.
L: Yeah, it’s got a real depth of history. So, it’s already old when Austen moved in.
B: Right. And what kind of restoration work has been done on it since it became the museum?
L: Oh, so much. So much restoration. And serious restoration. It’s been open as a museum for nearly 75 years, so we’ve got several cycles of restoration work. It wasn’t in particularly good condition when it was purchased. It needed a new roof then. So, it had a new roof then. It would have been redecorated, all sorts of things. T. E. Carpenter first purchased the museum, and then his grandson, Tom Carpenter, did an awful lot of work cyclically. Windows always need redecorating and repainting. In the last decade or so, we’ve done a lot of work; we’ve put in reproduction wallpapers. We’re very lucky that there are three historic wallpapers that survive from the 1809 redecoration. And we know that because they have a tax stamp on the back of them that dates them to that period. Those are reproduced and hung.
B: That’s fabulous.
L: Yeah, they’re gorgeous. They’re really beautiful. And they’re not what you’d expect. They’re really vibrant, really naturalistic, all leaves and flowers. They’re really beautiful.
B: It means that everyone who comes is seeing what Austen would have seen every day, right?
L: Absolutely. This is art. Jane Austen’s house is the only fully authentic Austen experience you can have anywhere in the world. You are walking through the rooms as she would have known them. They are decorated in the way that she would have known them as she’s writing Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. You’re seeing what she would have seen on the walls. And that’s incredible. You can’t experience anything like that anywhere else. So, yeah, there’s all sorts of work constantly. We just had all the windows in the courtyard repainted, and we fixed the roof last year and the year before last. Lots of work, constant maintenance. In a building 500 years old, that faces southwest, there is always something that needs doing.
B: I know you mentioned before that Austen was really a country girl. She loved the outdoors; she loved to have gardens. So, tell us about the gardens on the property and maybe a bit more about Cassandra’s Orchard.
L: They would have had five acres of gardens when they were there. Sadly, we don’t have as much now. It hasn’t survived through to the present day. Although it does mean it’s a lot easier to take care of. We’ve got about half an acre now. They would have had meadows. They would have had pastures. They definitely had a vegetable patch. They were growing their own fruit, certainly growing their own vegetables. They had a shrubbery. And Austen writes about—in fact, about this time of year—she writes about the peonies coming out and mignonette and all sorts of different plants. They were very connected to it. Austen seems to have appreciated it rather than necessarily done it. In the letter she describes things as “Cassandra’s plants” and “Cassandra’s flowers” and different things like that. They were selling the fruit, surplus fruit from the orchard, to the fruiterers in Alton.
Cassandra’s Orchard is a commemorative project that we started this year . . . because this year is Cassandra Austen’s 250th birthday. And we really wanted to do something to commemorate that. So, we have put into the courtyard—which is the back of the house, which was previously a really empty space—six apple trees of heritage varieties that really help to commemorate her life. And they’re doing very, very well. They had blossoms, which I was really pleased with because they’re very baby apple trees, but they’re doing very well. And they’ve got their leaves on now. And we do have a few baby apples, which I’m very excited by. I do spend a lot of time talking to the apple trees, and everyone else laughs at me.
B: I think that’s sweet. Okay, I wanted to talk about Chawton, the village. Obviously, it must have changed quite a bit from Jane’s time with modern conveniences and things like that. But what was it like when Jane lived there? And are there any things that survive to this day from the village from her time?
L: Huge amounts survive from the day. It’s very well preserved. A lot of the cottages are very similar. A lot of the houses are still there. There are significant changes. One of the larger houses, Prowtings, which Austen knew well, that’s a new build compared to Austen’s time. But there’s a lot that she’d find very familiar. The biggest change is the change of the road. In Austen’s time, the road that her house is on the edge of, which is called the Winchester Road, was the main road from London to Winchester and Southampton. And the corner that the house sits on—faces onto the corner, and now the road bends around—was where the road divided between Gosport, so taking you down Southampton and down to Winchester. It’s in this really, really important position and would have been so for centuries. Winchester was the former capital of the country, although very much not so by Austen’s time—but it was still a really important city. It’s got a cathedral. Winchester College was there—really one of the big private schools in the country. It was really, really important. And it’s the county town of Hampshire, so a really big central hub.
And Gosport is a really significant naval base and was at the time. The entire time, virtually, that Austen is living there, you’ve got the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars going on. There are all sorts of things going on. So, there would have been troop movements and stagecoaches rolling past. She writes in the letters about the stagecoaches shaking the house. You’ve got to imagine you’ve got a coach—a massive stagecoach with six horses going and laden with people. And she’s writing in the window that overlooks all of this. So, whilst today it is literally bypassed, it would have been very different. It is a combination of rural but still being very much in the center of things. There would have been news of global significance and people moving from all over the world going past the windows.
B: Well, I was going to ask how you feel the village of Chawton influenced her writing, but I think having the news go by her window is probably one of the major examples.
L: Yeah, definitely. Emma, in particular, is a novel of a village. It is capturing the dynamics of a village and how people interact. And whilst it’s about many things, it is also how to be a good villager, how to act and how to be compassionate and caring towards your neighbors, and how to live in that social circle well, and also how not to be, with Mrs. Elton. And I think when you see where she’s looking, and where she’s working, and what she’s looking at, it’s impossible to see that she isn’t influenced by that context in which she’s living. The geography is very different. It’s really difficult to pin down those geographical locations that she’s actually influenced by. But certainly the social circle is very, very reminiscent.
B: And like you mentioned, just the stability was enough—was what she really needed to re-spark her creativity and her desire to write. I think that’s really interesting; I’m not sure I was aware. I’ve just recently gotten into her juvenilia, and she was so prolific as a child writer and a teenage writer. And her pen is constantly going, and we know that she was a prolific letter writer. But it does seem like moving from her beloved home and having to be carted around from place to place was not conducive to her writing. And, so, how grateful we should all be that she had this house in Chawton near the end of her life.
L: I think there’s a very strong argument that without a stable home, those novels would have never come to light. They could have stayed in drafts—Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice—forever. They might have done, but they hadn’t come out in the previous eight years. So, it’s a place of enormous significance to the history of English literature and the development of the novel. I know I say this a lot, but it is almost of unparalleled importance. There are very few houses and very few homes that have seen six novels written in just over eight years—or under eight years—that remain on the bestseller list 200 years later and are translated into almost every language in the world. I mean, there are very few places that can claim that. It is almost unique, and it’s significant for what it enabled to happen.
B: Well, let’s talk about what else you have at the museum. You’ve got an incredible collection of objects and letters that belonged to Jane. What are some of the most popular—the ones that people ooh and ahh over the most?
L: It’s really difficult because everyone comes to the house for different reasons. Everyone comes to see different things. Everyone has their own favorite novel, and in many ways, everyone has their own Jane Austen. It’s really interesting. There are different things. There are people for whom the crosses are most significant because that speaks to them. They see Austen as a very faith-based writer. There are those who don’t engage with that at all and see the proto-feminist, very strong female writer. Everyone comes with different things. They come for different things.
We have an extraordinary collection of letters. There are only 161 letters of which the content is known that it’s by Austen. And even fewer of those that the whereabouts—we don’t know where all of those are. And we’re really lucky that we own or jointly own 16 of those. So, we own 10 percent of the known letters. It’s just extraordinary. I think two letters are two of my favorite things because they connect us very closely with Austen’s lived experience and her actual—well, one of her voices. The letters are all written to be shared aloud. They are public pieces. So, it’s really interesting that we never or very rarely see Austen talking to herself. In every single one of the novels, the narrator’s voice is different. Each novel has a different narrator’s voice. And then the letters—they are often to Cassandra or they’re to somebody else. We never see Austen talking to herself because there are no diaries, which is really sad. She probably didn’t keep a diary, seeing what she says in Northanger Abbey. But I suspect that—considering the differences between the voice with Cassandra and how she talks to Martha and how she talks to other people, I think it’d be really interesting to see how she talked to herself. But that is long gone, and they are not under the floorboards. So that’s a shame.
But I think some of the two most significant objects we have—and one of them is on display at the moment—is a letter that she wrote from the house on the 29th of January 1813, where she talks about receiving her darling child from London. And that is her copy of Pride and Prejudice. And she talks about it. And to be able to—I’m very lucky; I get to hold it every so often, but it’s on display. And to see that, and to see it in the place where it was written. And when she’s talking about reading it aloud to Miss Benn, and you can walk outside, and you can see Miss Benn’s cottage, and you can stand in the drawing room where they would have read it aloud with that wallpaper—I think together that is absolutely incredible. And it’s still … it still gives me goosebumps to put those things together. So, that’s one of my favorite objects. Because letters are big brown squiggles on paper. They don’t necessarily look that impressive, but what they are is absolutely extraordinary. And we also own a letter that she writes to James Stanier Clarke, who was the Prince Regent’s librarian.
B: Oh, that’s a funny one.
L: It’s brilliant! I mean, she just tells him off for mansplaining. It’s great. She’s like, “No, I will write what I want to write.”
B: “I don’t want to write a novel about that!”
L: “I don’t want to write your life.” And what’s amazing when you see the real letter is, she writes this “no,” and there’s dash, big N, full stop, dash. And it’s like, “No, I will go my own way and I will do my own thing.” And I think that’s extraordinary. And one of those things that’s so sad about Austen that we’re still—fighting against is too strong a word—is that in the start of that letter, she is quite self-deprecating. She’s like, “Oh, I’m not clever enough. I’m so poorly educated.” She’s just saying that. She doesn’t mean it. And sadly, those first male, late-Victorian or mid-Victorian biographers were like, “Oh, yes. She’s so modest. She knows she’s not well educated.”
B: She’s being sarcastic!
L: Yeah, she’s being sarcastic. And sadly, a lot of that patriarchal tone still comes down, even to biographies today; you see it. And I think, no, look at the “No.” And this is why the letter itself is so significant—because you can see the power and the passion that is put into that “No.” And I think it’s such a landmark object because it shows Austen’s confidence in herself. It shows her confidence in the writing. And she’s not Lizzie Bennet, but there is a parallel. Lizzie Bennet has the confidence in herself to walk through mud and turn up at these strangers’ house caked in mud. And she’s confident in herself that that doesn’t worry her. And I think there’s something of that in Austen in her writing. Austen is confident enough in her writing, and she’s confident enough in what she’s doing that she can turn around to this man who probably is more powerful than her. I don’t think he’s quite as powerful and as important as he thinks he is, but he does have a position. And she turns around, she goes, “No, I’m doing my own thing. I know what I’m doing is right.” And now we’ve only ever heard of James Stanier Clarke because Austen writes a letter to him. And she’s the one who everybody can name. So, I think those, to me, are my two favorite objects.
But for visitors, and obviously for me, the patchwork quilt is just an extraordinary work of art. It’s just incredible. It was made by Austen and her mother and her sister. And it’s just these astonishing diamonds of fabric that were collected from all across their social circle and their world. And it’s incredibly plotted and it’s beautiful. And some of the stitches are so tiny. And some of the triangles must be an inch and a half across. And it’s just astonishing. And of course, the writing table—it’s so small. It’s so small. I’ve got my laptop balanced on a table that probably isn’t much bigger, about the same size. And I always think of it as the center point of a vortex. So, you’ve got this big whirlwind and helix of all these novels, and all these words, and all these adaptations, and all these characters, and all of these people that are engaging all over the world over two centuries. And it all filters and spirals and centers down right onto this point . . . on this table . . . in this dining room . . . where this came from. And I think that’s just extraordinary—to know what has come from that space, to know the words that came out from that table. They really have changed and shaped people’s lives. And it’s extraordinary—to know what came from it is almost overwhelming. So, yeah, that makes a lot of people cry. It makes a lot of people cry.
B: Yeah. And like you mentioned, it’s very small. I mean, when I’m studying for something or writing something, I have to take up a 6-foot dining table and spread everything out. So, I don’t know how she was able to contain all of her work and all of her ideas in that small little space. It’s really incredible.
B: What care goes into preserving these old objects, especially the delicate ones like Austen’s letters? Do things have to be cleaned regularly or kept at a special temperature?
L: Yes. Every historic house that you go around, there are really important ways of preserving them. We tend to try and keep out light and keep out damp. Those are the big enemies for everything, really. Light degrades, particularly textiles, particularly ink and works of art on paper. Too much light will degrade them. Silk is awful. Silk will shatter if it has too much light, particularly blues and some greens—they will fade very rapidly when they are exposed to too much light. So, the major thing is keeping out the light. We have UV filters on all the windows because UV light is the most damaging. Every single window has UV filters on it. And when we have some particularly precious objects, we actually keep the shutters closed. At the moment, we’ve got Tom Lefroy’s miniature out, and miniatures are really—because they are miniatures in ivory, they’re quite sensitive. So, we keep the shutters closed in front of that to keep the light to a minimum. And similarly, the quilt—the shutters in front of that quilt, that’s kept closed.
We also use something called dosimeters. That’s D, O, S, I, M, E, T, E, R, S, and they are bits of blue wool. And we use those to measure how much light is falling on them because we know how much they’ll fade. So, you have half exposed to the light and half of it covered up, and when you open it up, you can see how much. That will help us make decisions. And if it’s still getting too much light, we stop that.
We also—a key thing is keeping things relatively dry. In a historic house environment, the ideal humidity for keeping both objects and humans happy is about 60 percent. That is, of course, across a mixed collection. We have paper and other materials that like to be drier. So, we tend to keep the letters off site because we’re an old house and we can’t always keep them at that humidity. So, they’re either off site or in special cases on site. Again, they are dark and dry. We also dust a lot. Visitors make dust. We love visitors, but they do create dust because every time you move, you shed fibers and all sorts of other nasty things.
B: Skin cells.
L: Skin cells, and, yeah, there’s been some studies that within a meter and a half of where visitors walk, and every time you stop, you’re going to—it makes it shed more. And we don’t have any ropes in our house. Nothing is roped off so you can wander around. That means there’s quite a lot of dusting, and we do that very carefully. We take a really soft tea towel duster, and we fold all the edges in so there’s no bits that can catch on anything fragile, and we use that to dust—and we also use brushes. We clean on a weekly, monthly, and annual cycle, and every year we wax all the floorboards, which is so fun. We love waxing the floorboards, so we really nourish them. It’s like rubbing good moisturizer into your floorboards. That’s the highlight of the year, is polishing the floorboards.
B: So now I want to talk about—You mentioned that holding those letters gives you goosebumps sometimes. I imagine that for some people, being in Austen’s home is quite emotional. Do you see tears? Has anyone swooned?
L: No one’s swooned. No, a true Austen fan wouldn’t swoon. “Run mad, but never faint!” Yeah, we do. It was really interesting—We were open today. I was on site today, and it was really lovely. We were just talking to a lady who’d been round, and it got to a lump in her throat. She was talking about how she reread a novel every Christmas and how important it was to her. And, yeah, there are people who come in and are quite noisy about how much it matters, which is lovely. And it’s so right. It’s beautiful seeing somebody who’s, “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!” Which is really exciting for us as well. But there’s also something quite powerful about someone who’s just talking to you about it. And they’re talking to you about how much Austen and her novels mean to them. And then you can see how much it means to them because it just wells up, and you can see where they kind of have to—“Yeah, I’m here. This is incredible.” And, yeah, it’s absolutely extraordinary. She’s so important for people’s wellbeing and has been for centuries. It is centuries now. So, yeah, it is important. It is really astonishing to us. And, yeah, we do honor a lot on a daily basis. You can see how much it means to people.
B: Just to prepare for this interview and for talking to you, I took the 360-degree tour that you can take of the house online, and seeing her little writing table, just … I felt something. I was like, “That’s it. There it is.” Or seeing the topaz crosses or seeing even her father’s bookcase. I was like, “Oh, that’s so beautiful.”
L: Oh, I love the bookcase. It’s gorgeous.
B: Yeah, there are so many treasures there and so much that was connected to her actual life. I hope to make it there in person one day, and I will probably be one of the ones weeping in the corner when I do.
L: Good! You must. I think the house feels lovely. It really feels like a home. There’s such warmth to it. Not necessarily actual, because in the winter it’s freezing, but there is a warmth to it, and there is a joy to it, which is really lovely. It is an old house, but it doesn’t feel like one of those creepy old houses.
B: It’s a living house.
L: It’s a living house, very, very much. I used to work for the playwright George Bernard Shaw’s house. When Shaw died, he knew his house was going to be open to the public. And he wanted the house to be what he called a “living shrine.” And I don’t know that Shaw’s—I don’t know that we quite got it there. But I really think, actually, at Jane Austen’s house, that is how I would describe it. It is, in some ways, a living shrine with every. . . . You can deconstruct those two words as much as you want, and you can put them back together, and it works every single way you deconstruct it. The house is alive. Austen’s memory is alive. It’s alive with people. And yet there is this aspect of pilgrimage and something else there and reliquary. But it remains vibrant and alive and beautiful. And when people walk in through the drawing room into the front room through the front door, because of the color of the wallpaper, it’s this beautiful yellow and the sun comes streaming in. It’s just this gilded—without there being any gold—it’s this gilded beautiful, homely space. And I know that I just want to sit and write at Reverend Austen’s desk or read a book in front of the fireplace. And it feels like you could be there. And I hope that it always had that. And I think that might be what it always felt like to Austen. But I don’t know. I hope it did. I think it shows. It looks like it did, from the impact that it had on her. Yeah, it’s beautiful. But, yeah, the 360-degree tour is fabulous, and we love it.
B: Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about some of the museum’s digital offerings since those became so vital in 2020. I really enjoyed the 360-degree tour. Did you spearhead that? Was that already an option?
L: I did, yeah. No, it wasn’t there before. We got some funding from an amazing UK-based organization called the Art Fund, who supported us a lot. And it was just fantastic. And also some money from the South Downs National Park, which is our local Area of Outstanding National Beauty. And with that, we were able to do the virtual tour, and we did a few different other little bits. But it’s really important. We’re absolutely thrilled with it. It’s very, very beautiful. It’s got lots of information. It’s got all sorts of different things. And that was launched in October 2020. And then in November 2020, we went into a lockdown again, and we then were able to use the guided tour, which I think we were one of the first people to do this. And I still don’t think a lot of people are doing it. We were the first people to do it, where we started doing guided tours over Zoom. And we still do them most months. We don’t do it over the summer because no one wants to be indoors looking at a virtual tour, even of very beautiful Jane Austen’s house, in the summer.
My staff and I, we take you on a guided tour of the house. So, you can either look at it independently, which is completely free, and it’s accessible all the time on our website, or once a month, we will do these guided tours. And sometimes we do special themed ones. We’ll do Mother’s Day or a Sense and Sensibility tour or Pride and Prejudice. We’ll theme them, and then we’ll highlight special objects within there and different things like that. So that’s been brilliant. We’ve really enjoyed doing those. And they were a real —it was really fantastic, particularly through—we were closed on lockdown in the UK from January 2021 all the way through to May 2021. So, we weren’t able to reopen until nearly the end of May in 2021. And so, doing those guided virtual tours and those virtual events was the only way the house was still open. Doing those virtual events, where we were able to bring together that community from people across the world, was extraordinary. And we had so much gorgeous feedback from people who were otherwise really isolated or having just a rough time, and just to be able to come and spend an hour, hour and a half, with us and just talk about Jane Austen with other people that love Jane Austen—it was really, really moving, actually. And a great sense of responsibility to look after and share this place.
I think when I first started—well, obviously I started right in the pandemic, and we had a survival appeal. And people, including many JASNA members, were incredibly generous and enabled us to survive and to go on to thrive, which is where we are now—which I’m incredibly proud of and incredibly grateful for so many’s support. And we had different levels of donations, including people who were incredibly financially generous, which I’m hugely grateful for. But the message that really sticks with me was—and I might cry when I say this because it still moves me, it moves me three years on—was somebody who said that they gave us £5 because that was all they could afford because they’d become unemployed, and they’d lost their job and they weren’t working. But they said that Jane Austen was getting them through the pandemic, and so they were going to help us get through as well.
B: It’s like the widow’s mite. That’s so beautiful.
L: Yeah. It’s just that extraordinary thing of how much it matters. And it really, really stuck with me. And why the house and why Austen and why the virtual events that we were doing was so important—because it brought people together in ways they couldn’t be physically. And it still does. There are people who can’t come to visit us because there’s an ocean in the way, or there are people that can’t come to visit us that live five miles down the road that can’t come for other reasons . . . that want to and that want to engage and that want to meet other people who share the same interests. So, we’re never going to stop doing digital offerings. It’s not going to stop, certainly not on my watch, because it’s so, so important. I think it’s beyond fundraising, which it does … every little penny, everything that we charge events for, we charge for a reason, because it helps to keep us going and it helps us to be able to reinvest and fix roofs and all sorts of different things which need fixing, and also put on new events. So, yeah, it’s not stopping.
B: I mean, we’re all so grateful for it over here across the pond. Because like I said, so many of our listeners in North America might never have the chance to go over there, but we can experience so much of it online. Are there any digital offerings coming up that you’re excited about that our listeners should know about?
L: We’ve got all sorts of different things coming up. On the 27th of June, we’ve got an online teacher open evening. So, we’ve done a lot of work on our digital resources online, and we can also do virtual school trips. And we’ve done quite a few of those for people all around the world. We’re having a teacher open evening, that’s online. You can book so that teachers from—whether they’re in Nebraska or Alton or London or LA, can come and be a part of that. Then in July, we’re doing Emma. There’s a different virtual book club every month. Guided tours, most months. We’ve also got an online guided reading session. So, there’s all sorts. Just have a look on our website. And there is—at the moment, we’ve only got events up until July on the website, but there’ll be more to come. We’ll be doing Jane Austen’s birthday party in December, as always. There’ll be all sorts of events through the winter. In January, we’ll be doing all sorts to celebrate the publication of Pride and Prejudice. And 2024 is the 210th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, as well as the 75th anniversary of the opening of the museum. So, there’ll be all sorts going on there.
B: That is exciting. That’s a lot to look forward to. Lizzy, thanks so much for talking with me today. So, where should our listeners go to look up all these events and to learn more about Jane Austen and the museum?
L: Go to www.janeaustens.house. That’s our website. We’re just janeaustens.house. You can find all sorts of information there. We also have a really fantastic Instagram channel, which is @JaneAustensHouse. We do some really gorgeous reels and behind the scenes, and we work with incredible young actors who take the characters on and all sorts of different things like that. And we are also on TikTok as well. And Facebook and Twitter and all these different things. But over on Instagram and TikTok, we’re doing some really exciting interpretive things as well. We really see it as an extension, so there’s all sorts of beautiful things going on there. If you want to get a sneak peek of what the gardens look like at the moment or about the objects, Instagram is the place to go. And janeaustens.house for events, online resources. We’ve got all sorts of stuff about the teenage writings. We’ve got a whole teenage writings hub there with interactive games and all sorts. And you can see all of—well, not quite all—you can see well over 100 highlights from our object collection there with information and all sorts of stuff there. So, there is a lot on the website.
B: There’s a never-ending list of Jane Austen treasures. That’s wonderful. Thanks so much, Lizzy. This has been so fun.
L: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
Breckyn: Okay my dears, it’s time for a big ol’ scoop of JASNA news.
Picture this: gorgeous mountains soaring to the sky. A breathtaking alpine resort. And a whole weekend dedicated to our beloved Pride and Prejudice.
If your ears are perking up, then you need to know about JASNA’s 2023 Annual General Meeting, or AGM, as we call it. Registration opened June 21st, and there are still some spaces available as we release this episode. The conference will be held in Denver, Colorado, November 3rd through 5th at The Gaylord Rockies Resort. Come join us as we explore the theme “Pride and Prejudice: A Rocky Romance”!
The AGM is an incredible experience and a wonderful opportunity to meet new Jane-loving friends. In addition to fascinating plenary and breakout speakers, you can sign up for workshops in calligraphy, bonnet design, and other crafts; take English Country dance classes; explore the Denver area on tours; attend musical programs, plays, a book-signing session; and –yes, even a ball! Regency finery is admired but not required to attend the ball and dance the night away.
Last but not least, Adrian Lukis, AKA Mr. Wickham from the 1995 P&P miniseries, is going to appear live at the conference in Denver! Mr. Wickham, guys! He probably won’t be dressed in his regimentals, but we can dream, right?
So, how do you find out more?
Go to the AGM website for all the program information as well as registration information and hotel reservation details. The link to the website is kind of long, it’s jasna.org/agms/denver2023/home.php.
But don’t worry about memorizing that URL; we will include the link in the show notes. Or, you can just Google “JASNA AGM 2023”—and it’s very easy to find!
First-timers are especially welcome! Once you register, you’ll receive helpful emails and a link to the Hoot Board, where you can find other attendees who want to share airport shuttles, find a roommate, and so on.
AGM spots fill up pretty fast, so don’t wait! As Elizabeth Bennet says, “What delight! What felicity! … What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh, what hours of transport we shall spend!” Indeed Lizzie, indeed.
Breckyn: Now it’s time for “In Her Own Words,” a segment where listeners share a favorite Austen quote or two.
Paul Savidge: Hello this is Paul Savidge from the Eastern Pennsylvania Region, and I've been asked to share with you one of my favorite passages from Pride and Prejudice. This one is from volume I, chapter II, and you will know it well:
“Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, ‘How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare, after all, there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.’”
There, in one short, very amusing paragraph, Austen reveals the insincerity of Caroline Bingley, who of course feigns interest in reading only because we know, and she knows, that Darcy appreciates women who read. It's a wonderful paragraph in a novel full of wonderful paragraphs.
Breckyn: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening, Janeites. If you’re interested in joining the Jane Austen Society of North America or learning more about its programs, publications, and events, you can find them online at jasna.org. That’s J-A-S-N-A.org. Join us again next time, and in the meantime, I remain yours affectionately, Breckyn Wood.