Chawton House Library: An Introduction

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On July 4, I made my first trip to the Chawton House Library. This building was once the home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. Now it is a library that holds thousands of books and items from the Knight family’s collection and on women writers from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Thanks to Sandy Lerner, Chawton House has been restored and is now open to the public.

The reason for my coming to England this summer is in large part due to my interest in this library’s holdings. I want to see first hand Jane Austen’s play, Sir Charles Grandison. I want to look at Austen’s handwriting in person! I want to look at the books that she had access to when she visited her brother’s house. I want to explore the library’s inventory to see examples of 18th- and 19th-century marginalia–ideally Austen family marginalia. I want to read examples of women’s writing that I would not otherwise have access to in the States. On day one, I already got to do a few of these things briefly.

My first visit consisted of meeting the library staff, taking a brief tour of the house, learning more about my responsibilities as the JASNA IVP, and giving myself a crash course in the current exhibition’s theme: Jane Austen and Germaine de Stael (both writers died in 1817 within days of each other).

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I made it a point to wander the house as a visitor would do so that I would know what it is like for people to visit the house. It goes something like this: visitors enter the Great Hall on the first floor and mosey over to the dining room. In the dining room one finds Edward’s clothes, journal, and portrait (among other things).

Visitors then travel upstairs to a few more rooms and eventually make their way downstairs to the lower reading room. I will spend my Mondays in this room, which is locked on the outside so that visitors cannot wander in unattended.

The lower reading room is considered the end of the tour. In this room, visitors will see many shelves of library books from the collection. They cannot touch these books. They can only look at them and the items in the display cases. The display cases at present include a handwritten letter by Jane to her sister from the 1790s (squee!!), half of Austen’s Sir Charles Grandison, and some items from the Brontes (including a lock of Charlotte’s hair) and de Stael. It is my responsibility to answer any questions visitors have and to ensure that no one does anything foolish (Dear God, don’t let anyone do anything foolish).

I will also be responsible on Mondays for opening and closing the house. This means that in the morning I turn on lights, open the curtains, take off display case covers, and check humidity and temp readings. In the evening I basically do the reverse of the first three items on the list.

I also learned that tonight I will assist at an event! Chawton House Library is hosting a BBC Radio production, The Kitchen Cabinet, and the event is open to the public. I will help set up a book table and try to sell books (I guess).

As I left the library yesterday I did my best to remember all of the information I was given. I’m sure I won’t remember it all, but that’s OK, unless…oh, dear, I can think of a lot of things! Keep your fingers crossed for me!

At some point I will get to do some research at the library, but for the time being I am focusing on being useful.

Today I meet with the staff at Jane Austen’s House Museum. More on that later.

 

 

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