“Talks and Tours Day: Jane Austen in Chawton,” or More Fun than You Might Expect



On Friday, July 7, 2017, Chawton House Library (CHL) and Jane Austen’s House Museum (JAHM) hosted “Talks and Tours Day: Jane Austen in Chawton.”

The day began with a series of talks; it concluded with tours of CHL’s current exhibit on Austen and Germaine de Stael–alliteratively called “Fickle Fortunes”–and JAHM’s wallpaper and Wedgewood dishes!

The talks:

Deidre Lynch and Kathryn Sutherland, ‘The style of her familiar correspondence was in all respects the same as that of her novels’, a comparative talk considering Jane Austen as letter and novel writer

Hilary Davidson, ‘Jane Austen’s Pelisse Coat: shopping for fabrics and making clothes’

Jeanice Brooks, ‘Jane Austen’s Music Making’

Sue Dell, ‘The Austen Family Quilt’

Oh, what I learned! There is truly too much to write about, but I will share some highlights. From Sutherland and Lynch’s joint presentation I learned much about letter writing economy. Austen always filled her pages from margin to margin (top to bottom, side to side) in order to get the most bang for the buck. She needed to use as few sheets as possible with which to say as much as possible. In Austen’s time the letter writer did not pay the postage–oh, no, the letter recipient did. I did not know this before Friday. Letters cost by weight and distance. Who has the money to add an envelope? Nope–no envelopes. Want to see what one would look like? Click on this link. Sutherland compared some passages from Austen’s letters with her novels, which was also very informative.

Davidson’s talk knocked my socks off (if I were wearing any, that is). She talked about Austen’s pelisse (a light, but long outer coat-dress thingy–super technical language, I know!) She talked about the color and symbolism in terms of its British patriotic oak-leaf iconography. Davidson covered a range of images showing fashion changes in the 1790s-1810s, which was awesome to see.

Brooks’ talk addressed Austen’s musical preferences, the lack of mention in her novels of specific musical pieces, and the way contemporary-to-us scholars and filmmakers have tried to tie Austen to famous composers. Did she like Mozart? Haydn? etc. What did she list to, or better yet play, in her free time? Brooks dished on it all.

I loved all of the talks I mentioned, but Dell’s talk about Austen’s quilt just made my day. The quilt, which hangs in the museum, has such a story a tell–one that needs a talk like Dell’s to do it justice. Let me start with a picture of it:

This quilt was a communal project–mother, sisters, friends all worked on it. There are thousands of diamond fabric pieces, and the pieces all have a distinct pattern–no willy nilly design there. Can you see the large diamond in the middle, the medium diamonds throughout, and then the small diamonds adorning the perimeter? The whole thing was mapped out. Masterful! All done by women! I am in awe of this work of art (cuz that’s what it is) from the way it was created to what it represents. I learned a lot from Dell about quilt making as well. I was inspired to get started on one. Now I need some people to work on it with me.

The tours:

Gillian Dow, Curator’s Tour of ‘Fickle Fortunes: Jane Austen and Germaine de Staël, 1817-2017’

Mary Guyatt, ‘Wallpaper and Wedgwood: Objects in Jane Austen’s House Museum’

I went on the tours, even though I had already seen the exhibit and the objects, because I wanted to know more about the places in which I will be volunteering through early August. I wanted to hear the curators of each of the aforementioned exhibits talk about them candidly. That is what I got! I am fascinated by museums–always have been–so it was super cool to hear about what motivates an exhibit, how it is put together, and how museum curation actually works. Dow talked a lot about how to create a comparative exhibition. Guyatt talked about the things one must do to preserve a historical space while at the same time making it inviting for visitors.

I enjoyed this day immensely. As cliche as this sounds, I learned so much! It was a true pleasure to be a sponge and absorb as much information as possible. What a delight! I love it when research involves being in a space, seeing, and listening.

2 responses to ““Talks and Tours Day: Jane Austen in Chawton,” or More Fun than You Might Expect”

  1. And how cool to be able to bring this information home to share with your students.
    Being a letter writer myself I find it all very interesting–especially that no envelopes were used and the recipient paid the postage.
    Was this the only known quilt that JA and her sisters made? Beautiful in the act of making it as well as the result.


    1. The only known quilt, but likely not the only one she helped make.


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