Transforming the Literary Landscape:

Jane Austen and her Sisters at Chawton House Library


Inaugural Lecture at the University of Southampton

by Professor Michael Wheeler

Department of English

Wednesday 28 February 2001





In the Hampshire village of Chawton, where Jane Austen wrote her most famous novels, practitioners from a number of different disciplines, including archaeology, gardening, country house and garden history,  building conservation and restoration, project management, and social and literary history, are currently transforming the English literary landscape – literally and metaphorically.   Chawton House, the manor house that once belonged to her brother, and that she knew well, is being restored to accommodate the new Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing (1600-1830) in two years’ time, and a magnificent collection of over 6,300 books of the period, now located in the USA.  In the second half of this lecture I will be outlining the history of the estate, the current work of the team at Chawton,  and plans for the Centre in association with the university.   My appointment to a Chair in English Literature here was linked to my role as Director of Chawton House Library, which takes up three-quarters of my time.   (Overall leadership of the project is shared by Jane Alderson, Director of Chawton Estate, of whom more later, and myself.)   I would like to use the opportunity of this inaugural to set out the vision for Chawton and the new Centre. 


First, though, the lecture should also fulfil its usual purpose of explaining the nature and scope of the chair holder’s own research; and here I want to say something about my own interest in literature and religion, and then to relate this interest to the future work of the Centre.



Over the past thirty years English studies have changed out of all recognition.  For me the most exciting developments have been in the contested areas of historicism – in a sense we’re all historians now - and multidisciplinarity: many of us are no longer engaged in border raids across to other disciplines, but in removing the very borders themselves. 


My own work was inter-disciplinary from the start - literature and religion.  At first the emphasis was upon narrative, from an undergraduate thesis on the illustrations to Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, through a doctoral thesis on the Unitarian Elizabeth Gaskell and her use of the Bible in her novels, to a first book on The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction which developed a theory of biblical as well as literary quotation and reference.  The 1980s were devoted to a study on death, judgment, heaven and hell in Victorian literature and religion, with painting, and indeed music, sneaking in too.  But it was in the 1990s, as Director of the Ruskin Programme at Lancaster University, that I enjoyed developing with others a truly multi-disciplinary approach – Ruskin being a remarkable polymath: virtuoso prose writer, cultural critic, historian, artist, poet, environmental campaigner, social analyst, scientist, sage, teacher, architectural critic.   Over twenty of us used to meet for a weekly research seminar at Lancaster, when colleagues from at least five different disciplines came together to work on specific aspects of Ruskin over a period of from one to three years, and then produced joint publications and exhibitions.  Meanwhile I was writing my own book on Ruskin and religion – a subject that everyone in the field knew was important, but that nobody else was foolish enough to tackle.  I called it Ruskin’s God (and not, as an elderly person misheard it at a noisy party, Ruskin’s Dog – an interesting, but rather more circumscribed subject).   


So where next?  The answer is, to Rome!  Now, attractive though it might be to set up the University of Southampton’s Centre for Research in the Humanities or Chawton House Library’s Italian base in that city, I refer to the Church of Rome rather than the city itself; and I refer to the study of the Church of Rome, and specifically in England from 1745 to 1855, rather than to personal adherence to that great religious tradition.  (I am an Anglican.)  My work has taken me deep into the forests of Catholic theology, when writing about purgatory in Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius (and Elgar’s oratorio) and martyrdom in Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Deutschland, and later about Ruskin, who overcame the biased views he had inherited from his Evangelical parents to become in later life what he called a ‘Catholic of the Creeds’ – unorthodox in theology, and certainly not Roman, but more Catholic than Evangelical in spirit and persuasion.


One might have thought that in the mainstream of political and cultural life in the brave new world of the Industrial Revolution, ‘anti-Catholicism’ would have been relegated to the blood-stained past.  In fact it is difficult to exaggerate the residual fear of and revulsion from the Church of Rome in the English Protestant mind in the mid-nineteenth century.  If I were to ask you in which years the most book titles with the word ‘crisis’ in them were likely to have appeared at that time, you might well hazard a guess at the years of the Chartist riots (1848), or the outbreak of the Crimean War (1854), or of the Indian Mutiny (1857) – years for which the British Library catalogue does indeed list no fewer than 15, 24 and 25 such titles respectively.  But why should there have been even more books containing the words ‘crisis’ – 32 in the catalogue - published in 1850, just a year before the Great Exhibition and the first flourishing of Victorian power and confidence?   As so often in Britain’s history, the answer lies in religion. 


In the late 1830s and early 1840s the Revd John Henry Newman was one of the leading figures in the Oxford Movement, a revival within the Church of England of its traditional, historic identity as part of the universal, or ‘Catholic’ Church.  In 1845, Newman ‘went over’ to Rome, and was followed by other prominent clergy and laity.   Here was a crisis indeed.  The following year, in 1846, the Revd William Gresley, the prolific Prebendary of Lichfield, wrote:


            The Church of England has just passed through a process of fermentation, a fever has raged in her veins, a storm has troubled her atmosphere; and now that these symptoms have subsided, a great change is found to have taken place within her.  The Church is not what she was.[1]


But the symptoms that Gresley described were soon to return, and with even greater violence. 


In December 1847 and March 1848 the High Church Bishop Philpotts of Exeter interviewed the Revd George Cornelius Gorham at length in order to ascertain whether he was sound on baptismal regeneration, and, finding him wanting, refused to institute him to the living of Brampford Speke.  Here began a controversy which, like so many of its kind before and since, was really about authority in the Church and in the State, important though the specific doctrinal issues were.  Meanwhile the Evangelicals, who had effected another great revival within the Church of England, became increasingly anxious about and hostile towards both Roman Catholics, or 'Papists', who seemed intent on reclaiming England for Rome, and the Oxford Movement, or 'Tractarians', who continued to foster a lively Catholic revival within Anglicanism.[2]  Among those present at the announcement of the Gorham judgment was Dr Nicholas Wiseman, the figure chiefly responsible for the drive to 'Romanize' the old English Catholics.  Six months later Wiseman became Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, following Pius IX's 'Letters Apostolical', issued from Rome on 29 September, and by November there were anti-popery riots in the streets of London.   A Cardinal Archbishop in London!  The idea was outrageous.


We can hardly imagine in our own time the British Prime Minister of the day opening a debate on a religious issue, and that debate taking up over a week of parliamentary time.  Yet that was precisely what happened almost exactly 150 years ago, from 7 to 14 February 1851.  This was because Church authority was so closely bound up with State authority, and the ruling elite in Britain feared a challenge to the three-hundred-year-old Act of Uniformity in the form of the Pope’s call to allegiance to himself, a foreign Prince.   We need look no further than Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette, published two years later, to see how deeply such thinking is inscribed in the culture of mid-nineteenth century England. 


Go back to 1829, and you find some leading Evangelicals talking in all seriousness of Catholic Emancipation as a sign that the world would shortly come to an end.  Go back further, to the night of Wednesday 7 June 1780, and there are 36 different fires visible from London Bridge at the same time: the premises of Catholics have been torched by the mob during the Gordon Riots.  Yet there were only 80,000 Catholics in the whole country at that time.  Further back still, to the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion – the ‘Forty-Five’ – and thus the end of the Stuart dynasty’s serious hope of regaining the throne.  The Battle of Culloden sent out shock waves which are still to be felt in parts of these islands today.   (Jane Austen was for the Stuarts, somewhat surprisingly, describing them as a ‘family who were always ill used Betrayed or neglected – whose virtues are seldom allowed while their errors are never forgotten’.[3])  As Jeremy Black puts it in his history of the Grand Tour:


Anti-Catholicism was the prime ideological stance in eighteenth-century Britain.  The methods, practices and aspirations of the Catholic Church appear to have genuinely appalled many Englishmen of the period.  Newspapers, sermons, processions, demonstrations and much correspondence reveal a response to Catholicism that was based not simply upon the repetition of trite anti-Catholic maxims but also upon a deep-felt repulsion.  Catholicism was equated with autocracy; it drew on credulity and superstition and led to misery, poverty, clerical rule and oppression.[4]


Black writes of English men of the period; and in many ways anti-Catholicism can be described as the hatred of one patriarchal institution by another.  But what about English women – Catholic and Protestant – in all this?  


The question seems to me timely in a number of ways.  First, and most broadly, for the great majority of people today, spirituality is a more engaging subject of enquiry than matters of doctrine.   Within Christian tradition, for example, we might speak about ‘spirit theology’ being readily accessible in an era when personal experience of the divine, and a sense of the sanctity of individual human life, offer firmer grounds for faith than some of the traditional doctrines of the Church.  So the comparative paucity of women’s contribution to male-dominated doctrinal debate over the centuries pales into insignificance alongside the richness of women’s contribution in the field of spiritual writings.  (Elizabeth Gaskell, married to a Unitarian minister in Manchester, was not alone in expressing her personal distaste for what she regarded as petty doctrinal squabbles between men.)  Here I want to examine what Catholic and Protestant women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wrote about the relationship between Catholic doctrine and spirituality.  Secondly, ground-breaking work from various feminist perspectives has been done in recent years on some of the great women figures in the Old and New Testaments - including studies on Eve and Judith, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen – and on the women saints and martyrs of Catholic tradition.[5]  I am interested in the ways in which Marian tradition and the cults of the women martyr saints, for example, are treated in women’s writing in my chosen period.  Thirdly, the vexed issue of the role of women in modern Catholic and Protestant traditions is currently under review, which encourages a re-examination of our historical precursors and their views on women and religious practice.  And finally, literary archaeology on early English women’s writing has thrown up vast tracts of material with which to work, inviting us to do much more comparative work on gender lines.


In this context of critical enquiry, consider some of the more specific questions that arise.  Fielding’s Tom Jones, published in 1749, is set a few years earlier, during the Jacobite rebellion – the ‘Forty-Five’: the narrator refers to the ‘glorious Duke of Cumberland’, Squire Western drinks to ‘the King over the Water’, and Partridge is a Jacobite.[6]   I am  interested in comparing Henry Fielding’s views on Catholicism – he also masterminded The True Patriot (1745-46) and The Jacobite’s Journal (1747-48) - with those of his sister, Sarah, author of David Simple (1744), The Governess (1749) and (probably) Histories of … Penitents in the Magdalen House (1759).  (Their step-mother was a Roman Catholic.)  Similarly, I intend to compare Frances Burney’s response to the Gordon Riots to those of the rest of her talented family.  (Her father, the musicologist Dr Burney, finally succeeded in persuading the mob not to set fire to his London house by shouting ‘No Popery’ out of the window.)   I would like to trace women writer’s responses to the fierce debate on convents in England, from the eighteenth-century successors to Mary Astell – author of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interests (1694), in which she proposed the creation of a ‘Religious Retirement’ for women – through to Victorian writers such as Charlotte M. Yonge, who lived in Hampshire and was a disciple of Keble’s.  How easily do these pious aspirations sit with the lurid tales of Catholic convents on the Continent which fuelled the imaginations of the women writers of Gothic novels in the second half of the eighteenth century?  Sean Gill writes:  ‘The suggestions of lesbianism have the backing of a longstanding tradition, in both anti-clerical Catholic and Protestant erotica, of locating sexual improprieties in convents.      The dissolution of the monasteries arrives as a cleansing of a social anomaly in which women might live independently of men, and the proper reincorporation of their property into an estate transmitted to heirs male’.[7] 


Attention also needs to be paid to a range of responses to the French emigrés Catholic priests who fled here, to the south of England during the French revolutionary period.  Frances Burney showed courage in publishing her views on the matter in the year of the Terror in France, of war fever and fierce anti-Catholic sentiment in England.  Charlotte Smith, in her poem The Emigrants of the same year, expresses the conflicting feelings of a Protestant Englishwoman as she describes a demoralized group of French Catholic priests:


                        A group approach me, whose dejected looks

                        (Sad heralds of distress!) proclaim them men

                        Banished for ever and for conscience sake

                        From their distracted country, whence the name

                        Of freedom misapplied, and much abused

                        By lawless anarchy, has driven them far

                        To wander – with the prejudice they learned

                        From bigotry (the tut’ress of the blind)

                        Through the wide world unsheltered ….

                                                … Yet unhappy men,

                        Whate’er your errors, I lament your fate ….  (I, 94-106)


Smith’s antipathy to the priests here is counterbalanced by her sympathy for their plight.


In contrast, there are interesting parallels in the writing of the period between the demonization of the woman, of the colonized, and of the Catholic.  Here is Sean Gill again:


Within patriarchal Christianity, women as ‘the other’ have often functioned as an ambiguous and polyvalent symbol capable of expressing both the fears and wishes of the male psyche at one and the same time ….   The new emphasis on female virtue [in the later eighteenth century] did not in fact obliterate the older image of the sexually rampant woman; instead, it was projected on to the fallen woman whose existence in the form of organized prostitution was in one sense the guarantor of bourgeois family values and property rights.[8]


Now Raymond Tumbleson has argued that the ‘sectarian dichotomy’ of Protestant and Catholic is the ‘obscured original of the one Edward Said sees as central to the colonialist and orientalist mentality, a “positional superiority” privileging the European subject over the foreign other that conceals itself in “the general liberal consensus that ‘true’ knowledge is fundamentally nonpolitical”.’[9]   For Tumbleson, anti-Catholicism is ‘the ghost in the machine, the endless, neurotic repetition by self-consciously rational modernity of the primal scene in which it slew the premodern as embodied in the archetypal institution, arational and universal, of medieval Europe.  Second only to anti-Semitism in power and longevity, it is a myth of iniquity whose pitiless prelatic villain has remained consistent for half a millennium, from John Foxe’s martyrology to Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.’[10] 


So anti-Catholicism in England, from 1745 to 1855, presents itself for scrutiny from many perspectives, ranging from mainstream theology and ecclesiastical history to those of gender politics and post-colonial theory.  But let us not forget the other side of the coin, namely the appeal of Rome in the hundred years that preceded the conversion of Newman, the first of two ‘convert Cardinals’ of the Victorian era (the second being Henry Edward Manning).   Consider, for example, the various cultural forms that define eighteenth-century ‘medievalism’.  Think of the ‘graveyard’ tradition and the ballad revival in poetry, the Gothic novel in prose, and the Gothic revival in architecture.   To what extent do these forms represent an attempt to Protestantize pre-Reformation Catholic traditions?  And to what extent do they fail, finally, to expunge that secret longing for the certainty, the authority, and, perhaps above all, the mystery of Roman Catholic teaching and rites?  How central is the appeal of Rome to Romanticism and its challenge to the Enlightenment project?  It has been said that the novels of Sir Walter Scott made Newman and the Oxford Movement possible.  Ultra-Protestantism regarded the Pope as the Anti-Christ, or the Whore of Babylon.  Ironically, a standard Catholic reference book of the early twentieth century described how in the Christian era Rome, ‘already mistress of the world [my emphasis], was to be given a new, sublimer and more lasting, title to that dominion – the dominion over the souls of all mankind’.[11]  How do women writers handle the symbolism of whore, or ‘mistress of the world’?  How do they treat such themes as Marian devotion, or  Catholicism’s interpretation of Pauline teaching on the role of women in society and the Church?  How were women drawn to Rome, and why?  How did women place themselves in a tradition in which the spaces represented as holy, such as the sanctuary and the altar, or powerful, such as the pulpit or the confessional, were closed to them, whereas the spaces represented as menial, such as the presbytery kitchen, or sacrificial, such as the chamber of birthing or dying, were defined as their proper domain? 


There are a number of interesting starting points for such a programme of research, one of which is a novel by Elizabeth Inchbald, who was born the daughter of Catholic farmers, ran away from home to act on the London stage, and made an ill-advised marriage with a fellow Catholic, Joseph Inchbald, an actor and portrait painter 17 years older than her and with two illegitimate children, who left her a widow at the age of 26.   It was now that her abilities as a playwright came into their own, and she is perhaps best known for her free translation of Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows – the performance of which is central to the plot of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  Her income from novel-writing, reviewing and editing allowed her to live an independent life in literary London: as happened not infrequently in the period, she survived by the pen.  She did, however, join a kind of convent for ladies in 1803, and ended her life in Kensington House, a Roman Catholic residence for ladies.   She died in 1821.  


In her novel, A Simple Story (1791), the heroine, Miss Milner, has been brought up a Protestant like her mother.   Having been orphaned, she becomes at the age of 18 the ward of a friend of her late Catholic father - Dorriforth, a priest, who later becomes Lord Elmwood, after which he resigns his orders.  Scandalously, Miss Milner finds that she loves Dorriforth ‘with all the passion of a mistress, and with all the tenderness of a wife’.  The strong-minded Dorriforth is an unusual priest, being both well off and a reluctant duellist.   It is thought that this fictional character was based upon the famous actor, Charles Kemble.  And there we see another contrast between brother and sister: Kemble, the Catholic, and his sister, Sarah Siddons, the Protestant. 


The prospective bibliography is enticing.  It includes G. Lavington’s The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compar’d (1749); Jean Marteilhe’s Memoirs of a Protestant, Condemned to the Galleys of France, for his Religion (1758); Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54)  - Jane Austen’s favourite novel, the short dramatization of which Chawton House Library has in manuscript; John Langhorne’s The Letters that passed between Theodosius and Constantia, after she had Taken the Veil (1763); William Combe’s Letters of an Italian Nun and an English Gentleman, Translated from the French of J.J. Rousseau (1781, with at least 12 edns by 1820); Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796); Johnson Grant’s A Summary History of the English Church, 4 vols (1811-25); and Joseph Priestley’s  An History of the Corruptions of Christianity, 2 vols (1782).  Alongside these I will place Mrs E. Slade’s Nunnery Tales; or, The Amours of Monks [Priests] and Nuns (1743); Sarah Scott’s Millennium Hall (1761) - on a religious community of women; Charlotte Lennox’s play, The Sister (1769), in which the heroine’s aunt attempts to convert her to Roman Catholicism; Sarah Trimmer’s Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature and Reading the Holy  Scriptures (1780); Sophia Lee’s The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times (1785); Hannah More’s An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World (1790); Charlotte Smith’s Desmond (1792); Ann Radcliffe’s, The Italian (1797); the work of Penelope Aubin, said to have had a Catholic upbringing; and of Mary Leman Grimstone, a Unitarian feminist; and of Harriet Martineau – whom I would like to compare with her famous Unitarian brother, James; Rachel Hunter’s novel, The Unexpected Legacy (1805) – an unread work, already freely available to all on the Chawton House website ( along with ten other rare novels; Ann Hamilton’s The Irish Woman in London (1810); the work of Mary Martha Sherwood, who wrote against Catholicism after the emancipation legislation of 1829; the pro-Stuart Agnes Strickland’s Letters of Mary Queen of Scots (1842); and much much more. 


But enough of this bibliographical bingeing – a sure sign of someone who doesn’t have time actually to read the books at present – and let me turn to the perfect, the most appropriate setting for such research.  



Stand at the top of the drive at Chawton House and you see before you the archetypal English scene.  In the distance, peeping through the trees, the main house, currently under restoration (and scaffolding).  To the right, St Nicholas Church.  We know that the second Rector was instituted here in 1289, although most of the original church was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt in 1871 to a design by Sir Arthur Blomfield.  To the left, Chawton House Stables, built in 1591 and now converted to a dwelling house, currently under restoration.  In the foreground a broadleaf lime tree planted in 1999.  Considered as a text, the 280 acre estate that remains to us has undergone frequent revision down the centuries (at one point it was ten times bigger).  Currently it is being thoroughly re-edited!


Callender’s view of around 1780 places Chawton firmly in the English landscape tradition, with the lawns going right up to the house (still covered in stucco on the external walls, not removed until 1837.  Forty years earlier the main approach to the house was very different.  In a vivid, almost primitivist picture by Mellichamp, to me reminiscent of a New England tradition, we see the old church, in which Jane Austen later worshipped; the stable block, designed to serve the farmyard to the left but presenting a grander face to the right; the formal spatial divisions that characterized an earlier era; and the main house, built in the 1580s.


But we must regard this Elizabeth structure as the new house; and medieval Chawton Manor – one of the seventy lordships given by the Conqueror to Hugh de Port – was clearly an important place.  The De Ports intermarried with the St John family, and John St John served as Edward I’s deputy in Scotland in the thirteenth century.  English monarchs  visited en route for Winchester and Gosport, Chawton being at the junction of those two roads.  John Knight must have been a successful tenant farmer, as he managed not only to acquire the estate and build the present house, but also to donate £50 to the Armada campaign (Protestant Elizabeth versus the Catholic Spaniards) – memorialized on the fireback in the Great Hall.  The plan of the house around 1620 shows some of the main rooms that we will be using for the Centre: the Great Hall in the middle, with what came to be known as the Dining Room to the left, and a Buttery to the right.  Later ranges to the north and to the south were in the Jacobean style. 


A few generations later, and we find Sir Richard Knight, looking relaxed and confident as he awaits his maker, reposing in St Nicholas Church; his brother Christopher; and then his sister Elizabeth Knight, described as something of a grande dame.  Church bells were rung as she made her progress between her properties, and her two husbands, both of whom served as MP for Midhurst, also both adopted her name.[12]  Thomas Knight succeeded around the time of the Mellichamp picture, and was unpopular locally, not least because he tried to sell the church bells at Chawton from the safe distant of his estate in Kent.  His son, another Thomas, married Catherine Knatchbull, but they were childless.  It was at this point that they turned to a cousin of Catherine’s, the Revd George Austen, Rector of Steventon and Deane in the county of Hampshire, and his wife Cassandra, and, as was the custom in such landed families in the eighteenth century, sought to adopt one of his sons – Edward, to whom the Knights had taken a liking. 


Thus it was that a clergyman’s son was catapulted into a higher social stratum, and later became owner of extensive estates at Godmersham, in Kent, the main Knight family seat; at Chawton; and at Steventon.  His father died at Chawton in 1794, and he changed his name to Knight on the death of his mother in 1812.  Three years earlier, in 1809, he had been able to move his mother and his sisters, Cassandra and Jane, and a family friend, from rented property here in Southampton, in Castle Square, to the cottage in Chawton village, then at the junction of the two major roads I mentioned, and with a duckpond nearby.  The cottage is now known as Jane Austen’s House, and is visited by over 30,000 people each year (as many as 50,000 immediately after the television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). 


Jane Austen knew what she called ‘the Great House’ well, and visited her brothers and neices and nephews when they were in residence.  (For example, you will find references  to a lively family reunion at Chawton House in the summer of 1813 in her own diaries, but more detail in those of her niece, Fanny Knight.)   Her brother Edward died in 1852, to be succeeded by Edward II, who was followed by the dynamic Montagu Knight, still known in the family today as Uncle Monty, who co-authored the history of the house (Chawton Manor and its Owners, 1911), clearly spent enormous amounts of time, energy and money on restoring the house, , and probably involved Lutyens in the design of fireplaces, ceilings, and of external terracing, as here on the upper terrace.    After Uncle Monty, and particularly after the Second World War, the great days of the house were over, and by 1987, when the present Richard Knight inherited, the sale of the leasehold of the estate at any rate was a foregone conclusion. 


Enter Sandy Lerner, an American businesswoman and the driving force behind the project.  Sandy had been building up an important collection of early English women’s writing in the USA; and when an attempt to turn this gem of an English country estate into a golf course had failed, she seized the opportunity to rescue it from dereliction, and to foster the rediscovery of forgotten women writers of earlier centuries in the unique context of Chawton.  Through the Bosack and Kruger foundation, she and Leonard Bosack initiated an ambitious scheme of restoration, and the British charity, Chawton House Library, was founded, of which Sandy is the chair.  And here is the vision for Chawton.  Set in a uniquely appropriate cultural context, the international Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing (1600-1830) will, in liaison with the University of Southampton, give a lead in the current work of recovering forgotten women writers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and thus of transforming the historic literary landscape.  The Centre will collaborate with colleagues from Britain and around the world, and particularly in the United States, where so much important work is going on.  As a non-residential institution, Chawton will offer visitors who wish to stay locally a menu of suitable lodgings, and will pick them up after breakfast in the Chawton Flier, our putative minibus.


On arrival the reader will pass through the front door (currently clad in scaffolding).  Suitable reading rooms will be available for all, including a pannelled room which was probably once the ladies’ drawing room.   Here they will study the collection that we will be bringing back to England in 2003, thanks to the Bosack and Kruger Foundation.  Guided by Professor Isobel Grundy of the University of Albert, a leading authority on early women’s writing and a Trustee, Katherine Moulton, Librarian, has been in charge of building up the collection, which is still growing, in Redmond, Washington, and has initiated the Novels On-Line programme on the website.   The collection contains over 400 anonymous titles, which offer tantalizing possibilities for those interested in the detection of authorship and gender differences between authors.


We envisage using one room on the top floor for our publications programme, to include such things as a Chawton history of women’s writing in English, which Professor Kaplan and I are currently planning with a leading publisher; another for the Cambridge Edition of Jane Austen, of which Professor Janet Todd and I are joint general editors; and some others for the use of visiting scholars as carrels.  Jane Austen is the presiding genius of the project, but of the hundreds of her sisters and mothers who will be studied at Chawton, some are well known, others lived locally, and most have remained unread and unknown for a couple of centuries. 


Being a country house study centre, Chawton values its official link with a major university, mainly for its staff but also for its infrastructure.  At Chawton itself the main public rooms on the ground floor lend themselves to use for occasional day conferences and seminars, and for other events, such as Regency balls!  Readers and other visitors will get a strong sense of historical context in the house, and the collection contains a number of cookery books and material on domestic crafts, for example.  The education of the eye continues outside, and to review the changing face of the estate over time is to engage with changes in society as well as aesthetics.  (As part of our on-line access programme, we hope to interpret all these and more recent interventions digitally.)  The restoration is being undertaken under dynamic leadership of Jane Alderson, Director of Chawton Estate, and of Adrian Thatcher, Restoration Project Manager, in the houses on the estate and in the grounds – so dynamic that the rest of us in the team are desperately trying to keep up!  The restoration work is based upon detailed research into the history of the site.  In Austenesque terms, we are indeed ‘improving the estate’, but without chopping down avenues of trees – in fact, the reverse.  (And strangely enough, we keep finding parallels between our estate and Sotherton in Mansfield Park – the novel that she completed soon after that long summer of 1813!)  The landscape is being restored to something like its design in Jane Austen’s day, and here we benefit from the expertise of Gilly Drummond DL and of Cassandra Knight, our consultant landscape architect.  The scrub above the churchyard wall is being cleared, reopening an important vista which was familiar to Jane Austen’s generation and the green path from the house to the lychgate.  Edward Austen asked his sister Jane to consult some old maps when he was rerouting local paths, but she did not live to see the new walled garden completed.    Here is an opportunity for us to involve students from local colleges and schools in the repair and restoration of the walled garden, which really expresses the multidisciplinary nature of the project.  The Park is one of the delights of the estate, although the years and the thunderstorms have certain taken their toll on many of the older and larger trees.  So a replanting programme has been put in place, in line with the eighteenth-century fashion for ‘clumps’.


So in association with the University of Southampton, Chawton House Library will be enabling the conservation and study of its collections; increasing access to the collections via the website and Novels On-Line; creating educational opportunities for life-long learning; offering lectures, seminars and day conferences; fostering research in early English women’s writing; developing a publications programme; forging links with other centres; liaising with courses involved in restoration, conservation and husbandry; collaborating with schools, colleges and universities in their projects; commissioning literary tours, cultural events and live arts; and seeking funding for Chawton House Library projects.  (Most of my own time at present is devoted to fund-raising.)


This is a project which should appeal to academic staff and students in a number of departments of the university, ranging from French (we have French fiction in the main collection) and History to Archaeology and the Textile Conservation Centre.  And within the Department of English the work of Dr Bygrave, on eighteenth-century literature of education, and Dr Bending, on the history of country estates and gardens, exemplifies the range of expertise that will inform the project.  Students in the department are currently establishing a society associated with Chawton House Library, enthused by Fran Latham and Al Warner.  Some of us will meet again at the adaptations conference next year.  Jane, Adrian and I, and indeed the whole team, look forward very much to welcoming you to Chawton House Library in 2003.  And then we can really get stuck into the collection!




[1] Rev. W. Gresley, The Real Danger of the Church of England (London: Burns, 1846), p. 3.

[2] See Chadwick, pp.271-309.

[3] Jane Austen, The History of England, from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st, introduced by A.S. Byatt (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1993), p.vii.

[4] Jeremy Black, The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century (1992; rpt. London: Sandpiper, 1999), p.238)

[5] See Pamela Norris, The Story of Eve (1998; rpt. Basingstoke and Oxford: Macmillan, 1998); Margarita Stocker, Judith, Sexual Warrior: Women and Power in Western Culture (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976; London: Picador, 1990)); Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (London: HarperCollins, 1993)

[6] Book VII, Chapters 11 and 4, and Book VIII, Chapter 9. 

[7] Sean Gill, Women and the Church of England: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (London: SPCK, 1994), p.55. 

[8] Gill, p.28. 

[9] Raymond D. Tumbleson, Catholicism in the English Protestant Imagination: Nationalism, Religion, and Literature, 1660-1745 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.12.  

[10] Tumbleson, p.13.

[11] U. Benigni, ‘Rome’, The Catholic Encycopedia, 16 vols (New York: Encyclopedia, 1912), XIII, 167.

[12] See William Austen Leigh and Montagu George Knight, Chawton Manor and its Owners (London:   Smith, Elder, 1911),