Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen's Relics and the Treasures of the East Room

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen's Relics and the Treasures of the East Room

Article excerpt

ON THE FACE OF IT, there is something disconcerting about the spectacle of Chawton Cottage--something misleading, or at the least profoundly wishful. This squat brick dwelling wears its two commemorative plaques awkwardly. Topped with five ungainly chimneys and fronted with an implausibly short picket fence, it is certainly not the kind of cottage Marianne Dashwood might envision. Its many traces of windows and doors bricked over, moved and modified disrupt the symmetries they still imply without evoking the quaintness that we associate with irregularity in its more idealized, picturesque forms. Neither thatched, shuttered, nor covered with honeysuckles, the house is somewhat charmless: it is a functional edifice, built for use, not a cozy one. True, the brick wall along one side that encloses an English garden is more of a piece with the idyllic loveliness one expects, but the house stands aloof. A large white sign cheerily informs us that we are looking at "Jane Austen's House." To the extent that this possessive lulls us into a sense that the house and its effects and appurtenances were--and in some sense still are--Jane Austen's and that in entering the house we might be visiting Austen herself, we will be charmed, but it is inevitable that we will be disappointed as well. The charm and disappointment aroused by the "cottage" and the things within it are what I will ponder in this essay. (1)

It starts in the parlor. There, one is drawn to a square piano, dated promisingly circa 1810. A note card informs us, "Although this piano is not the one Jane Austen used ... she bought a similar type." In the next room, we encounter a handsome dining room table. "This table," we read, "is of early nineteenth century design, probably after Jane Austen's death in 1817. It was, however, in use at the Great House at Chawton, in the lifetime of Edward Knight (Austen), Jane's third brother (1768-1852)." Am I the only pilgrim flummoxed by this mixed message? The table is dated after 1817, but the "family" (we are told) "still" refers to it as "Jane's"? Why does the "family" "still" call it "Jane's" though they know it isn't? We are being invited into a knowing make-believe that these things bring us into Austen's presence, just as we have been with piano. In much the same way, we learn that the teakettle in the hearth belonged to Kate Greenaway, while the nearby display case contains (among other things) a hand-plane mislaid on the premises by a seventeenth-century carpenter; spillikins, fish counters and letters used in games with no connection to Austen, other than the fact that she would have known what they are; silver-tipped bottles that belonged to her niece Mary Jane and a box that was Fanny's. Even the writing table by the window, at which we are asked to imagine Austen writing her novels is and is not Jane Austen's: "only the top," we read, "is original."

Of course, not all of the things on display in "Jane Austen's House" bear so indirect relation to Austen. Many genuine relics of Austen are gathered here as well, and the explanatory note cards detail their provenance in an exemplary fashion. To name only a few, the music books that were copied out in her own hand; the lace collar that once graced her throat, the topaz cross that hung around her neck, the blue-bead bracelet that encircled her wrist, the patchwork quilt that was stitched by her hands; and the donkey-cart that bore her down the village lanes. All of these move us because of their connection to Austen's body. Preeminent among these is the lock of her hair, a "primary" relic, a remnant of Austen's actual body. When the founders of the Jane Austen Society lamented at their first meeting that Austen's hair was now in America, the great American collector Alberta Hirshheimer Burke, who purchased the hair at auction and who happened to be present, stood up and immediately donated it to the museum. Several newspapers reported the event as news of national import: "Jane Austen's Locks Returned. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.