Stealing Jane Austen's Clothes

Last weekend, whilst driving back from the New Forest (well, I say driving back, I was asleep in the back seat, my head precariously propped up on a stack of sleeping bags with mouth ungraciously open), we took a diversion on the way back to London. Not just any diversion, oh no. We went to the Disneyland of literature nerds. The holy land of Regency enthusiasts. Essentially, a pilgrimage took place, for we stopped off at Chawton, which of course is one of the longest standing homes of Jane Austen. The Queen Bee of sassy Georgian novels.

I was beyond excited when we pulled up outside her gorgeous cottage, low walled garden and picket fence included. Excited, yes, but also a little disorientated and almost convinced I was having a bizarre dream, what with my being asleep only seconds before and having no idea where we were going. My very own Mr. Darcy had organised the excursion without my knowledge, the cheeky chap. How the heart swells.

I was bouncing up and down as we waited in the (simply perfect) gift shop. I had Jane Austen related word vomit. The poor woman who handed me my ticket was subject to a torrent of absurd information about eighteenth century masculinity that up until now, my thesis supervisor had only had to endure. I was mentally photographing every inch of every room, path and doorway.

This is where Jane tiptoed around chickens. This is where Jane imagined Eleanor and Marianne debating about the poetic worth of Cowper. This is where Jane brought the loaves in for breakfast. This is where Jane existed as a real human being, in a real house, in a real courtyard that I am now inelegantly traipsing around in muddy wellingtons.

You can't tell I was excited, can you? Each area of the house is modestly marked with it's early nineteenth century function, as well as the odd quote from her books that give a nod to her various household duties. A particular favourite was 'I am glad the new cook begins so well. Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.' Mine too, Jane. Mine too.

Being a fan of places with literary importance, I was curious to see how the museum chose to let visitors interact with her very intimate environment. In short, the museum is humble yet delightfully indulgent. Red ropes and intimidating stewards there are not. Instead, you are free to work your way around the cottage at your own pace, pausing for chats in-between the beautifully maintained posies and peonies, picking up a copy of Pride and Prejudice to find your favourite passage, and of course having the chance to dress up in replica Regency gowns. Hold. The. Not-yet-invented. Phone.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of dressing up. If there's historical clothing, child sized or not, I'll be in it. Luckily, there was a selection of dresses, aprons, tailcoats and bonnets to try on, much to my delight. I wanted to take a thousand and one 'turns around the garden' in this bad boy, let me tell you. My only regret is that, having just rounded off three days of camping, I hadn't managed to tame my hair into a befitting style. More's the pity! Well, the bonnets were a blessing, what with the amount of dry shampoo I was trying to hide.

Inside the house, the collection of intimate letters, clothing, furniture and trinkets were enough to keep me in rapture, quietly trying to fit them in to various scenes from her novels. The delightful Mr. Knight, real-life gentleman and also real-life relation to Jane Austen, has a wonderful breadth of knowledge and very kindly corrected me when I attempted to button a dress up the wrong way round. How many ladies he's managed to woo with such impressive ancestry I can't begin to fathom!

Objects hold such importance in Austen's novels and the House makes it clear why. Intricate beading, delicate lace - of which Jane claims modest superiority, elegant tea sets and satin ball shoes fill the higgledy-piggledy shelves of the cottage, amazingly preserved after 200 years. Why anyone would want a pair of my scuffed ballet pumps after various nights out is beyond me, but the craftsmanship and resourcefulness of Jane and her family is testament to a time before the Age of Convenience.

Standing in front of her tiny writing desk I felt really quiet emotional. So many hours of the past four years have I spent in libraries, between bookshelves, and in a far less romanticised sense staring forlornly at my laptop screen attempting to fathom thoughts into sentences. The thousands of words I've written all about novels etched on this modest, little desk.

If only she knew! If only she knew the 10 pounds of weight I gained from eating Japanese rice crackers in the run up to essay hand-in, circa 2013. Thanks a lot, Jane!

In short, I couldn't recommend the Jane Austen House Museum enough. It's an ideal spot for a big dose of historical and literary indulgence. If, like me, you're a sucker for gift shops then I recommend you take a little extra for souvenirs. I'm a proud owner of this Pride & Prejudice bag, which recently featured in my Spring Favourites.

An entrance ticket gives you year long access if you tick the gift aid box - hooray! I've had a gander at their events calendar and am keen as pie to go along to one of their writing workshops. I can't think of a better place for it, can you?

Are you a fellow Austen lover or a mellow admirer from afar? Let me know!

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