Emma Brodey, our library intern for March and April of 2017, reflects on her time at Chawton House Library:
A day at Chawton House Library in spring starts with a subtle sunrise– one that we might not notice in my hometown in North Carolina. The colors are different: where the American south offers extravagant oranges and salmons, the Hampshire sky seems in a way more restrained. The peachy-warm colors, filtered through a different air, are stunning in their very subtlety. From my first morning as a library intern at Chawton House Library, the mornings seemed special– the kind that pull you out of bed with their energy, the kind you don’t ever want to sleep through.
In the mornings, my commute to work was, as they go, a pretty good one. I had only to walk from the beautiful Chawton House Stables, a hundred yards up the drive leading to the “Great House” Jane Austen visited and wrote about during her time at Chawton. My first job every morning was to open up the house, drawing curtains, turning on lights, and most importantly checking the temperature and humidity of the book display cases and stores. It’s a wonderful way to begin a day: there’s so much about Georgian life and literature to learn from the house alone. The hidden passageway from the kitchen hall into the Great Hall shows how important such shortcuts were, when serving hot food to a dining room halfway across the house. Drawing the curtains from in front of the spacious, sunny window seats, it’s easy to visualise and understand how someone (like a little Jane Eyre) could sit in one, reading, and be hidden in a little space all her own.
The tasks of the day varied greatly, depending on goings-on at Chawton House, but they were always interesting, unexpected, and rewarding. When the current Eliza Haywood exhibition was put together I got to help Dr. Darren Bevin and Dr. Kim Simpson with the installation, learning how to properly support books in their cases without putting tension on the spines. I gained valuable first hand experience in setting up an exhibition, from the posters and signs to the books themselves. At other times, I got to learn about book conservation from the Chawton House Library volunteers. It was amazing to be handed a beautiful book from the early eighteenth century, and to learn how to unfold creases, mend holes, and strengthen corners, so that generations in the future will be able to study the words and craftsmanship of this precious book.
Most afternoons I got to work in the lower reading room, surrounded on all sides by the beautiful shelves, books, and tapestries of the room that has been the house’s library since about 1850. As I worked on a post for the Chawton House Library website, or proofread for the library’s Novels Online project, I stopped to answer knocks on the door and let house visitors in to see the library. It was one of my favorite things to see their expressions as they entered the room, invariably with wide eyes. Their excitement often became awe once I told them that there was a first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the display case. I loved telling visitors about the history of the room, and even more about today’s library and its incredible mission. A few parents bring young children, and one of my favorite guests was a very little girl who read each sign aloud zealously, happy to prove that she could. She seemed surprised to hear that there had been other women writing around and before Jane Austen, but she was fascinated. She made me realise the full impact that Chawton House Library, and the current Womens Writes campaign, can have in the lives of young girls like this one.
After work, the lengthening spring days were just at the point where the light moves gently, more golden, across the bark of the trees instead of down through the leaves. In March, the daffodils “stretched in never-ending line” along the margin of Chawton House’s ha-ha. In April the bluebells were more hidden, but equally enchanting, forming pools around the trees in the garden’s wilderness. On adventurous days, it was fun to follow Jane Austen’s steps in the beautiful walk across the sheep fields towards Farringdon.
But the excellent company inside the Chawton House Stables rivaled even the lure of the outdoors. The stables are the home of not only the intern, but also the visiting fellows. That means I got to live with two groups of five or six incredible scholars, learning about their research and discussing the exciting finds of the day every evening over a cup of tea. It’s a bit like living inside a really great college seminar, and I loved every minute of it. We were all literary nerds, of course, so together we embraced our geekdom and organized our own Regency events like a costumed afternoon tea and a Knight Family Dinner, cooking from the centuries-old recipes in the Knight Family Cookbook! With events like that, evening in Chawton became night before I (or anyone else) noticed.
I will be moving on to new adventures this autumn, starting my undergraduate degree at Yale University. I know, however, that my time at Chawton House Library will stay with me through college and long after. The valuable skills I’ve learned will help me in numerous ways, and the memory of beautiful Chawton and the wonderful people there will ensure that I study hard so that someday I can return! I am so grateful to everyone at Chawton for making me feel welcome and for making my internship a wonderful and valuable experience. I wish you all the best, and I hope to come back soon.