For the last two weeks I have been lucky enough to do an internship at Chawton House, working both with the librarian Darren on the upcoming new exhibition on women’s rights, and helping out with the daily running of the house itself. I have joined in with tours round the house and the gardens, searched through rare books to find material for the exhibition, opened up the house and closed it at the end of the day, and even learned about book conservation with volunteer conservators in the library basement. I have spent a lovely couple of weeks getting to know the ins and outs of the workings of a house and library, and I have found out so much about 18th century women’s letter writing that I could write a whole essay on it! This internship has been much more varied than I could have imagined, and I’m so glad I got to see so many sides to the work that goes on at Chawton House.
My first week was spent primarily working on research for the exhibition on women’s rights showing in the new year. I loved poring over the beautiful old books in the library, and sitting in the upper reading room looking out over the gardens was a real delight. It felt as if time was irrelevant to the library, with books in the house from the original Knight collection, and if I let my imagination run away with me I could pretend that nothing had changed since those days when Jane Austen would come to the house often to visit her brother. Of course, lots has changed over the years, and the library is now fitted out with all the modern comforts – I arrived in the morning, flicked on the lights, plugged in my laptop and got to work – but nevertheless, the house has maintained its character. Walking around and opening up the rooms in the morning, I loved the feeling of getting used to the uneven floors and the unexpected steps in doorways. These features are, of course, just signs of age (a house has existed on this spot since the late sixteenth century), but to me they signified the thousands of feet that had stepped over them, and I felt like I was working in a place that deserved maintaining.
The house itself narrowly avoided demolition in the 90s, when Sandy Lerner bought the lease for the house following its sale to a hotel and golf course company fell through. Her generous upkeep of the house recently ended, and now Chawton House must find a way to support itself through public funding. Visitors are welcomed every day to the house and gardens, and the library is open to the public too, as Chawton House forges a new identity as a historic visitor attraction as well as a centre for research. I love the house and I will definitely be coming back to visit often, especially when the new exhibition is running next year. I hope that Chawton House sees plenty of visitors for that exhibition in particular, as its topic is not just important to the collection of Women’s Writing, but also relevant to social debate today. From political acts such as the unveiling of a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square (and the furore over the possible moving of a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst from Victoria Tower Gardens outside the House of Lords), to the emergence and controversy of Pussy Riot, and to social media movements such as MeToo and IWeigh, this is a topic that consistently inspires and needs public discussion and consideration in every sphere. If reading through the letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu has taught me anything, it’s that we cannot afford to be complacent. Feminism is needed just as much now as it ever was.
During this internship I’ve found that Chawton House is many things: it’s a world-class library, a house filled with history, and a fantastic tearoom! But most importantly for me, it has been a place where I could finally see shelves full of books I wish I had known about 10 years earlier. Women’s writing has been at the forefront of social change since the beginning, and it is ever more necessary that people of all genders and all ages have the chance to read the books that mysteriously never make it onto the reading lists at school. This internship has been a fascinating and valuable experience for me, and I hope that the exhibition shows more people the value of this very special house and library. I have loved working here and I can’t wait to come back and see how the house develops over the next year!