‘Often when I think myself miles away from one part of the house I find a passage or entrance close to it, & I don’t know when I shall be quite mistress of all the intricate & different ways.’
Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny Knight, referring to Chawton House, 1807
The house you can visit today is over four hundred years old. It was built by the Knight family in the 1580s following the acquisition of the estate by Nicholas Knight in 1578. There was already a manor house on the estate prior to this, first recorded in 1224.
This painting by Mellichamp (c.1740) has a secret. Just visible in the corner are the words ‘Mary Jane Austen, 1819’ scribbled by Jane Austen’s 12 year-old niece while resident in the house.
The house has undergone centuries of change and development as it has passed through different hands, making it rich with quirky and fascinating features, from graffiti on paintings and ‘witch marks’ on walls, to heraldic stained glass windows and ornately carved fireplaces. If you are looking for things to do in Hampshire, exploring Chawton House and its features makes a great day out.
The house’s most famous association is with Jane Austen, whose brother Edward, inherited the house when distant family members Thomas and Catherine Knight, made him their heir. Edward offered the bailiff’s residence, five minutes’ walk from Chawton House, to his mother and sisters, Jane and Cassandra, and it was there, now the Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Jane enjoyed the most prolific period of her writing life.
This 1783 silhouette by William Wellings depicts the young Edward Austen’s first introduction to Thomas and Catherine Knight, who later made him their heir.
Highlights associated with Jane include the reading alcove in the Oak Room where, according to Knight family legend, she liked to sit; the same room also features a miniature portrait of her beloved niece, Fanny Knight. Visitors can also see the Knight family dining table at which Jane dined with her brothers and sisters, along with Edward Austen’s suit, travel journal and portrait, and a silhouette of Edward being presented to Thomas and Catherine Knight.
As well as numerous portraits and items associated with the Knight family, the house also features portraits of women writers, many of them famous in their day. Visitors can also enjoy a continuously changing display of works from the library’s unique collection of women’s writing.
The items on display vary but some of the treasures of the collection include early feminist works (known as proto-feminist because they were written before the term ‘feminist’ existed) such as Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and works by Frances Burney who was much admired by Jane Austen, including a first edition of Cecilia (1782), the closing lines of which inspired the title for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There are some particularly beautiful items, such as Elizabeth Blackwell’s illustrated A Curious Herbal (1737-1739) which inspired our Herb Garden, and Mary Lawrance’s Sketches of Flowers from Nature (1801). There are many first editions and unique manuscripts, including ‘Sir Charles Grandison’, a dramatic adaptation of Samuel Richardson’s novel of the same name, thought to have been used for private family theatricals, and written in Jane Austen’s own hand.