I’m in love with my new Paperblanks diary. No, I really am. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a lovelier one. Inspired by Jane Austen, the cover features her signature, image and an excerpt from Persuasion (my favourite) in Jane’s handwriting.
Every time I look at it I feel all warm and fuzzy. And it makes me think of a very special hour or two I spent at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire. Most people I speak to tend to connect Jane Austen with Bath, but Chawton is just as important. For one, Jane was born in Hampshire, in a place called Steventon, and she spent the last years of her life in Chawton Cottage. Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma were all published while Jane lived there, and she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion there, too.
The house was built in the 17th century and was a public house, The New Inn, between 1781 and 1787. (Two murders took place there!) Chawton itself is a tiny village and I admit I drove straight past the museum at first, missing it completely. (Don’t ask me about driving in England. Just don’t.)
The Museum is rather gorgeous and I had a wonderful time strolling around, soaking up the Austen-ness. The collection includes eight music books owned by Jane Austen, as well as furniture, a pianoforte and a Hepplewhite bureau-bookcase. Also on display are the only three pieces of jewellery known to have been owned by Jane: a turquoise bracelet, a topaz cross, and a turquoise & gold ring.
The gold ring was the centre of a delicious scandal back in 2014, when American singer Kelly Clarkson was banned from taking it out of England after purchasing it at auction. However English Culture minister Ed Vaizey imposed an export bar on it and the Museum eventually brought it back, after creating the successful Bring the Ring Home campaign. Donations from around the world, including an anonymous one of £100,000, allowed the Museum to match the amount Clarkson paid, and bring the ring, well, home.
As well as the infamous ring and two other pieces of Austen’s jewellery, the museum contains items and clothing belonging to Jane and members of her family, including her famous writing desk (which, I am ashamed to say, I was too chicken-shit to touch). In honour of the 200th anniversary of Mansfield Park there was also a gorgeous display of costumes from the 2007 film adaptation starring Billie Piper.
There was hardly anyone else at the Museum, so it was easy to find pockets of quiet stillness in which I could imagine what the house might have felt like when the Austens lived there. As well as that the drive into Chawton offered snatches of wide, Hampshire green, so that you could, if you really wanted to, glimpse Jane Austen’s England, and believe that sitting in the shade on a fine day and looking upon verdure really is the most perfect refreshment.