Some people spend their gap years trekking in Peru or Thailand, but not me. I’ve always been an enormous book geek, and so, instead of heading halfway round the world, I stayed a little closer to home, and did a volunteer stint at Chawton House.
Chawton used to be the home of Jane Austen’s brother (who was adopted by a very rich local family and became Edward Knight. Sounds dashing, but I think I’d rather be an Austen). Nowadays, it’s home to a research library and exhibitions, all focused around early women writers. Needless to say, like The Story Museum in Oxford, it’s one of those places where I immediately feel at home. Aged eighteen, I spent a chunk of my summer in the pre-opened Chawton House Library. I put together copy for the website, typed up photocopies of 18th century novels (many of which, I have to admit, weren’t quite up to Ms Austen’s standard), and generally wallowed in stories. (Metaphorically, of course. Most of the books were too old and delicate for literal wallowing).
Last weekend, I went back for a visit – my first since I was eighteen, unless you count a brief pop-in with a uni class when I was at Southampton, which I don’t, because the narrative works better that way. In many ways, it had changed beyond recognition – now open to the public, with a gift shop and a café, all the rooms restored – but it was still like going back in time; not to Austen’s era, but to my time as a volunteer. The place was just as friendly, homey and interesting as it was back then, and seeing all the books (especially the ones on Gothic literature) made me want to go back and study.
Not everything was familiar, though – I saw one new thing about Chawton that I’d had no idea was there, and which sent the story-writing part of my brain into overdrive:
A CREEPY WELL. What old manor house is complete without a creepy well? While the head gardener (who fixed the mechanism himself, with a little help from Google) showed us how it worked, I was staring down into the depths and planning potential stories about imprisoning someone down there, and how you might break out…
If you get the chance to go to Chawton House, definitely give it a visit – as well as feeling like you’re in an Austen novel, you’ll get the chance to learn about other early women writers and see one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever visited. Just don’t fall down the well.