A Few Jane Austen-Related Places to Visit
England has numerous sites where you can explore the life and work of Jane Austen. The following are just the tip of the iceberg. When you get to your hotel or bed and breakfast in London, find one of the many free maps with the underground and train stations clearly marked on them (each underground/subway line is in a different color!), and prepare to immerse yourself in all things Austen.
The British Library at St. Pancras, London
The British Library in London is the official library of the United Kingdom, and they have Jane Austen’s writing desk. Not to be confused with a conventional desk, her writing desk is about the size of a portable typewriter case (anyone remember typewriters?). Made of wood, the desk is sloped at an ergonomically correct angle for writing. If you lift up the top (which you won’t be able to do because the desk is encased in glass), you can store desk items inside. Austen placed this desk on top of a small round table, which is at the Jane Austen Museum, and wrote her novels and letters.
The British Library is at 96 Euston Road, London NW12DB. You can’t miss it: a huge red brick complex with excellent signs. To get there, you have a few options:
Originally, the British Library was within the British Museum. There is still a library within the British Museum, but it is just a general reference library now. The actual British Library moved out of the museum several years ago. There is wonderful stuff at the museum. But for Jane Austen’s writing desk, you need to go to the new British Library, as directed.
The descendents of Jane Austen’s eldest brother James, the Austen-Leigh family, were in possession of the desk until fall 1999. The late Joan Austen-Leigh kept the desk safe in an old suitcase in a closet in her home in Canada. In 1999, Joan Austen-Leigh and her eldest daughter traveled to London and generously donated the desk to the British Library at a lovely ceremony.
No. 10 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden
Covent Garden isn’t a garden at all. It is an area of shops and restaurants and is where the Royal Opera House is located. Jane Austen’s brother Henry lived at No. 10 Henrietta Street in Covent Garden while he was a banker, and Jane Austen stayed with him when she visited London.
(Note: If you’re at the British Museum, you can walk to Covent Garden in about 10 to 15 minutes. Leave the museum by the main entrance and cross Great Russell Street. Follow the signs to Covent Garden.)
Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton
Jane Austen wrote her novels at her home in Chawton. This home has been turned into the Jane Austen House Museum. Jane, Cassandra, Mrs. Austen, and Martha Lloyd moved to Chawton in 1809, and Austen resided there for the rest of her life, until weeks before her death 1817. While living here, she revised Elinor and Marianne into Sense and Sensibility and First Impressions into Pride and Prejudice, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon. The house contains many artifacts: the table on which she set her writing desk (now at the British Library), a quilt she helped make, and the Topaz crosses that her brother Charles brought back for his sisters from Gibraltar (which are the models for William Price’s giving an amber cross to his sister Fanny in Mansfield Park). You can find more about the Jane Austen House Museum at its Web site.
The museum also contains a shop where you can buy all things Austen. The house has a lovely garden, where you can sit and enjoy the flowers or even eat your picnic lunch.
St. Nicholas Church and the Chawton House Library
When you’ve finished with the Jane Austen House Museum, visit these sites, which are just a short, pleasant walk on a sidewalk from her house.
While living at Chawton, the Austens worshipped at St. Nicholas Church, and the two Cassandras — Mrs. Austen and Jane’s sister — are buried behind the church. You can enter the church and also see the graves.
The Chawton House Library (formerly called the Chawton Great House) is where Edward Austen lived when in Hampshire county; during part of Jane Austen’s life at Chawton, her brother Frank and his family lived here, too. The Chawton Great House became the Chawton House Library for the Study of Early Women Writers in 2003, and only pre-arranged users with appropriate credentials can enter the library. But it’s a beautiful building to view from the outside, and the landscaping around the house has been re-planted to look like what it did in Austen’s day.