Chawton House Library: Transforming the Literary Landscape
Michael Wheeler
Chawton House Library

Wheeler, Michael. "Chawton House Library: Transforming the Literary Landscape." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 9.1-16 <URL:

  1. Sandy Lerner, the visionary creator of the project, spoke at the launch of our appeal for funds to help complete the repair and restoration of Chawton House, when we entertained guests to lunch and showed them the progress that had been made in the house and grounds, in July 2000. Those who knew the estate from earlier visits were impressed by what they found.

  2. Chawton House, the Elizabethan mansion that once belonged to Jane Austen's brother, and that she knew well, is being repaired and restored as part of a major international project to establish The Centre for the Study of Early English Women's Writing, 1600-1830, and to house a magnificent collection of over 6,300 rare books from the period, together with some related manuscripts, now located in the USA.

  3. In 1999, Jane Alderson was appointed Director of Chawton Estate, taking responsibility for the project planning and direction of the building and restoration work associated with the house and the estate, and the ongoing operations management and administration; and I was appointed Director of Chawton House Library, with responsibility for academic planning and development matters

    The House

  4. Established at the turn of a new century, Chawton House Library will become part of the history of the 'Great House,' of Hampshire, and of England. Chawton's recorded history begins in the Domesday Survey of 1086. A royal manor house flourished here in the thirteenth century, when the owner, John St John, served as deputy to Edward I in Scotland. Henry III visited the manor on over forty occasions. The descendants of John Knight, who built the present Chawton House at the time of the Armada (1588), added to it and modifed the landscape in ways that reflect changes in politics, religion and taste. One of those descendants was Elizabeth Knight, whose progresses were marked by the ringing of church bells and whose two husbands both had to adopt her surname (shades of Burney's Cecilia). Later in the eighteenth century, Jane Austen's brother Edward (who had been adopted by the Knights) succeeded, and in 1809 was able to move his mother and sisters to a cottage in the village, now "Jane Austen's House" and visited by tens of thousands each year. Although the Knight family vacated the house in 1987, they remain very actively involved in the project: Richard Knight is a Trustee and a member of the Executive Committee, and two of his children have contributed to the work on the house and the grounds. Chawton House Library builds on over four hundred years of tradition.

  5. Together with Adrian Thatcher -- Restoration Project Manager -- Jane Alderson is directing the remaining 24 months of repair and restoration work on both the grounds and the house, with its fifty rooms ranging from the Great Hall to the warren of smaller rooms in the north range. Emergency work on the roof of the Grade II* listed building has already been carried out with the help of Hampshire County Council, and various eyesores have been removed. Recently the drive has been regraded (as at the end of Sense and Sensibility, we are "creating a sweep") and some of the outhouses have been refurbished. Attention now turns to the main house itself, after months of planning.

    The Landscape

  6. Garden archaeology has revealed much about the evolution of the grounds at Chawton, which include a wilderness, a walled garden developed by Edward (Austen) Knight, and terracing in the style of Lutyens. The landscaping work going on around the house reflects its form in the early nineteenth century, as a further effort to recreate the era to be studied. Beyond the gardens the land has been returned to pasture and is grazed by sheep.

  7. Edward (Austen) Knight would have been the source of much of Jane Austen's information on improvements and estate management. Edward formed new parkland over several decades, working from the house outwards to take advantage of the views, and to provide the sheltered walks so necessary for exercise and social intercourse, including in the kind of "shrubbery" referred to in the novels.

  8. So outside the house, the transformation of the landscape is already well under way, as research on the estate links archaeology with the history of gardening and farming methods. By removing the scrubby hawthorns that had grown up around the ha-ha, or sunken ditch, we have opened up the view that Jane Austen knew, in the true English landscape garden tradition. We plan to involve local schools and colleges in the replanting of the walled garden, using Edward Austen's original scheme, and in the physical work of repairing the walls and the beds.

  9. Taken together, the main house, Chawton House Stables (a converted Elizabethan stable block), the church, the gardens and the outlying grazing land represent a charming and sensitive historic site.

    The Collection

  10. Italy has its art and architecture, Germany its music, Britain its literature. But literary history is now under revision, as many hundreds of women writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries -- written out of the script in the nineteenth -- are reinstated and revalued by scholars around the world. Chawton House Library will play a leading role in this endeavour.

  11. The core activity at Chawton House Library will be the study of its collection of books and manuscripts in the Reading Rooms which overlook the drive. Books will be fetched by Library staff from the stacks downstairs, where the collection will be housed in suitable conditions of security, temperature and humidity. Any member of the scholarly community or the general public may apply to study at Chawton House Library, which is to be a non-residential reference library. Transport, in the form of "The Chawton Flier," will be provided to link the house with neighbouring accommodation.

  12. The collection, which has grown steadily in recent years and is still growing, is currently housed in Redmond, Washington, under the care of Katherine Moulton, Librarian. Trustee Professor Isobel Grundy, an international authority on the subject, has provided expert advice on the collection, which is particularly strong in fiction by women from around 1740. As the major eighteenth-century libraries tended not to collect women's fiction, some of the books in the collection are very rare, even unique copies. Authors represented include well known figures such as Jane Austen, Frances ('Fanny') Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Fielding, Eliza Haywood, Lady Caroline Lamb, Mary Lamb, Charlotte Lennox, Hannah More, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Mary Martha Sherwood, Frances Sheridan, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as many more obscure writers, such as Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, Susannah Maria Cooper, and Elizabeth Byron Strutt. Over 400 works in the collection are anonymous, offering the tempting challenge of determining unknown identities and authorship.

    The Centre

  13. In association with the University of Southampton, where I am also a part-time Professor of English Literature and work with Professor Cora Kaplan and other colleagues in the field, the Centre will develop publications programmes, seminars, day conferences and cultural events, which draw the disciplines together, ranging from literary history to garden history. And this is really the key to the project. The landscape is much more than a delightful backdrop to a literary endeavour: it is itself the subject of research. So we aim to contribute to the world-wide transformation of the literary landscape through the rediscovery and reassessment of forgotten women writers in the unique context of an important English country house and its surrounding garden and grazing land.

  14. Interest in women's writing is now global, and represents by far the most significant aspect of the current revaluation of the English literary canon. I plan to visit all the centres in the field to discuss future collaboration. (In the UK, for example, I attended the CW3 launch at Sheffield Hallam in September; in October I visited the Women Writers Project at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and, yes, I have toured Schloss Corvey - and with the Prince himself.) More broadly, the study of women in past generations is reshaping our understanding of cultural history. Chawton House will again become a living component of the local community, and will arrange seminars on garden archaeology and landscape history, social events reflecting the history of the house, and visits to sites in Hampshire and its borders associated with women writers ranging from Jane Austen to Flora Thompson, and from Mary Russell Mitford to Elizabeth Gaskell. Providing a focus for international research in women's writing, Chawton House Library investigates the history of which it is itself a part.

  15. Our website is still evolving, and the interpretation of the whole project on the web will eventually make the activities of the Centre accessible to people throughout the world (www.chawton.org). Kate Moulton, editor of the Novels On-Line project, has already passed a number of transcriptions of fascinating but forgotten novels by women to Dr Mark Weal of the University of Southampton, who is posting them on the website. Fifty Novels On-Line are planned. Judging by the reaction of colleagues at recent academic conferences to this news, Novels On-Line will make a major contribution in the field. Meanwhile, I have been appointed joint general editor, with Professor Janet Todd, of Cambridge University Press's new 10-volume edition of Jane Austen, which aims to replace Chapman's great edition for the twenty-first century. Again, this flagship project for the Centre will reflect in its introductions and explanatory notes the interdisciplinary nature of Chawton House Library, and ensure that Jane Austen is read in a cultural context which we now know to be populated with hundreds of other women novelists, many of whom she read.

    The Funding

  16. To date, nearly all funding for the project has come from the American Leonard X. Bosack and Bette M. Kruger Charitable Foundation, which will continue to provide core operating funds for Chawton House Library. The scope of the repair and restoration and growing potential for the work of the new Centre will, however, require a broader base of support. We must raise three million pounds in the next three years in order to complete the work on the house.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).