By Harrie Neal
With thanks to BARS and the Stephen Copley Bursary that enabled me to visit Chawton House in September this year. Thanks also goes to everyone at Chawton House, especially Darren Bevin and Clio O’Sullivan, for helping me navigate the library’s collection of Maria Edgeworth’s children’s tales about animals, which is the focus of the third chapter of my thesis.
My voyage began in drizzle at twelve degrees celsius on the delayed London-bound LNER to a sound track of friction-induced rustling from my newly-intimate fellow passengers sausaged together on the D carriage, and Sarah Koenig’s calming matter-of-fact tones (the new Serial podcast is v good btw). By the time I arrived in London to change trains, it was c.1 billion degrees celsius and I’d already sweated through my first t-shirt of the day. Cue a quick detour to St Pancras shopping centre for an extra t-shirt to last my three-day visit. By the time I got to Alton temperatures had soared to 1 trillion degrees and I wondered why I ever chose to leave the tropical oasis of the Home Counties eight years ago. For those, like me, who have long-since abandoned the Tory-blue skies of the South for York Central’s red puddle, I observed only one notable change: the entire region now appears to have converted to veganism, as confirmed by this pub. The revolution has come! Animals and middle-class students rejoice! It is safe to return to the homeland!
Dehydrated and a little bit lost, I made it to my Airbnb with the aid of a tiny tabby who led me the final hundred metres to the home that might not have been hers, but was mine for the next few days at least.
The following day my search for animals began afresh at Chawton House. For the uninitiated, Chawton House hosts a large collection of women’s writing, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and is open to researchers and visitors alike. Just down the road from Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton House has become most associated with Austen and her world. But, as I found out on my guided tour, Austen, with the international appeal that her work and cinematic adaptations inspire, is a convenient gateway into works of other ‘lesser-known women writers’ (a tiresome phrase I know, I am halfway towards sleep even typing it out, but I’m not sure there’s a better one. Let me know if you can think of any).
Upon entering the large granite house, you are soon met by the eighteenth century’s most beautiful portrait (this is an indisputable fact and is not up for discussion): John Hoppner’s rendering of Mary Robinson. In one of the reading rooms was an exhibition on Mary Shelley, which included a second-edition of Frankenstein, commemorating the 200-year anniversary of the novel’s publication. Upstairs I found a first edition of Frances Burney’s Cecilia, and a lock of Charlotte Brönte’s hair. For the follicley-interested amongst you, I can tell you that the latter is quite a fair dark blonde. Scattered amongst these literary greats is a rich history of the Knight family, who lived at Chawton House, and collected many of the works that lie in their archives.
Chawton House is a small operation, run by a dedicated and extremely hospitable heritage team. After first being met by the resident pup who runs around the place, I was introduced to Darren Bevin, the librarian and keeper of Chawton’s archive, who kindly showed me around and enthusiastically carried piles of every book, image, and cutting, that caught my eye. If you ever get to visit Chawton (and I recommend you do, their collections are quite vast), Darren will be your first port of call.
Once I had my first lot of books in order, and what appeared to be my own private study, as no one else was visiting for research while I was there, I was whisked away for a more thorough tour of the house by Clio O’Sullivan, who works at Chawton part-time and is doing a creative PhD set in the late eighteenth-century at Southampton University. As we discussed the impending doom of our respective fourth-years, various people we knew in common, and the gentrification of Southampton since I last visited as a bored suburban teen in the late-noughties, Clio guided me around the labyrinthine house before it was opened to the public at 12:30pm. An hour later we were both back at our desks, and I began to make my way through the piles of Maria Edgeworth’s children’s books I had selected earlier.
Now, I am no expert at archives. I never know what I’m going to find useful until I start writing, and I’ve never been much good at note-taking. But, thanks to being forcibly made to give a paper at the Edgeworth Conference a couple of months before, I had some idea of what I was looking for. Principally, I knew I wanted to look at Edgeworth’s first collection of children’s stories, The Parent’s Assistant (1796), which opens with a tale called ‘Lazy Lawrence’, about an industrious young boy who, faced with the prospect of having to sell his beloved horse to slaughter in order to pay the family rent, seeks various kinds of ethical employment over the exploitation of animal labour. The frontispiece to several editions of the tales was illustrated by Edgeworth’s friend and later step-mother, Frances Beaufort.
At lunch time I made a beeline (insert pun) for the orchard and the hives that provide Chawton with a supply of honey, which they sell in the gift shop. It turns out the hives themselves are inaccessible to the public, so I bought a jar of honey as a gift along with some ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ chai tea. I’m not sure what exactly what was so Wollstonecraftian about the tea, except that it looked a lot less bland than that ‘Frances Burney’ tea, and less floral than the ‘Jane Austen’ tea. Make of that what you will. The orchard, however, is one of the best things about Chawton House. Containing over twenty varieties of heritage apples, each tree is marked with the name and history of each variety. During my two days there I dedicatedly scoffed my way through as many apples as I could, to the delight of my taste buds and the chagrin of my stomach lining. Not even the unseasonable weather could impede my apple-eating expedition, no siree. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing nobody else was sharing the reading room, so they didn’t have to suffer my whining that my soggy clothes were touching me. If you are not quite as devoted as me to the pursuit of the perfect apple, then might I recommend the Ribston Pippin, otherwise known as the ‘Glory of York’, which dates back to 1708 when it was grown in Little Ribston, near Knaresborough. The ultimate CECS apple if you will.
The next two days consisted of more Edgeworth (Practical Education, 1798), and the obituary she wrote of the Anglo-Scottish novelist and educationalist Elizabeth Hamilton, plus more rain and apples. Then, soon enough I was back on the crammed LNER, cheek to stranger’s armpit, home to York, with a notebook full of Edgeworth, and a bag full of Ribston Pippins.