“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
That? That tiny little table? That is where she penned those most famous of novelic opening lines? A true writer, I suppose, just needs three things – pen and paper and a flat surface (maybe). And a true writer she certainly was. Jane Austen.
Austen spent eight productive years in this cottage in Hampshire’s rolling hills southwest of London, penning and revising her works, including Pride and Prejudice. Upon entering the hallowed spaces where she lived with her mother and sister after her father died, I was struck with awe not at the poshness of the setting, but its simplicity. She did have life experience and literature to draw upon, but mostly her novels came from worlds and repartee created in her mind while she sat at a simple table and looked out upon a simple country lane.
Jane had six brothers and only one sister, Cassandra. Two-years Cassandra’s junior, they were sisters who were bosom friends. When the boys had left for marriages and careers, it was Jane and Cassandra who cared for their mother. Neither married. In Chawton, Cassandra assumed all the roles of keeping house so her sister would have time to write her novels. When Jane passed away from an illness only eight years after she began writing in earnest, Cassandra wrote these words in a letter to their niece: “I have lost such a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her and in losing her it is as though I had lost a part of myself.”
I don’t have any sisters, but I have two daughters close in age and I often think of raising them in the context of ‘raising sisters.’ In the Austens there are two sisters, one whose fame is vast and the other whose name is on the tip of no one’s tongue. But, hundreds of years later, you can walk into their home and see the bed room they shared, the quilt they quilted together and the room where they took their tea, no doubt chatting endlessly about everything and nothing. I cannot speak from personal experience, but to have such a sisterly relationship as Cassandra’s and Jane’s is a divine gift. Glimpses of this factual sisterhood are deeply embedded in all of Jane’s fictions.
Cassandra is buried next to her mother near the family home in Chawton. Her sister lies under the stones in the venerable Winchester Cathedral several miles away. If you aren’t careful, you may unwittingly tread upon her.
From the Jane Austen Society: “Due to the timeless appeal of her amusing plots, and the wit and irony of her style, her works have never been out of print since they were first published, and are frequently adapted for stage, screen and television. Jane Austen is now one of the best-known and best-loved authors in the English-speaking world.”