Jane Austen’s House can serve to illustrate how special a collection that is held within a heritage site can be, when that site was the home of a key figure connected to the collection. Ideas around the importance of emotions and feelings, such as nostalgia and idolatry, connected to heritage and history are really present in this historic house which, in a way, has become a sacred site of pilgrimage for Janeites. As an example of (the many) voices of Janeites visiting this space, the Hill sisters (two Janeites from the 1920’s who embarked on their own Austen pilgrimage) illustrate well this sentiment:
The front door opens upon the road, having on each side of it a narrow paled closure. We have entered the Cottage and have sat in the very room where Miss Jane Austen used to write – the small parlour on the right-hand side which looks to the front and where the family took their meals…Hill and Hill, 2018, p. 171
There is, in that passage, a sentiment of eagerness to be in a space that can be seen as connected with ‘sacred’ objects, that brings connection to the subject of admiration. As Johnson (2012) points out in Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, the Austen that Janeites may adore ‘has more to do with the world of wonder than with the world of reason’.
One longs for that world of wonder when one visits the site, despite the fact that some of the objects in this collection might not necessarily be the objects that Jane Austen had in her life; they are either objects from a few years after her death, or act as examples of objects she might have had. Jane did not know that piano, the chaise longue or the tea set. The wallpaper is a brilliant modern reproduction of the original papers, made possible thanks to found remains of the original one (Dunford and Reynolds, 2021).
Are they less valuable because those are not the objects she touched? Less authentic? It can be argued that all these ‘not quite Austenesque’ objects help to reimagine her material world, mostly because they live within the historic house. Although it is also true that there is some magic connected to having an experience with ‘the real thing’, the object that one knows was held by the admired figure. This is very clear in the words of Sophie Reynolds, Collections and Interpretation Manager at Jane Austen’s House, when asked about the power of the objects in the house. In what she mentions, it can be noticed that this refers to ‘authentic’ objects:
Jane Austen’s writing table is probably the most iconic object in the collection and speaks to our visitors, especially devoted Jane Austen fans, very directly. It often gets a very emotional reaction. Jane Austen’s turquoise ring is another object that really speaks to visitors. I’d say both of these objects speak directly to visitors because they are objects that Jane Austen herself knew intimately, and they are deeply connected with her in people’s minds – they know these are objects they are going to see, they’ve seen pictures before they come, so they have been built up in their imagination – then when they do see them it is all the more powerful.Sophie Reynolds, Jane Austen’s House Collections and Interpretation Manager
Another aspect to bear in mind when thinking why this heritage site and collection are inseparable, and why it can be so connected to an emotional visitor experience, is the idea of what this house really meant for Jane, and the concept of ‘home’. As Hart (1975) remind us, a house could have been seen by Austen as a retreat to compose oneself and to feel sustained, surrounded by a private domesticity with the most intimate relations. This idea could be connected with the thought that houses (and the lack of a home) are a common element in Austen’s novels. In that respect, the visitor of this historic house might be seeking, not only to be in contact with the collection, but to be part of that feeling of what ‘home’ may have represented for Jane, who, almost at the end of her short life, had for the first time a permanent place; as did her fictional heroines, she had to constantly move from one house to another, and to be dependent on relations, but in this cottage, she might have found home.
Those pilgrims can visit the house today, where Jane passed her last years, the one that was home to her; they visit the site to sit where she sat, to breathe the air she breathed, to touch the mahogany desk she touched (if touching was allowed). To feel they absorb with their eyes and senses the same landscape she saw through the same sash window. They (we!) cling to any little piece of her material world. One might want to believe that those objects (let it be house, garden, chair or quilt) are a bit of her soul and her ghost, objects that take the observer to her, or so some devotees might feel. It is a very intimate and precious experience with the object, with the collection, within Jane’s home.
Further reading (super tiny selection):
- Hill C, Hill E., 1923, 2018. Jane Austen – Her Homes & Her Friends. Dover Publications, Inc.
- Hugues-Hallet P., 2019. The illustrated letters of Jane Austen. Batsford.
- Johnson C., 2012. Jane Austen’s cults and cultures. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago & London.
- Worsley, L. 2017. Jane Austen at Home – A Biography. Hodder.
- And visit! https://janeaustens.house/