It’s a quarter past six on Sunday morning and I’m sitting up in my bed at the halls. In a while I’ll get up and perform a series of complicated manouevres to find the wireless network, get breakfast, put my laundry into a washing machine (I’m going to wash my clothes with soap flakes shaved off my bathroom soap using the edge of my drivers’ licence, do you think that will be alright?), put it into a dryer, clean my teeth, pack my bag and get it down the seven hundred stairs. And then I’ll wait around until Dorian gets here from London, in a car, hooray! No more public transport! (Which is actually incredibly excellent here, but I’m sick of it.)
Did I say this already? The conference was at Chawton House Library and while the conference bit was good in all sorts of ways, the location was definitely something out of the ordinary, both because of the present beauty of the place and its past, for which I can’t seem to summon up an adequate comment.
It’s the manor house – built in the 13th century (?) but with plenty of additions and alterations since) owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight (he was adopted by a rich cousin when he was a kid), and he didn’t live there permanently. I don’t seem to have taken any pictures of the inside of the house, which is not inhumanly big (the room called the Great Hall is about the size of our rumpus room) but what it irresistibly reminded me of is the house in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe – there’s that exact magical quality of corridors and staircases that wind and turn and lead you to rooms you weren’t expecting and which don’t seem to relate spatially to the other rooms you were in before. It’s been very simply renovated – the floors are mainly bare oak boards or stone flags, the fireplaces are stone as are the window frames, walls are dark oak panelling to just above head height and the plaster is off white. At different times in the nineteenth and twentieth century the plaster walls were decorated variously with red and gold Spanish leather, with green William Morris wallpaper, with trompe murals, and with bright pink paint. I’d have liked to see it when it was a lived-in house. But by all accounts it was on the point of falling over before it entered the current phase of its existence.
It’s just as nice outside. On either side of the gravel drive up to the house are paddocks full of sheep, edged with big oaks, limes, yews and damson hedges.
There’s a converted stables building on the left and a thirteenth century church on the right.
Behind the house is an Elizabethan terrace and herb garden, a group of outbuildings, another big rolling lawn, then right up the back is a fantastic walled kitchen garden (again, very C.S. Lewis with the flint walls and iron gates) and a Wilderness.
Jane Austen’s own house is ten minutes’ walk away in the village itself (which is like everything else around here – so strictly regulated that there are no signs, no big developments, no shops really, nothing newer or flashier than about 1800. Even the private houses either are or look about four hundred years old. It’s weird glancing at the little leadlight windows of a thatched cottage and seeing a huge plasma screen telly inside. The house itself is a bit underwhelming – so museumy that there is not really any sense of it having been where the Austen women lived or Austen wrote. I saw the alleged table, the patchwork quilt, the bit of George Austen’s hair etc – boring. (Well, actually the quilt was pretty nice, much better than it looks in pictures.)
Well I have lots to say about the conference itself but I had better get on with soap-flake-shaving etc now.