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Inside the Jane Austen’s House Museum

An interview between Dr Gillian Dow and Dr Mary Guyatt, former director of the Jane Austen House Museum.
GILLIAN DOW: Welcome to the Jane Austen House Museum. It’s a great pleasure to introduce you to its curator, Dr. Mary Guyatt. We’re here in the drawing room in what was Austen’s home in the village of Chawton from 1809 until shortly before her death in 1817. So thank you so much, Mary, for having us along today to talk to you about what some people must think is the best job in the world, which is curating this very special place in relation to Jane Austen’s life and her works. I wonder if you can just tell us a little bit about some of the challenges and some of the rewards of your position.
MARY GUYATT: Being a museum curator, it’s a very varied role because we run here as a charity, as a visitor attraction, as a seat of learning, and as a very public venue.
GILLIAN DOW: What do you think special about authors’ houses, authors’ homes?
MARY GUYATT: I think that there’s clearly a relationship between authors, and the lives that they lead, and the work that they were inspired to write. So that people that are looking for an understanding of the person behind the words of the novels that they love dearly. I think in Austen’s case, it’s so much an appreciation of her social status that one understands here how she understood what life was like for different types of people.
GILLIAN DOW: So one of the things I wanted to ask you is when you’re curating this space, one of the challenges I imagine is that in terms of authentic furniture that the Austen families would have known, there isn’t that much. This house went under many changes and transformations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. So how do you get the feel authentic?
MARY GUYATT: I think that that’s one of our challenges, and something that I really enjoy. We have a few pieces of furniture– for instance, the bureau behind you and the two chairs of this design that came from Jane’s family’s home in Steventon. Other pieces have been donated to us, borrowed from other museums. If we haven’t got access to the Austens’ family furniture, then to acquire items that feel right and are of the right period, and of course, of the right status, as well.
GILLIAN DOW: Absolutely. And in terms of an acquisitions policy, then, of course you will always prioritise anything that has a direct link to the family. But are you looking to a local manufacturer?
MARY GUYATT: We are. We recently acquired a clock. And we set about researching what kind of a clock we should go for. And at the same time, learned that the Austens bought from an Alton local town clockmaker by the name of Snelling. So we knew at that moment that it was a Snelling clock that we would require. So yes.
GILLIAN DOW: So I suppose there’s a lot of serendipity in those acquisitions. You know, is the right thing on the market? And of course, crucially, can you afford it? In terms of curating this space, again, I mean, I’m looking here, it’s an absolutely marvellous wallpaper which I know is new. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
MARY GUYATT: Yes. Again, this is something that we’ve known about as an organisation from the beginning. Behind the bureau– and you see it from outside– is a bricked up window. And in renovating the house as a museum in the ’40s, they discovered on the very first layer of plaster over the brick were fragments of wallpaper. And we had those and enjoyed them all that time. And we were able to get the resources together and find a very specialist wallpaper manufacturer who took samples, orientated them, studied them, and came up with this replica.
GILLIAN DOW: And it was interesting just to go back to this question of what a busy place the village of Chawton was in Jane Austen’s own life here in the village. Because I think now, one– it can be misleading. You come to quite a quiet village. And of course, she wrote here. We know that a great part of her writing life– three novels– fully drafted here, started and completed here. And another three revised for publication. How do you go about creating a sense of this as a place where someone wrote and thought?
MARY GUYATT: Well, I think as a curator, you are constantly thinking about what visitors bring with them already. Many of them will know those novels. They will carry the phrases in their minds, others won’t. So it’s partly about– it’s judging that and saying enough to capture the meaning of those books for those that know them so well and love them, and inspiring others to pick up a book on the way out. I think some very important areas in the museum here are the writing desk. We have Jane’s desk, and that’s on display. And it’s– if you talked about pilgrimage, that is probably the pinnacle for many people.
GILLIAN DOW: You’ve got some other fascinating relics on the table in front of us here, and I wonder if you could tell us a bit about them.
MARY GUYATT: So I brought out a few items that really talk about Jane’s life and at different moments in the museum’s history have represented decisions that the museum has made about what it collects and how.
GILLIAN DOW: So the first one, then, in terms of the museum’s history is this rather wonderful piece here.
MARY GUYATT: Yes, hair. Well, I think you’ll know that in Jane’s time, collecting hair, exchanging pieces of hair within jewellery and in letters, was a common practise. And in fact, when she died, her sister Cassandra wrote to family members asking them how they would like her hair sent to them, how they would like it mounted. And so there will be a few pieces of hair still in evidence. And this is one of the earliest items that the museum acquired. So moving on then, I suppose, to this second object here, which this ring is one of the few items of jewellery associated with Jane. And it has a terribly good provenance.
We had a number of letters that marked the giving of this object from Cassandra Austen– Jane’s sister– on to other family members and down the female line. And each note would say, look after this ring and look after this note, the previous note. There was a chain. And this came up at auction in 2012. The museum absolutely went for it. And felt that we could bring it home to Chawton, and that’s how we see these acquisitions that we’re making. I had just joined the museum. I had no idea how quickly it would move. It took about two weeks. So the money to be raised, for all the money necessary. And then we had it back here within a month.
GILLIAN DOW: No, it’s an amazing story, and I think a testament to the great love that many generous donors have for Jane Austen and for her place, her home in Britain. Because of course, she’s a global literary celebrity. But there is a sense that she needs to be situated in one place, and that here makes sense.
MARY GUYATT: Yes, absolutely. And I think that one would be going to trust some foundations that give grants, not in this instance. It was all individuals. And from around the world.
GILLIAN DOW: And we should say, many generous American donors. It wasn’t a British– it wasn’t a purely British campaign. Absolutely fascinating. And then the final object here.
MARY GUYATT: Yes, I brought that along really to think about the provenance and that question of personal manuscripts are an area that we’re very actively collecting and how we began our collection in the 1940s. And this was something we acquired in 2013– very shortly after the ring, in fact. And it’s what’s known in the world of Austen as the sermons grab. It was– this is one of several pieces of sermons that Jane wrote for her brother, wrote out for him. It’s difficult to say whether she composed them or whether she was simply transcribing them.
And in the 1870s when her nephew had written his memoir of his aunt, and the cult of Austen was beginning, people were writing to him from around the country having read the biography asking for a memento. And he chopped up these sermons, or written out sermons, and sent them. And here’s one that we bought at auction. And it would be wonderful– we do know where a few of them are. And one day we would–
GILLIAN DOW: Patch work them together.
MARY GUYATT: You could do it digitally, you could do it physically.
GILLIAN DOW: It’s extraordinary to think about, really, isn’t it that that would be a request that would be met favourably. But of course, the Victorians were very, very interested in that sort of– the relic in the memento. And I know in the case of Charlotte Bronte, similar things were done. You know, scraps of her letters cut up– also dress fabric– and sent off to collectors. Bits of Charlotte Bronte’s dress seem to be found in all kinds of places. So there are similarities there, too. Well, there’s a great deal more we could say, I know. But I just want to thank you for letting us see some of these treasures.
I know for many people watching this video, they will have been to the Austen House Museum, but a great many will not have been. So this will give them a flavour of what awaits them when they do make that trip. Thank you so much, Mary, for a fascinating insight into your work here.
MARY GUYATT: Thank you, Gillian.

In this video, Gillian takes you inside the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton to talk with Dr Mary Guyatt, the curator.

They discuss the challenges and joys of curating an effective museum space and show you some of the museum’s most celebrated artefacts.

What can we learn from looking at the house, living space and artefacts related to an author? Does it assist in our understanding of that author and their works?

Post your comments below.

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