On our way down to the coast, we stop in at Jane Austen’s cottage in the village of Chawton in Hampshire. Two yew trees stand outside the visitors’ entrance to the house. The one pictured here is two hundred years old and would have been standing when Jane lived in the house with her mother and sister. Like the women in Sense and Sensibility, the Austen women were left penniless when Jane’s father died unexpectedly. They were given use of the cottage rent free by Jane’s brother who unexpectedly inherited the estate of which Chawton was a part. In an upstairs room, I stand by the small round table, no bigger than a pizza stone, on which Jane finished Sense and Pride and Prejudice. I marvel at how simple a writer’s life was in the early 19th century, but then I’ve never had to salt a pig—something Jane would have known how to do.
At Chawton we also learn of Jane’s naval connections; two of her brothers were admirals, a fact that inspired favourable depictions of naval officers in her novels and a love for the seaside town of Lyme Regis. I doubt the smell of fish and chips was quite as pungent along the Parade in Jane Austen’s day, but the view of the cliffs spreading eastward is still breathtaking, and the long stone pier they call The Cobb is just as it appears in Persuasion.
We also visit Thomas Hardy’s birthplace at the end of a track in a tiny hamlet outside of Dorchester. Hardy, who rose from a family of poor stone masons to become an architect before turning to literature, designed the front garden himself. In the tiny parlour, we’re invited by a National Trust animator to settle on the settle (a bench with a very high wooden back) and sit by the fire while she tells us the story of Hardy’s ancestors, his struggles with the class system in London, his retreat to Dorset, and his courtship of Emma, the Cornish rector’s daughter who became his first wife.