An Occasional Series feat. the Misses Austen, their dearest mother,
their newfound Chawton friends and neighbours,
the Rev. Claypole, and a donkey called Gerald.
Outside Chawton, 1809
The rhythm of the road has us all half-asleep. We are so used now to the noise of the wheels moving over stones, as some are displaced, others compacted, together with the whisper of the wind as the carriage cuts a path through it, and the constant mutterings of the coachman to his horses. They no longer penetrate our consciousness. It is like being a house where music is being played two floors above—the same, soft, distant song, over and over. The sounds of travel have become a lullaby. Our heads droop and bob in time to it and we have been silent for the past hour.
We began our journey in lively spirits, and though we are now dull and dusty, we are never miserable. There can be no room for unhappiness when we are faced with the promise of a new home, a permanent place to settle in and call our own. Indeed, the idea of it has given us new life. We have chattered and laughed, and at times been almost giddy with excitement. Though I am now nearer forty than thirty, I have often felt like a girl again, and in my sister Jane’s eyes I have occasionally seen a flame appear—a light that was once always present but has gone out in recent years. I feared it had been extinguished forever, but now it flickers, battles against her disappointments, and shows promise of burning brightly again one day.
During our journey we have planned our future felicity. I have made lists of what needs to be done, of what might need to be purchased, and what we already have. Our mother has looked on, over her book, smiling with maternal pride. She who has taught her daughters how to manage a home can now rest easy in her chair, while we fuss and care for her and put the skills she has given us to the test.
A deep rut in the road jolts the carriage. It throws us about and Jane comes alert, gripping the handle beside her. So startled is she that I think she must have been properly asleep, firmly ensconced in her dreams. She is disorientated for a few moments and blinks several times, trying to regain the present.
“It cannot be much further,” I tell her. “I begin to recognise some of the countryside.”
Jane nods. “I am glad. Though it is not possible for a village to move itself, it seems as if the more we want to be there, the further away it gets.”
“The first thing we must do is give you a corner of your own, where you may write again. I shall seek out a suitable table and chair, in the quietest part of the house.”
Jane’s nose wrinkles, she shakes her head. “Do not trouble yourself, dear Cassandra. I shall have plenty enough to do without wasting hours on foolish scribblings that no one sees fit for publication.”
“You must not give it up, not if it gives you pleasure.” I glance over at our mother, who woke briefly when the carriage jolted, but now dozes again. While she loves her second daughter dearly, she does not understand her passions. She would likely agree that Jane’s writing should be given up altogether. The manuscripts lie in a trunk on a cart, which along with the rest of our possessions, trundles slowly along the road behind us. They have lain untouched for many a month now. I wish to encourage her back to it. I believe it will improve Jane’s spirits. Yet our mother sees writing as an unseemly way for a gentleman’s daughter to pass her time. She is always a little embarrassed when our brother Henry visits. He is Jane’s most vehement supporter, and after reading her latest revisions and chapters, becomes wildly enthusiastic about publishers, volumes, printers, and that most vulgar of all subjects, money.
That which governs our daily lives, that which dictates what a lady might wear, what dinner she shall have, how far she may travel, in what luxury she sleeps, and even whom she might marry, is not something she might actively seek through her labours. Her job is to look after money, or to spend it, but never to earn it.
Jane sighs. “Lately, writing does not give me pleasure, not as it used to. You are a terrible pest about it, Cassandra, and I appreciate the sentiment, but no amount of your persuasion is equal to my thorough disinclination to take to it again.”
“Maybe that will change at Chawton, and you will be very industrious and achieve great success.”
“This cottage bears the weight of such terrific hopes, Cass,” Jane smiles. “I hope it has strong foundations.”
We have been to Edward’s home before, the great house at Chawton, and both of us have walked into the village on several occasions, but we cannot, no matter how hard we try, remember Chawton Cottage. In his letters, Edward has tried to describe it to us, and even drawn us a sketch, but still cannot we cannot recall it. Yet when the carriage rounds a bend and slows, I catch sight of a red brick house, set prettily on a corner plot, and I know, with great certainty, that it is to be our new home. I am filled with joy to be proved correct when the carriage stops immediately outside and the driver shouts to let us know we have arrived.
Our mother, caught unawares, straightens her cap and hurries to don her bonnet. Jane, wearing a more sensible hat of soft cloth with a small brim, never removed hers, and so is the first to quit her seat when the step is put down and the door opened. “Oh, it is pretty, Cass,” she says to me, from over her shoulder, as she walks towards the garden. She goes through the low gate and stops by a lavender bush. She stoops, puts her nose almost wholly into it and takes a deep breath. I help our mother down. “Do you think we shall be happy here, Mother?” I ask.
“I am at an age where my happiness hangs upon trifles; on my mutton not being chewy, my fire being hot, and my pillow being soft, but yes, I expect to be content here.”
We follow Jane, who rather than going to the front door, has decided to explore the gardens. She examines the planting, running a hand over the taller flowers. Her head is cocked to one side. With a keen ear she listens to the bird calls and buzzing of the bees. Chawton appears to be filling her senses with its beauty, and when she returns to take our mother’s other arm, she already seems less pale. How is it so? It is possible this house has magical powers of reinvigoration?
We have been told that we will be met by a man called Joseph, a general servant in our brother’s employ, who will open the house up for us, but as we move around the gardens he is nowhere to be seen.
“Why is Edward not here to meet us himself?” our mother asks.
“Mamma, he has been very good to us. He sent his carriage to meet us for the last part of the journey. We cannot be too demanding. His time must be very taken up with running the estate,” I tell her.
“And his copious children,” Jane adds. “His poor wife ought to have had a better lock on her bedroom door.”
“Jane,” our mother gently admonishes, shaking her head. “You know nothing of such matters.”
“Good day, good day.” We all jump at the greeting and look up to see a stout, round-shouldered young man coming towards us. He somehow manages to talk, run and bow all at once, and is breathless by the time he reaches us. “Mrs Austen, Miss Cassandra Austen, and this lady, who I presume to be your venerable sister. Good day, good day. I saw your carriage stopping and saw it as my duty to welcome you.” He is sweating and heaving, and his clothes are crumpled, but I recognise him as the Reverend Claypole of St Nicholas Church. A living bestowed by Edward. He is some distant relations of the Knights and therefore a very distant relation of ours. “Oh, forgive me for speaking of it is a duty, that is most wrong, for it is no hardship. Indeed, it is a very great privilege, an honour, a great distinction to be the first to welcome you to your new abode. We are honoured by your presence, and grateful to have such distinguished personages as yourself in our humble village.”
I mumble an introduction for Jane’s benefit, remembering with some embarrassment the man’s effusiveness when Mamma and I met him on our last visit. It is Jane’s first encounter with him however, and I cannot tell whether she is offended at his sycophancy, or amused by his oddity. Her brow rises, as the clergyman bows over her hand three or four times.
“You will be assured of many visits, though none too soon. I am happy to report that things are done rightly in Chawton, most properly, and you will be allowed some grace. Three days is thought to be the correct amount of time before the ladies of the village will come to seek your acquaintance. They consider it dignified, though I have expressed a view that it ought to be four, they continue to abide by three.” He looks cross for a moment before smiling again, displaying a row of teeth that have yellowed prematurely. “Yes, they will allow you to settle first, but when they do come, I hope you will find them decent enough society, although of course you will be used to better. I am in no doubt that you are all blessed with that kindness, that particular kind of condescension, that will allow you to admit them into your company.”
Our mother blinks and I am lost for words. Because our brother has inherited the estate within which this little village resides, he seems to think we are very great ladies. How disappointed he will be when he discovers our ways and tastes are quite simple. “We shall be very glad to meet our neighbours, Mr Claypole,” I manage.
“You are so good, madam.”
“So we will not know the rest of the ladies in the village for three days, sir.” Jane says. “May I ask your advice on what I ought to do if I come across one of them by accident? Say I am at the butchers and our eyes meet over some ham, will I ignore them? Will I break some rule and be cast out from Chawton society if I give them my name, or ask them theirs?”
Mr Claypole does not catch Jane’s playful tone. He looks bemused by her teasing and begins to bluster, but is saved from having to provide a proper answer by Edward’s servant coming across the lawn to find us. Joseph limps heavily. There are deep lines on his forehead that might have been put there by constant pain, but he is cheerful nonetheless, and greets us with smiles and apologies. “I ought to have rightly been here, as I were instructed by the master, to meet ye. I was out looking for Gerald. Will I open the house up for thee?”
“Thank you, Joseph,” Jane replies. “We are keen to see inside and hope it is not in too much need of repair.”
“Oh no, Miss,” Joseph says. “The last tenant was the bailiff, and though I fancy the decorating is to a single man’s taste, he kept it well. I daresay you will be wanting to make some changes, but ’tis comfortable as it is.”
He unlocks the back door and we all gasp in surprise at the sight before us. Filling the doorframe is a donkey, though we have not come face-to-face with him. What we have is a view of his rear end and his scruffy tail. He gives off a loud ‘eeyore’ and we gasp again. Our mother clings to my arm.
“Gerald,” shouts Joseph. “You are the devil himself. How did ye get in there? My apologies, Mrs Austen, he must have followed me in, and ‘appens I’ve come out a different door, and then shut him in again when I’ve locked up. Don’t you worry though, I’ll soon have him out.”
Mr Claypole looks as if his dignity has been compromised by the scene. The strange debacle, the ludicrous sight of Joseph trying to push and cajole Gerald the donkey back out through the door, prompts his hasty goodbyes. Rather than his help he gives us his best wishes, and scurries away.
“Well,” says Jane, watching the clergyman go. “We are rid of one ass, but what are we to do about the other?”
Our mother admonishes Jane again, and I have to swallow the laugh that rises up inside me. I put my free hand over my mouth to hide my smile.
“Trouble is. Gerald don’t like walking backwards,” Joseph says.
Jane steps forward with a determined set about her shoulders. I imagine that if she were a man she would be taking off her coat and rolling up her sleeves. “He shall have to be moved somehow, Joseph. This is a house for ladies. Unless Gerald can sew, play the pianoforte, speak French, or paint watercolours, he is not fit for the parlour. Might you have some hay he can be tempted out with?”
Joseph directs Jane to a barn at the back of the gardens and she returns with a handful of hay. The scullery door is opened for her from inside by Joseph, and with a slap on his back and a command of ‘walk on’, the donkey is persuaded to move out of the hall, following the food that Jane holds aloft for him. Thankfully, though not after he has dislodged some pots and pans from the shelves, he is through the scullery and back outdoors again.
Jane—to my surprise, because I have never thought her particularly fond of animals—gives him an affectionate pat. “Does he live in the barn here, Joseph?”
“Aye Miss, comes with the house. You can hitch him up to the donkey carriage and he’ll take you anywhere you like.”
“Will he indeed? I am not sure, he looks far too stubborn to take anyone other than places he would like to go.” She pats him again, and then there is quiet, while we all wonder at the strangeness of finding a donkey in the house. The calm is soon broken, however, by the arrival of the cart with bears our belongings and our maid. Now there is furniture to be brought in, trunks to be unpacked, belongings and sentimental treasures to find a place for. There is work to be done.
The ladies of the village do begin to visit, just as Mr Claypole promised, after three polite days have elapsed. They bring with them only daughters, no husbands or sons. “Where do they hide them?” Jane whispers when she helps me with the tea tray. “Where are all the men?”
We have Miss Smythe and Mrs Brown with us presently. Miss Smythe is a spinster, while Mrs Brown has two daughters, who sit a little behind her. The elder of the two is handsome and comely, and wears a placid smile. The younger girl smiles too, but it seems forced, less genuine. She seems bored by the visit. I believe one of the Miss Brown’s is a Mary, and the other is perhaps a Catherine, but I cannot remember which is which. We have met so many Marys and Catherines today that they begin to muddle me. The younger Miss Brown is pretty, but has not her sister’s classical features. She has an angular face, and large brown eyes, which dart quickly about the room, examining everything. While I attend to the older ladies, I cannot help but watch her from the corner of my eye. There is something compelling about her countenance which makes it difficult not to look her way. Though Jane seems to be managing it and sews quietly in a corner.
As our mother answers a question of Miss Smythe’s, I see the younger daughter lean towards Jane.
“This house used to be an inn. Did you know there were two murders here before?”
Jane is sometimes so deep in thought that it takes her a while to respond, to even realise she is being addressed. I wonder now if she even knows what Miss Brown has said, because she merely nods, before returning to her work.
Miss Brown immediately dismisses Jane as a possible conversation partner. I am sure that if she was certain she would not get caught, she would roll her eyes at us all. I can tell she despairs at the tediousness of our conversation. If only she knew, the silly girl. She is far too quick to conclude that Jane is dull and not worth her notice, and so she will never know how clever my sister is, how astute she is about people, and what beautiful pictures she can paint with her words.
“Have you brought your cook with you, Mrs Austen?” Mrs Brown asks.
“No, I actively seek one. Edward has been kind enough to have us to dinner every night up at the great house. He insists we continue to go there until I find someone suitable.”
“Oh, that is very fine. What a wonderful thing to have such a son. What a blessing. I have only daughters.” Mrs Brown sighs.
“My daughters are a tremendous blessing too,” our mother says, with a fond glance at Jane and I. “I am a fortunate mother, with many loving children.”
“I hope when you find your cook, she can make a good apple pie, Mrs Austen,” Miss Smythe says. “I think good apple pies are central to domestic happiness.”
This catches Jane’s attention and she smiles at the old lady. “I could not agree more, and while it has been most agreeable to dine with my brother, there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”
“Have you happened to meet Mr Eckley when you have gone to dinner at the great house, Mrs Austen?” Mrs Brown asks. “He is a great friend of your son’s, though he lives in the next county. We met him when Mr Austen threw his ball in the summer. A most esteemed gentleman, very noble. We have high hopes of meeting him again.”
Mrs Brown looks meaningfully at her elder daughter. I suspect she hopes for a match with Mr Eckley. The elder Miss Brown blushes furiously. The younger Miss Brown arches her brow.
“We do not know the gentleman, but look forward to making his acquaintance,” I say blandly.
“You will miss nothing if you do not meet him, Miss Austen. He might be a good friend to your brother and I suppose you must like him for that, but I must warn you he is taciturn and I do not consider him gentlemanlike at all. He stood and walked about the whole evening, disapproving of everything he saw. He would not dance with anyone but your brother’s wife and his own sisters. I suppose he found all the others ladies beneath him.”
“Harriet,” Mrs Brown cries, which surprises me, as I had assigned her a myriad of other names and been wrong about each and every one of them. The younger Miss Brown is a Harriet! “Forgive her, Mrs Austen. She is indulged by my husband. He thinks her witty and so allows her to run on so.”
“Well I am sorry, but I do not like Mr Eckley,” Harriet says firmly. “I am sure the Miss Austen’s will have an opportunity to make their own minds up about him and not be swayed by my opinion, but he is a subject on which I cannot remain silent. That man’s proudness disgusts me to such an extent that I cannot hold my tongue.”
Her mother looks ashamed of the girl’s temper and impertinence and the visit ends soon after. I go out to wave them off and walk around to the side of the house for a breath of fresh air. Though I find myself not alone in my wish for a moment’s solitude. Jane is in the garden, sat on the grass, looking thoughtful and chewing on her bottom lip.
“Are there more? Do they still come? Surely we must have met all the ladies of Chawton now?” she says as I draw near.
“If there are any more, I will say you are out. Stay here, escape for a while.”
“Thank you, I am exceedingly grateful, but will not desert you.” There is a very small, shallow stream running through the garden. Jane leans over and dips her hand into it. “I adore this garden. It feels as if this was always meant to be our home. Our coming here was inevitable, we have been displaced and diverted, but like the water that knows it must go towards the river, we have found our way here.”
“I hope you will think of writing again, Jane. Though I suppose a village as small as Chawton might offer little inspiration.”
Jane gets to her feet and we begin to walk back across the grass, towards the kitchen door. “Inspiration comes from all quarters, though I cannot think of writing at the moment. May I ask what you make of Miss Harriet Brown?”
“She behaved dreadfully.”
“She is certainly very opinionated, though I rather admired her boldness. Her temper needs checking but she can be no more than nineteen. None of us can claim to have been completely finished at such a tender age. She has much to learn. It will be interesting to see the scales fall from her eyes.”
“How vehement she is in her dislike of Mr Eckerly.”
“Yes, and for a hatred as profound as hers there can only be one explanation.” Jane smiles. “I can only conclude that she is madly in love with him.”
I tell Jane I think she is wrong, and she insists she is right, and so our debate continues as we go back into the house, which smells of fresh bread, of lavender, and beeswax, and of everything that is good and gives us joy.
There is one matter upon which I will never disagree with my beloved sister. She is perfectly correct when she says that there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.