Undiscovered South of England: Stories from the 2017 Best Loved Hotels directory

To celebrate the launch of the 2017 Best Loved Hotel & Travel Guide, we are pleased to bring you a series of stories on Undiscovered Britain by leading travel writers.

The Finest Chapter

“It is hard to write with a quill pen.” I scratch the sentence onto a piece of paper with the feather’s sharp nib. But making the words flow proves tricky and I’m compelled to broaden my strokes to keep them legible, returning to plunge the quill into the inkwell at almost every word.

I am visiting Jane Austen’s House Museum in the Hampshire village of Chawton, a comfortable Georgian cottage bounded by gentle lawns and flower-filled borders where Jane Austen, her mother and her sister Cassandra made their home in 1809. Here she penned some of the greatest novels in the English language during the eight short years before her untimely death on 18 July 1817 at the age of 42.

It’s hard to believe that such a primitive writing tool could create the neat italic script of Austen’s hand, an example of which is preserved under glass here. The verse letter to her brother Francis, after the birth of his first son, is laid out in meticulously straight lines. Yet the jaunty flourish of the capital letters reveals the playful spirit that so often shines through her work.

The house, a museum since 1949, has several rooms to explore, which have been designed to reflect their possible use during Austen’s lifetime and filled with interesting pieces typical of the day, some once owned by the family. (Special exhibits will be unveiled in 2017 for the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death.)

In the Drawing Room stands an 1810 Clementi piano of the kind Austen would have practised on each morning. In the author’s bedroom is a replica of her tent bed. Smaller items are just as diverting: bonnets, shawls and satin slippers; a tea set and dinner service; jelly moulds and berry spoons; an ivory ball-and-cup toy (of which Austen was said to be an expert) and dainty dolls; needlework tapestries and a patchwork quilt (made by the three women); a turquoise ring and a topaz cross. Hanging on the wall on the first-floor landing is one of the most poignant exhibits, a photo of a letter written by Cassandra to her niece, Fanny Knight, on 20 July 2017 describing Austen’s last days.

But the main attraction is the 12-sided walnut writing table by the window in The Dining Parlour, on which Austen wrote her tales of 19th-century society. Here she revised the manuscripts for Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, created the stories Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Emma, and began work on her last, unfinished, novel Sanditon. The final chapter of Jane Austen’s life left us with a rich literary legacy.

Kate Simon is a travel writer and the former Travel Editor of The Independent on Sunday.

For a selection of hotels in the South of England, including the latest special offers, visit Best Loved Hotels in the South of England.

The Facts

Jane Austen’s House Museum