Posted by: John Looker | 4 April, 2014

In Jane Austen’s House

++
In Jane Austen’s House

This was her writing table, this her chair
(‘Please Do Not Sit’); two bijou items placed
here by the window where the light fell square
on her page from the horse-drawn world she faced.
In a cramped corner the public (that’s me
and you) peer through glass at her neat handwriting;
or we squeeze into the bedroom which she
and her sister shared – until she was dying.
We visitors are whispering, withdrawing
from each other. We feel too tall, too loud,
navigating all this china, imploring
children to be careful. We’re quite a crowd.
++We open a door (she would have opened it too,
++her skirts brushing the frame) and we pass through.
++
++
© John Stevens 2014
++
My wife and I visited Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, Hampshire, three months ago. There are many interesting photos of the house, inside and out, on their website at:

http://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/about/house_tour.htm

Other websites that I have found interesting are:

The Jane Austen Society (UK) (full of articles, info and more photos):

http://www.janeaustensoci.freeuk.com

The Jane Austen Society of North America (I liked the maps of the novels that their site provides):

http://www.jasna.org

The Jane Austen Society of Australia (I loved their articles, and especially an imagined letter from Miss Bates to Emma during a visit to Sydney Town in 1815):

http://jasa.com.au

And the society in the Netherlands (where they know how to enjoy the Regency period lifestyle):

http://www.janeaustensociety.nl

 

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Responses

  1. We open a door and we pass through (and we hear her skirt brushing the frame). There is a ghost-like stillness and presence in this poem, and the strangeness of walking “through”, and I so like that you chose the word “through” and not “by”. I will check out the website!

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    • Hello Anna. I’m pleased that you felt there was a ‘ghost-like stillness and presence’ in the poem. That’s very rewarding.

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  2. Lovely! There is something exciting in walking around a famous person’s belongings, your poem reminded me of a visit to the house now museum where Charles Dickens was born (in Portsmouth) .

    I didn’t know we had that society here! 🙂

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    • Thank you Ina. I hoped the Dutch society’s link might catch your attention!

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  3. How I loved imagining that writing table, light on the page, and the window with the horse-drawn world you conjured for us so sensitively and beautifully. Then, as your poem progresses, you turn nicely and contrast this with a sense of being an intruder too tall, too loud….only to bring it all together again in the doorway—she in her long skirts brushing the frame, going through with you, “the crowd.”
    The sonnet is masterfully executed and seems so appropriate here. You’ve made the meter very supple and the rhyme non-intrusive–possibly because you’ve introduced feminine endings to some of the lines.

    My own voyeuristic tendencies send me occasionally to visit this kind of museum/home and recently toured the former family home of Sarah Orne Jewett,(1849-1909…American novelist, poet, famous for “The Country of the Pointed Firs”)
    in South Berwick, Maine.
    I have been pleasantly sidetracked by the links to other Austen-related websites you provided here. But having seen photos now, I’m disappointed in the writing table….it’s way too small!

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    • I’m delighted that you liked it Cynthia and thank you for your generous remarks. You are right that Jane Austen’s writing table was very small but so was the parlour itself, and although the house was quite a rambling one all the rooms seemed rather intimate. I didn’t know the name Sarah Orne Jewett; I must do some research.

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  4. Hi, John, I shared this on Facebook. I love the final line and its mysterious ambiguity. 🙂

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  5. Well, that is lovely compliment – thank you!

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  6. I enjoyed this a lot, John – you take the reader there with you so vividly. “Please Do Not Sit” in her chair… ah, what a temptation that’d be – to sit in the chair in which Jane Austen did her writing. Wonderful last lines.

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    • Thank you Betty. Yes, a temptation indeed – but they’d never let you back!

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  7. The sonnet is a good form to lend a little atmosphere for a poem about Jane Austin. Its controlled rambunctiousness sort of suits Jane, don’t you think? I wanted to correct ‘me and you’—though there is an obvious reason for putting the ‘me’ first. Rhymes are tricky to use and this poem handles it well. Letting the sentence blend past the end of the line (and feminine endings, as Cynthia so perceptively points out) mitigate what I am finally coming to realize is a powerful tool. Stopping the line and the sentence with a June/ moon rhyme is asking for trouble. Of course the end is the place to have it. ‘and we pass through’ is as nice conclusion, left open: the trip is over , you’ve seen all there is to see, hope you’ll come again. (You won’t, probably) One almost wishes that last ‘we’ said ‘she’ [and if I had written this poem, it probably would have]. It’s a nice conclusion to a modest holiday. Have you dusted off any Jane Austen to read since the visit?

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    • I agree about rhyme Jim: it’s a tricky thing isn’t it?
      Yes, I went back to read Emma (an old favourite) and my wife has given me a modern novel to read that retells Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants.

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  8. Along with the felicities of form, there is here a recognition of what I like to call apophatic form, and we feel the presence of this — call it Jane Austen– in the excessive nervousness and energy and self-conscious gaucherie of it all. Passing through is simply what we mortals do, momentary gùests of the august and most humble dead.

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    • I’ve been reading your observations on your own blog, Tom, with interest and I believe I see what you mean. The form of a poem is fundamental to the writing and reading of it, and I am very pleased if you have found that the form here has contributed in the way you describe. Thank you. I like your last sentence above.

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  9. This is a lovely comparison of the uninvited guests with details of her space. An apology of sorts. Ethel

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    • Hello Ethel – how nice to see you here! – and thank you. Yes, “an apology of sorts”.

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  10. A Shakespearean sonnet, John! You have no idea how good you are at the traditional forms. I remember first reading your poetry (years ago now I suppose) and how excited I was to see how good you were at handling the traditional forms. When you first put your sestina on your blog I was simply blown away. I had always thought a sestina was just too difficult to do. When Nick Moore than did his in response to your magnificent rumination on time, you sent me on a journey that has led to at attempt to do more and more difficult forms.
    This sonnet about a visit to Jane Austen’s house is haunting: The visitors who whisper even though they are the only ones around, the ghost of Jane Austen and her sister in the window, and, then, the bedroom. Great poetry finds the telling detail, and then that detail explodes into metaphor and/or symbol, giving the poem more meaning that the words read simply convey, often conveying two or more meanings at once.
    The major metaphors here are found in the window:
    “…two bijou items placed
    here by the window where the light fell square
    on her page from the horse-drawn world she faced.”
    which exists in two places at once: The place where the bijou items are placed and the horse-drawn world that the reader understands is in the distance past.
    Then the bedroom:
    “we squeeze into the bedroom which she
    and her sister shared – until she was dying.”
    The detail of the bedroom which she and her sister shared, denoting almost a different world from today, and then the idea that she left it only to die, leaving it to strangers in a distant time to walk through and stare at, whispering. The bedroom, because of the idea that it was shared until she was dying, becomes almost a sacred space, a reminder of mortality for the rude strangers passing through.
    This intimacy of the bedroom explodes into awkwardness, a feeling of invasion, of smallness in the visitors:
    “We visitors are whispering, withdrawing
    from each other. We feel too tall, too loud,
    navigating all this china, imploring
    children to be careful.”
    This, in turn, reflects on a contemporary world where we are all too tall, too loud, navigating through the china of the past, imploring our children to be careful so that they don’t break the china that ties us to that past. This is the reason for the visit, for touching Jane Austen’s world as I read the poem, this comparison between today’s people who are too tall, too loud, walking through the past while threatening, just by their presence, the intimacy that was once Jane Austen’s world. We are quite a crowd.
    The couplet at the end is perfect:
    We open a door (she would have opened it too,
    her skirts brushing the frame) and we pass through.
    The door is a physical door, of course, but it is also a door to the past, her skirts would have brushed the frame, her physical being, the substance of the art she produced, but also, of course, a door that we pass through to our futures which are, of course, as intimate as the bedroom that Jane Austen shared with her sister until “she was dying.”
    I’m pretty sure the old forms bring out the best writing I have in me. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate free verse and the sound and imagistic tradition in free verse. I love when a good poem is a good poem irrespective of form, but this sonnet is as good as poetry gets, John, swimming with meanings.

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  11. I am honoured, Thomas, by your careful reading and by your detailed observations. Thank you. You seem to have drawn so much from the poem -most of the thoughts and feelings that I found in it myself, and some more besides. That means a lot to me.
    The forms of poetry interest me greatly, as they do you, free verse included along with the traditional models. The important decision is finding the form that suits the purpose, I suppose; alternatively it’s letting the form generate the purpose. As you know, I’m a constant reader of the poems that you and Ethel post on your family blog – not to mention the photos and artwork that you all post there (you are a multi-talented family!).

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  12. what a wonderful way to mark what must have been an exciting visit; love that you didn’t shirk away from including the feeling of being intruders in such a space 🙂 and thanks for the links!

    Like

    • Thank you Sarah. I’m glad you found the links interesting too.

      Like

  13. Love this. She would have adored it too. 🙂

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