[T]hey were wise enough to be contented with the house as it was; and each of them was busy in arranging their particular concerns and endeavoring, by placing around them their books and other possessions, to form themselves a home.
- Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Back in the late 19th century, a man named Octo owned a tuck shop (sweets shop) in the city of Winchester. One day, he stopped a woman in the street named Mrs. Dick and said, “Excuse me. Could you please put a sign on my building that says Jane Austen died here?”
“Why do you want me to do that, Octo?” asked Mrs. Dick.
“Well, the Americans come in, and they want to know did Jane Austen die here, and they take up my time, and they don’t buy anything!”
So, in due course, the first sign was placed on the house at 8 College Street that said Jane Austen died there in 1817.
Several months later, Octo saw Mrs. Dick again. “Please, could you take down that sign?” he pleaded.
“Well, the English people see it, and they come in, and they want to know, Who is Jane Austen?”
I’m happy to report that the English people now do know who Jane Austen is, as I’m sure many of them did back then. That’s mainly due to the enduring quality of Austen’s writing. But it’s also due to the efforts of the Jane Austen Society and the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, two groups that formed back in the 1940s for the purpose of buying and preserving Chawton Cottage, Jane’s home during the last eight years of her life.
Interest in the society spread around the world, and JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) was formed in 1977. JASNA selected me as their first International Visitor, sending me to Chawton to work for two months in the summer of 2005. The purpose of the International Visitor Program is to foster greater communication between the Jane Austen Society and JASNA.
I would be living in Winchester for the summer, the city where Jane had been sent for treatment when she had become ill. The treatment failed, and, as Octo was to learn, Jane died in Winchester and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
On a previous visit to England, I’d visited Jane’s grave in the cathedral and spent an afternoon at Chawton Cottage. But now I would be an insider, working for the Jane Austen Society three days a week. One day would be spent at the Chawton House Library, a recently opened library devoted to early women’s literature. Another day, I would work on transcribing the early minutes of the Jane Austen Society. The Society members wanted to get these handwritten minutes onto a computer disk so the records would be safely preserved for the future.
Because I was a gardener by profession, it was decided that I would work one day a week with the gardener at Chawton Cottage. This was the assignment that most excited me. Before I’d left home, I’d told anyone who would listen, “I’m going to work in Jane Austen’s garden!”
As I took the bus from Winchester to the village of Chawton, I felt nervous but excited. I’d be walking in the same places where Jane had walked. I’d be working to make her garden a place that visitors would enjoy. In my tote bag was a pair of brand-new gardening gloves, ready for weeding or pruning or whatever was required.
Celia Simpson, Chawton’s gardener, welcomed me at the garden gate and took me on a tour of the garden. Underneath Celia’s polite manner, I sensed I was being tested. Was I knowledgeable enough to work in Jane’s garden?
“Do you know what this plant is?” Celia asked several times during the tour. Luckily, I was able to identify most of the plants. Whenever I couldn’t identify something, I’d excuse my lack of knowledge by saying, “Oh, we don’t grow that in Pennsylvania. It’s too cold.” Luckily, I didn’t have to fall back on this excuse too often.
Celia explained that not much was known about the specific plants or layout of the garden during Austen’s time at Chawton, other than from a few references in her letters and in the memoirs of people who visited the Austens. The garden layout that visitors see today was commissioned by the Jane Austen Society back in 1959. It has several elements of typical cottage gardens: hedges as walls, a cutting garden that was out of sight of the general public, colorful herbaceous borders, and several wooden benches to provide comfortable seating areas.
When she first started working at Chawton, Celia had decided that she would grow only plants that would have been known in Austen’s day, creating a garden that would be authentic to the early 19th century. This created one problem for me: digging out dandelions. Or, rather, not digging out dandelions. Because dandelions might have been used in Austen’s time for food or medicinal purposes, the dandelions were left to go their merry way. As a professional gardener, I would normally pull out any dandelion I saw without even thinking twice, so it was a real struggle to leave the dandelions intact. Occasionally, I would find a dandelion growing right up through another “good” plant and I would appeal to Celia. “It really has to go or it will choke out the good plant,” I’d argue.