Jane Austen's Bookshop – An Exhibition
Location: Chawton House Library, Alton, Hampshire
Event Date: June 2012
Review Date: 27th June 2012
Reviewed By: Judyta Frodyma, University of Oxford
Review Citation: Judyta Frodyma, review of Jane Austen's Bookshop – An Exhibition
Date Accessed: 24th May 2013
A country manor is perhaps not the most obvious place to host an exhibition, even on Jane Austen. The Chawton House fell into the hands of the Austen family when their distant cousins, the Knights, adopted Jane's brother Edward as their heir, but its history goes as far back as to the New Stone Age, and it merited an entry in the Domesday book of 1086. As it stands today, it is a Library housing a unique collection of women's writing from 1600-1830.
It is difficult nowadays to imagine female authorship without at least a nod towards Jane Austen, but in actuality, her connection with the house, and in turn, the exhibition, was relatively minor. Her brother Edward would have leased the house out for financial reasons and the Austen siblings would have made use of it only occasionally – either during the summers when it was kept free or for dinner visits with the then-present occupiers. Her influence and connection was much more so one with the village of Chawton, where she lived with her mother and sister in a small cottage purchased for her by Edward, and with the local town of Winchester.
Thus, the exhibition is one that concerns itself not with the commonplace Austen of best-selling fame, but rather with the place of provincial print culture in a body of criticism that rarely considers it as anything more than secondary to, and dependant on London. What the exhibition highlights is the self-contained nature of the print culture in nearby Winchester and its network of communication circuits that was significant on its own intellectual, cultural, and financial terms. As Austen herself chose to publish in London, the exhibition highlights and explores what Austen would have herself read, using her connection as a stepping stone and taking as its starting point the bookshop based in College Street, Winchester, where the Austen family purchased their books – then run by a certain John Burdon, later sold to James Robins, and now the home of Wells Bookshop. The scholastic project that underpins the entire exhibition was the discovery, in the words of curator Dr Norbert Schürer, ‘that the bookshop had been sold in 1807 with a complete catalogue, giving us the name of every single book in the store.’ It is the connections of these two men – Burdon and Robbins – that play a pivotal role in the exhibition. Their own overlapping social and professional circles, as well as the fascinating stories behind them, tie the different exhibits together, bringing back to life the narratives of the local, provincial eighteenth-century book trade.
The exhibition takes place in three rooms of the recently restored Chawton House: the Oak Room, the Map Room, and the Great Gallery. Although the exhibits themselves are not numbered and there is a theoretical ambivalence to the order in which the content is viewed, there is a clearly thematic, if not chronological, organisation that helps structure the visitor's understanding of the intricacies of the book trade, ending with a print of Jane Austen's final poem in the Great Gallery.
Walking through the rooms, the visitor is almost instantly drawn by a laid table. In a slightly anachronistic but most welcoming part of the display, there is a table carefully arranged with drawing charcoals and quills to give the romantic semblance that the Austen sisters had just walked out of the room without even finishing their tea. One has even left her shawl (though curiously, it is sewn on to the chair...). Particularly captivating for a younger audience (Chawton receives many school groups and runs an excellently engaging programme – including Regency dancing in costume – for its younger visitors), this serves to contextualise and visualise the Austens' life.
Alongside this period-based recreation is also a display case of print-makers' tools (either originals from the Museum of Winchester or from a private bookbinder, who still makes books the old-fashioned way (http://www.timwiltshire.co.uk
)). Acknowledging the exhibition's younger visitors, the curators have included an enormous pair of board cutters as well as a number of bookbinding instruments. There is also great emphasis on the Winchester origins of all the aspects of print culture – from local authors to printers, and bookbinders’ materials, from paper purchased to the actual printing press used to print the Hampshire Chronicle. Thus, from quill to press to printed copy, the processes behind print culture are embedded into the exhibits themselves.
The next room focuses on the output and circulation of literature, looking at all sides of this print culture: the writers and authors, the readers, and the practical users. Printed works on display include novels, biographies, travel narratives (some embedded with local religious and ideological debate), sermons, poetry, playbills, and engravings, depicting how readers and writers from all across social scales, and indeed, from across the country, were connected through regional print. The rich and the poor, the Catholic and the Protestant, the male and the female all became a part of the same literate community. However, more quotidian pieces of ephemera also make their appearance, among them receipts from students at Winchester College filled in by hand but printed by Burdon (interestingly, one pupil had spent the greatest part of his termly allowance on stationery), a borrower's book from the College and the Cathedral, indicating each user's interests and reading needs, and an annual report from the county hospital.
A refreshing touch to the exhibit is provided by the editions of eighteenth-century books laid out on tables with descriptions asking the visitors to 'please do touch the books'. It makes for a welcome 'hands on' experience amongst the glass cases, but also demonstrates the fragility and aesthetic character of the books for those who do not experience them on a daily basis.
The focal point of Jane Austen's Bookshop – An Exhibition is indeed Jane Austen's bookshop, but from there the visitor is able to step onto the streets of Winchester with a greater understanding and experience of how regional print culture in the long eighteenth century would have looked. It is a very detail-based exhibition that follows the book trade through letters and purchases, retracing books' journeys. Yet what the exhibition accomplishes in a quieter way is to provide both an academic and lay audience with a snapshot of all the ways in which a reader may have been affected – directly or not – by the processes involved in the making of printed material. It explores further how these materials would have been shared and what the interests of the reading community said about their private and public lives, leaving the modern-day reader to consider his or her own reading practices. The attempt to give the visitor a true, historical sense of eighteenth-century engagement with the material is furthered by the exhibition's setting: indeed, Chawton House Library proves itself to be a thematically and aesthetically appropriate home. The exhibition, though small, provides the visitor with layers of depth and immersion into the fine details of the print world in Jane Austen's time, and makes for a wonderful Austen-esque day in the Hampshire countryside.
‘Jane Austen's Bookshop – An Exhibition’ is at Chawton House Library, Alton, Hampshire, from 19 June to 6 July 2012.