Louise West, new curator at the Jane Austen's House Museum

Having worked at Jane Austen's House Museum for nine years, Louise West was the obvious choice to become the new Curator. Indeed, it was Jane who bought her to Hampshire 30 years ago, as Sarah Peters discovered

Having worked at Jane Austen’s House Museum for nine years, Louise West was the obvious choice to become the new Curator. Indeed, it was Jane who bought her to Hampshire 30 years ago, as Sarah Peters discovered

Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, near Alton, is one of the most important literary sites in the county, arguably the country. For it is here in this modest, 17th century timber framed-cottage that Jane Austen spent the last years of her life and produced some of her best-loved novels.Louise West is the new Curator at the museum. Having been at the museum for nearly nine years, she is now looking forward to her new responsibilities and continuing the great work and education.The first 26 years of her life Jane lived just down the road in Steventon where her father was Vicar.  She was the seventh of eight children. On his retirement, the family moved briefly to Bath.  Louise explains why Chawton is so important: “It was in this house, in this village, that Jane changed the face of the English novel,” she explains. “It is Jane Austen’s true home, the place she loved most. We can see the rooms she actually lived in; her possessions arranged on her furniture and from the windows we see the views that she would have looked out onto. Chawton was the place she called home, but also from a literary point of view, it all happened here.”Austen showed her fondness of the cottage when she wrote to her brother: “It will all other houses beat.” Chawton was her home from 1809 until her death in 1817 and it was there she published her most famous novels, namely Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. Thirty thousand visitors come to see her home each year and pay homage.

Hands onLouise previously held the position of Education and Collections Manager and was involved with the education programme and the lottery funded redevelopment of the building.  “We have been very busy over the last few years and now have a thriving programme for GCSE and sixth form students. We have a unique experience to offer them and work closely in line with the National Curriculum. Some of the education work is done in conjunction with the Chawton House Library.  This means the students can see the stark comparison between the advantaged and disadvantaged, something Jane Austen wrote so much about.”Louise likes inspiring young students with Austen’s novels. “The best thing about my job is dealing with young people, but also handling objects that Jane Austen would have touched.  I also like sharing what I know with visitors and students. “People think she was all sweetness and light; this is not the case at all.  She had a very cutting tongue, but her novels show that she knew right from wrong and valued that in others. She was also a keen shopper and an excellent pianist.”  On showAusten’s writing desk, a patchwork quilt she made with her mother and sister and various letters are on display.  New display cases have led to a reinterpretation of some of the rooms.  “This means putting things in better context and making artifacts more attractive and more accessible for visitors to see. We have various high security cases around the building so we are able to display actual manuscripts safely.  It also means we can work with the British Library and they are more willing to lend us manuscripts because we offer secure display opportunities.”Chawton is a peaceful place with an alluring feeling about it. “The thing that people tend to notice most about the museum is the lovely atmosphere. It’s as if Jane has just walked out of the room. My favourite spot at the museum is a secluded part of the garden where I can still see the house.”

The futureOne big future project for 2011 involves publishing a facsimile copy of the first edition of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility first published 200 years ago.  With a forward by Professor Katherine Sutherland, one of the foremost literary scholars of Austen’s work, it will be a rare and great book to own with only 500 numbered copies being published.“It is a fantastic tribute to the novel, the first of its kind. After all, Jane Austen did invent the modern English novel as we know it. Sense and Sensibility was her first publication.”Louise has always been an avid reader and admirer of Jane Austen. “I read my first Jane Austen novel aged 15.  I had tried when I was 12 but I got nowhere. Three years made all the difference and I was hooked for life. My favourite is Emma. It is the most perfectly crafted and it still surprises me even after around 20 readings.

On Hampshire“It was really Jane Austen that bought me to Hampshire 30 years ago. My grandparents lived in the county but I lived in Manchester and then London. I wanted to work with Hampshire’s museums and secretly hoped I’d get a job at Jane Austen’s House, one day.”After a career break to raise her four children, Louise took an MA in Museum and Gallery Education at the Institute of Education, London University and worked with many organisations, including the Mary Rose Museum, Southampton City Museums, Winchester Cathedral and the V&A.“I am looking forward very much to the next stage in the museum’s life. I feel proud and honoured to be here at this important time.”Louise is very keen to bring all the associations and organisation that deal with Jane and her works a little closer together. “I’d like to see lots of the organisations that have a valid claim to use her name, work closer together; in particular those based in Hampshire. She loved Hampshire. She loved her home. She had happy years growing up in Steventon and although she went away for a short time, she was so happy to return.”Louise is still moved by Hampshire’s pretty countryside. “The rolling hills, the beautiful woodlands and views still make me smile. I find it a very soothing landscape. To look around and see green leaves and to be able to walk to the countryside is something very special.”Louise lives in central Winchester and having had children in local schools and colleges she has so many links with the area. “We have built up years of friends in Winchester and I still enjoy being part of the city life.  I particularly love going to Mottisfont Abbey near Romsey. The rose garden there this year was out of the world! They have done a tremendous job. I enjoy heading off into the New Forest and parking up for a stroll. We always try and find time to go and explore the forest.  “I can certainly see why Jane liked the area so much. It is timeless and beautiful.”

Visit the museumJane Austen’s HouseAlton  GU34 1SDTel. 01420 83262jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk

Most Read

Comments powered by Disqus