• Sarah Gray


Jane Austen and Natalie Goldberg give writing advice and Aphra Behn’s early editions are saved

Jane Austen’s humble place of work

The writing process is a personal thing. Learning how to drag the best out of my work has taken a long time, but the answer, I discovered is simple. Last autumn I visited the Jane Austen's House Museum and was delighted to see how humble Jane's place of work. A small wooden table placed in the corner of the room is where some of the greatest works in the English language were crafted. With myself being from a family with six children and growing up in a small house (suburban council - not country vicarage), space was a valued commodity of gold-dust proportions. All activity was public. To be a writer, I imagined having to secrete myself away and slog over a keyboard for at least 10 hours a day. Almost impossible. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg suggests otherwise. Goldberg’s solution, or permission as I see it, is ideal for the veteran of a chaotic 'all hands on deck' childhood experience: do what you can, when you can, where you can. An hour on the train, 15 minutes in a café or 10 minutes waiting for an appointment. Noise, crowds and interruptions – I can deal with it all. 10 hours alone, in silence produces only despair. Witnessing Jane's diminutive table revealed how deft she was at working within her resources and I wonder how much would get done if we all waited for the perfect conditions – very little, I expect.

Aphra Behn didn't wait for the perfect conditions. Taking opportunities was her forte, which secured her position of as the first woman to make a living by writing. Chawton House is a short walk from Jane Austen's house and was once the home of her brother, Edward. Now it houses an extensive library of pre-20th century women's writing, including a selection of Behn's early works and editions of some of my other favourite writers such as Frances Burney and Ann Radcliffe.

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely, 1670

In researching my novel, Memoirs of a Gentlewoman Vampire - an historical, horror romp inspired by the life of Behn (think Moll Flanders meets Carmilla) - the Head Librarian, Dr Darren Bevin, was generous enough to display a variety of Behn's original editions. I was delighted at the wonderful titles and subheadings, ‘THE Younger Brother: OR, THE Amorous Jilt’, ‘Written by the Late Ingenious Mrs. BEHN’ and hilarious character names such as ‘THE TOWN-FOPP: or Sir Timothy Tawdrey’. Carry on Scribing, perhaps? Inspiration flowed. Another of my motivating tools is the physical world. Whatever stimulates your process or wherever you choose to work, all writing has one thing in common, the most important step is to start – now, open your document or your notepad and just write.

Chawton House, Hampshire

I'd like to thank Anthony Hughes Onslow, Darren Bevin and all the staff for their warm welcome to Chawton House. Being a wheelchair user can make visiting heritage sites difficult, but everyone accommodated my needs to ensure my experience was complete as possible. Thanks also to my friend, Mary Lucille Hindmarch for organising the trip and sharing a glorious, autumn day.

Many of the writers represented at Chawton House had fallen into obscurity during the 20th century and the work done by the library to keep the collection in good condition and available to the public is invaluable. Visit the Chawton House library website to find out more about their work and how you can get involved.

NB - Chawton House: The house and gardens are open to the public from 5 March to 7 December, including weekends and bank holidays.

Jane Austen House Museum: The house museum opens from February to December, including weekends and bank holidays.

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