Chawton House Library exterior

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” – Persuasion, 1818.


The store room

This time one month ago I was packing my bags, ready to begin a month-long residential internship at Chawton House Library. It was somewhat of a dream come true; I had visited three times before, and have always been impressed by the library in general. However, this time I was able to get behind the scenes, and try it out for myself, all the while being able to stay in the very grand converted Old Stables.


Conservation work drying

Fast forward one week and I find myself deep into the various different aspects of running the library. Each morning I was taking the ritual readings for Environmental Monitoring, and making sure the dehumidifiers were empty for the day. I had also been taught the basics of book conservation by a very knowledgeable volunteer, learning how to repair tears, holes, and ‘lifting’ of edges. I also had the chance to assist the Wedding Manager with two Saturday weddings. As many of you probably know, the pressures of funding often means other possibilities are explored, and with CHL’s beautiful house and setting, it is ideal for the use of a beautiful wedding venue, so was a valuable experience. On top of weddings, CHL also hosts other events such as conferences and lectures, and an ever-growing programme for visitors. Even in my inexperienced eye, I can tell that in the year or so that they have been functioning both as a library and an attraction, Chawton already seems remarkably comfortable with balancing both aspects.


Corridor leading to the Dining room

Other tasks I was busy working on included cataloguing the secondary research material donated by Deirdre Le Faye, proof reading The Solemn Injunction for their Novels Online Project, letting visitors in and out of the charming Lower Reading Room (and hearing MANY a good word), writing the information cards for the future ‘Adopt-a-book initiative’ display, and also assisting the Librarian with the general upkeep of the storeroom collection.

Alongside my work with the team, I have gained quite a good knowledge about the history of the house itself, and the grounds that surround it. CHL is unique in that it has a rich history to each aspect of the house, including the grounds, ancestry, paintings, architecture, and the collection, and is an endless source of fascination to staff and visitors alike.

The past month has been an invaluable experience, not only have I progressed my own skills, I am able to say that I have had experience with a very special collection, in a very special location, with some very special people. It has further fuelled my passion for literature and heritage, just in time to begin my Masters course in Cultural Heritage and Resource Management in the autumn. Thank you, Chawton, this is not goodbye!

Working with a special collection naturally involves handling rare and interesting items, and it would be a little mean of me not to share some of what I found with you:


Yarrow for staunching blood


Yarrow illustration – with seeds

A Curious Herbal (1737) by Elizabeth Blackwell is an oversized book about herbal remedies. It is an impressive and beautiful book in itself, with each remedy alongside delicate botanical illustrations. The story behind the book, however, adds a new level of meaning. A Curious Herbal was born out of a  period of financial and emotional stress, Elizabeth’s husband having gone to debtor’s prison, and it provided her with an incentive to gain financial stability and focus her mind upon something positive. Chawton’s Garden Manager has created a unique herb garden inspired by Elizabeth’s work.


By Mary Astell – 1694

A Serious Proposal (1694) by Mary Astell is essentially a pocket sized letter addressed to the women of England, to refine their minds, not their aesthetics. Astell says, “your glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own minds.” Not a lot is known about Mary’s biographical details, and, as a woman, details of her life were little documented. However, her ideas and publications have had a lasting effect upon feminist thought, and she promoted the idea that women were born capable of equal intelligence to men.

“If all men Men are born Free, then why are all Women born Slaves?” – Astell – ‘Reflections’ 1700.

IMG_5220Diverse Observations (1617) by Louise Bourgeois Boursier is the second publication by Louise, the first being Diverse Observations on Sterility and, as it stands, is the first known publication on midwifery by a female author.  Louise was midwife to French Royalty, and was respected enough to have been awarded 6000 livres and 300 livres a year pension by the French Royal family. She spent her retirement writing about obstetrics and passing on her knowledge to other women. Her publications were translated in several different languages, and were widely used into the 1700s.