• Deborah Yaffe

Not In Jane's Backyard

Between her father’s death in January 1805 and her move into Chawton cottage in July 1809, Jane Austen was . . . not homeless, certainly, but not securely housed, either. Along with her mother, her sister, and, eventually, her old friend Martha Lloyd, Austen cycled through a number of semi-permanent addresses, first taking rooms in a couple of increasingly down-market buildings in Bath, and then moving in with her brother Frank’s growing family in Southampton. The security and relative roominess of the Chawton house seem to have come as a huge relief.


So there’s a certain poetic irony to a dispute now roiling the good people of Hampshire, England: Jane Austen may have found a home in a nearby village, but residents of the larger town of Alton aren't eager to welcome a new set of neighbors. As a result, they're embroiled in a classic NIMBY fight over a developer’s proposal to build new housing on a piece of farmland not far from Chawton cottage itself.


Plans for the Chawton Park Farm site call for twelve hundred new homes, about a third of them affordable housing, plus such amenities as a pub and a new elementary school. Locals, predicting traffic nightmares and the ruin of treasured green space, have gathered more than thirty-two hundred signatures on an online petition opposing the development.


Late last month, with a canny eye on the publicity potential of the Austen connection, they staged a protest led by campaigners in Regency costume. And a few days later, they won an initial victory when the local council voted to investigate alternate sites.


Although the proposed development at Chawton Park Farm is less than a mile, as the crow flies, from Jane Austen’s House, it’s on the other side of a two-lane highway; judging from the schematics available online, building a new neighborhood there seems unlikely to change the experience of visiting the museum, the most treasured Austen pilgrimage site in England.


Still, it’s not hard to understand why those lucky enough to live in this serene corner of rural England want to keep it that way. Jane Austen liked the peace and quiet, too.

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