The havoc that pandemic lockdown has wreaked on an array of arts and cultural organizations is old news by now. Janeites have seen a number of beloved annual events canceled, postponed, or moved online, and last month, the premier Austen site – Jane Austen’s House, aka Chawton Cottage, the home in Hampshire, England, where the author spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – made a desperate crowdfunding appeal to stave off closure.
Perhaps it was the success of that campaign, which to date has raised more than £20,000 (about $25,000) above its initial goal of £75,000 (nearly $95,000), that inspired the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, to launch its own fundraising effort. The Centre’s appeal has a more modest goal of £15,000 (nearly $19,000) and, with a few more days to go, it’s still short of its target. Donate enough, and you can get a year of free admission to the Centre, plus goodies like cream teas and champagne in the Centre's tea room.
The Centre’s woes are all too familiar: It relies on the income generated by its 150,000 yearly visitors, and with lockdown, that income has vanished. Without an infusion of cash, the director told a local news outlet, the Centre may have to lay off staff, potentially including Martin Salter, the Regency-costumed greeter who has become known as “the most photographed man in Britain.”
I’m of two minds about this fundraiser. The Jane Austen Centre, which opened in 1999, is a small and, to my taste, rather touristy museum that contains not a single genuine Austen artifact and is located in a building that Jane Austen never lived in. Its demise would not represent a significant loss to literary history.
On the other hand, as the comments of donors to the appeal attest, many Janeites love the place, its gift shop, and the annual Jane Austen Festival that it sponsors each fall, which draws an international crowd of fans, many in Regency costume. (The twentieth iteration of the festival, originally scheduled for September, was canceled two months ago.)
On the third hand, no one wants to see a thriving small business fall victim to the coronavirus: We’re seeing too much of that already. So go ahead: There’s no harm in donating, especially if you have a hankering for cream tea.