Deborah Yaffe

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Chawton cottage panorama

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 26 2020 01:00PM

Pandemic life has made clear, at least to me, that online interactions are no substitute for the in-real-life kind. Still, it’s heartening to see artists and cultural organizations seizing the opportunity to create high-quality virtual experiences for those of us who don’t have better choices right now.


The latest example of this lemonade-out-of-lemons approach is “Jane Austen’s House From Home,” a menu of online experiences designed to introduce visitors to Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


Back in June, the cottage – now a museum of Austen’s life -- staged an ultra-successful crowdfunding appeal, raising more than £97,000 (over $126,000) in a campaign that had initially sought only £75,000. Donations poured in after the museum warned that its long-term viability was at risk after months of pandemic-induced closure.


Chawton is open again, but travel restrictions and social-distancing rules mean that fewer people can visit. Starting last week, however, the museum can come to you, via a nifty 360-degree virtual tour that takes you through every room in the cottage and lets you zoom in on everything from the floorboards to the ceiling rafters, as well as a slew of treasured artifacts – Austen’s writing desk, say, or the topaz cross that was a gift from one of her sailor brothers. If you've been to Chawton, the tour will bring back warm memories of that magical place, and if you're a newbie, it's bound to whet your appetite. Plus, there's a bonus: For once, the cottage is empty! No tourists jostling for elbow room in front of the famous Austen quilt!


The “From Home” site also features a children’s audio tour of the cottage and its grounds, purportedly narrated by the museum’s black and white cat, who quotes liberally from the Juvenilia. (Who knew cats had such great taste in literature?) And you can visit two virtual exhibitions, one on Austen’s letters and one featuring items related to Austen’s teenage years.


No, it’s not the same as being there. But for now, it’s what we’ve got, and it’s quite a bit better than nothing.


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