Deborah Yaffe

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From museum to house

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 20 2020 01:00PM

Two years ago, Chawton House Library – a research center for the study of early English writing by women, located in an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother -- rebranded itself, dropping the “Library” from its name in an effort to lure non-scholarly tourists. Today, when you Google “Chawton House,” the top listing is a paid advertisement describing the site as “Historic House with Tearoom.” Step right up, folks!


And now in Janeite Rebranding, it’s the turn of the premier pilgrimage site for Austen fans: Chawton cottage, the far more modest establishment, down the road in Hampshire, England, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


Until recently, the cottage was officially known by the slightly awkward moniker of “Jane Austen’s House Museum.” But now, under a rebranding effort carried out by the design studio Pentagram, the name has been streamlined – no more “Museum,” just “Jane Austen’s House.”


The rebranding also encompasses a new visual style, which uses a color palette drawn from original wallpaper in the museum (oops, sorry: the house), a logo design inspired by Jane Austen’s handwriting, and a stamp based on the shape of her writing desk. It all comes together on everything from letterhead and posters to lanyards and souvenir tote bags.


The designers set out to avoid the silhouettes and pastels that have become cliched Austen signifiers, and more power to them on that. The new approach “provides a modern interpretation of a very well-known literary figure, while respecting the incredible heritage of her house and celebrating her most enduring appeal,” Pentagram writes on its website. I’m no expert on branding and visuals, but it all looks clean and attractive to me.


I am, however, a (self-styled, but never mind) expert on Jane Austen quotes, and it’s going to pain me to the point of anguish if Chawton cottage – of all places! – markets a tote bag implicitly claiming that “We are all fools in love” is a line written by Jane Austen.


Yes, that tote bag can be seen on Pentagram’s Instagram account and (at :43) in the promotional video embedded here (scroll down). It is, presumably, one of the proposed “series of coloured typographic tote bags featuring a selection of readers’ favourite Jane Austen quotes” that the company mentions as part of its work.


Except that no reader has ever encountered that quote, since – as I have pointed out before, though apparently to no avail -- it is a line from the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and not from the novel. *


I have no objection to merchandise adorned with movie quotes, as long as the quotes are identified as such. I have a great objection, however, to promiscuously mingling bona fide Austen lines with words that she never wrote and labeling the resulting gumbo “favorite Jane Austen quotes.” That’s taking rebranding too far. Chawton cottage can -- and should -- do better.




* I’m choosing not to troll Pentagram for its “There is no enjoyment like reading” tote bag, even though that quote, ripped out of context, means roughly the opposite of what Jane Austen intended. (Gotta pick your battles.) If the Bank of England does it, how can we expect better from a mere design firm?


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