Deborah Yaffe

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Lerner leaves Chawton House

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 7 2016 02:00PM

Unless Queen Elizabeth II is a secret Austen fan, the richest living Janeite is probably Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems (and one of the people I profiled in Among the Janeites).


Lerner, you may recall, sank some $20 million of her fortune into renovating Chawton House, the Elizabethan pile in Hampshire, England, once owned by Austen’s older brother Edward Knight. As if that weren’t generous enough, Lerner also donated her personal rare-book collection to serve as the nucleus of a research library for the study of early English writing by women, located in Chawton House.


After more than twenty years, Lerner is apparently ready to move on: Late last month, Chawton House Library announced that she will step down as chair of its board immediately and will stop her annual financial support at the end of 2017. Although she’s setting up an endowment to help fund future operations, the loss of such a deep-pocketed patron is bound to hurt.


“Her intention is that we should use her generous support as a ‘challenge’ gift to raise matched funding to secure the future of the Library,” Chawton’s web announcement states.


I’m not privy to the internal workings of Chawton House Library, but during the recently concluded Jane Austen Society of North America conference, a well-connected Janeite told me that Lerner’s decision to leave Chawton came after years of tension.


As is customary in these cases, Chawton’s announcement doesn’t even hint at a less-than-amicable parting, but it’s not hard to pick up notes of anxiety amid the official optimism: “challenges that will demand creativity and commitment. . . . need to work towards a sustainable future. . . . must protect and preserve this significant literary heritage. . . . know we can secure our future. . . .”


Obviously, those in a position to know don’t think the library’s sustainable, secure future is assured just yet. Here’s hoping they find a way to keep Sandy Lerner’s powerful vision alive, even without Lerner herself around to ensure it.


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