Deborah Yaffe

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Rebranding Chawton House

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 5 2018 02:00PM

Nobody called it branding in Jane Austen’s day, although Lord Byron, at least, was an expert practitioner of the craft avant la lettre. But branding is exactly what seems to underlie the most interesting tidbit of Janeite news so far this month: Chawton House Library’s decision to rename itself just plain Chawton House.


Readers of Among the Janeites will recall that Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Chawton House, an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward, and turn it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. But in 2016, more than a decade after the 2003 opening, Lerner announced she would no longer fund operations, leaving the library scrambling to replace her money. (Find details of the ensuing saga here.)


Fundraising is still ongoing, but last week, Chawton House announced it was dropping the “Library” from its name. “We’ve had feedback that potential visitors to the house and gardens are confused and – in some cases – put off by having ‘library’ in the name, which could mean that it is only open to library users when this is certainly not the case,” said Chawton’s board chair, Louise Ansdell. “We want all to come and enjoy what we have to offer.”


Chawton is hoping to reposition itself – beautifully restored historic mansion, charming gardens, convenient tearoom -- as not only a scholarly research site but also an Austen-related tourist destination, along the lines of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, down the road. The project has its challenges: Although Austen certainly spent time at Chawton House with her brother’s family, she did not live or write there, making the big house less of a Janeite pilgrimage site than the cottage. On the other hand: Historic mansion. Charming gardens. Tearoom.


As for the fundraising, it seems to be making steady but slow progress: Chawton House won a £100,000 two-year grant (about $143,000) late last year, and its appeal to individual donors has raised £15,000 (about $24,000) in three months. That’s still only a fraction of the $600,000-plus that Lerner provided in 2015, however, so there’s still a long way to go. If you want to help, you’ll find Chawton’s fundraising site here.


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