Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 18 2020 01:00PM

Among the many long-scheduled events that have fallen victim to our coronavirus moment, the annual Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, is surely among the most beloved. Since 2008, the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America has hosted the festival on the grounds of the eighteenth-century Locust Grove estate.


Over time, the festival has grown into a summer weekend extravaganza of lectures, food, crafts, vendor booths, and demonstrations of everything Regency, from dancing to dueling to bare-knuckle boxing. Thousands attend, and so many come in costume that in 2014 the festival briefly set the record for the largest-ever gathering of Regency-clad revelers, before the competing Austen festival in Bath, England, snatched the title back two months later.


Saddled with this year’s coronavirus lemons, the festival organizers decided to make lemonade: They’ve transformed the now-canceled July 10-12 gathering into a mostly free online event that they are billing as a chance to introduce the festival to Janeites across the globe.


Registration opened last weekend for six days of events (theme: “In the Library with Jane”) that will include talks on everything from Regency jewelry and sports to the relationship between Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Festival vendors will offer online shopping for Regency clothing and accessories, and registrants can sign up for ten online craft workshops costing $40 to $103.50.


On a personal note: I’ll be giving one of the featured talks, on the history and contemporary relevance of Jane Austen fanfiction, from 7 to 8 pm on Friday, July 10. I’ll also be joining the other featured speaker -- Soniah Kamal, author of the 2019 Pride and Prejudice update Unmarriageable -- for a roundtable discussion from noon to 1 pm on Saturday, July 11. The conversation will be moderated by Anne Bogel, creator of the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog.


Although the talks will be pre-recorded, Q&A will be live – I hope to see you there!


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2020 01:00PM

Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life, is the Austen pilgrimage site par excellence, a locus of mingled joy and heartbreak. It’s the place where she found the time and mental space to write or revise all six of her completed novels, the place where she finally became a published author – and the place where she felt the first symptoms of the illness that would take her life at forty-one.


In the seventy-one years since Chawton’s establishment as a museum of Austen’s life, its curators have collected relics with near-holy significance for Janeites: the topaz cross her sailor brother Charles bought her, the turquoise ring she liked to wear, the small writing table on which she composed her masterpieces.


And all this could be in imminent danger, a report last week in the Guardian newspaper informed us: “Jane Austen museum under threat due to coronavirus. . . . at risk of closing before the end of the year. . . . collections of first editions, letters and objects owned by the Austen family set to be dispersed. . . .” It’s enough to send any self-respecting Janeite into a swoon.


The Guardian story set off a flurry of impassioned tweets, spearheaded by Austen scholars Paula Byrne and Helena Kelly, and an avalanche of donations soon followed, from more than two thousand Janeites around the world. "This means that we won't just survive, we will recover," the museum tweeted on Saturday, after the fundraising campaign met its target just two days after the ominous Guardian story.


A look at the museum’s financial filings, however, complicates the picture, suggesting that the imminent peril may have been less severe than suggested -- although, arguably, the long-term dangers may be worse.


There’s no doubt that Jane Austen’s House, like arts and culture non-profits the world over and small museums in particular, has been hit hard by the virus-induced closure of the last three months. According to financial statements filed late last month with Britain’s Charity Commission – I’ve appended parenthetical page references for the relevant data -- admission fees paid by its nearly thirty-nine thousand visitors (4) comprised two-thirds of the museum’s 2019 income (9), a funding stream that the closure eliminated entirely, albeit temporarily. (Donations and grants made up most of the remaining third.)


Chawton's visitor numbers have been declining since the highwater mark of fifty-five thousand reported in the financial filings for 2017 (2), the bicentenary of Austen's death. And like any responsible board, the museum’s trustees had planned for a significant decline in revenue even before anyone had heard of the coronavirus.


The 2019 financial report shows that, at the end of last year, Chawton cottage held reserves of more than £265,000 (5), or over $334,000 – slightly less than the admission fees collected in all of 2019. Those reserves were significantly below the £444,000-plus (about $557,000) held two years earlier (2017 records -- 3) and slightly below the £275,000 ($345,000) the 2019 board had declared to be desirable (2019 records -- 5). In response to the virus-induced closure, a far bigger drop in revenue than anyone could have predicted, the board furloughed most employees, halted non-essential spending, and, in late March, launched an emergency fundraising campaign, the Survival Appeal.


“With these measures in place and taking into account the reserves position,” the report says, “the Trustees are confident that the Museum can continue to operate in the short and medium term.” (11) And that's not even considering how slim is the chance that the British government would allow the closure of an iconic tourist site celebrating the work of someone now pictured on the national currency.


So why the headline predicting imminent calamity? Why the implication that the museum’s JustGiving campaign, with its goal of £75,000 (about $94,000), was a new development, rather than a two-month-old outgrowth of the Survival Appeal launched on March 27?


In an email response to my questions, museum director Lizzie Dunford noted that the financial statements, while filed on May 29, were signed in early April. “They represent the situation then rather than in late May,” Dunford wrote. “Everything changed as it became apparent that we weren't going to see the previously expected V-shaped economic recovery and instead were looking at months of decimated income and uncertainty.”


Dunford pointed out the significant challenges the museum faces going forward: barebones monthly expenses of £30,000 (about $37,000), which will rise upon reopening; a likely decline in international visitors and group tours, both mainstays of the budget; and social-distancing requirements that will cut the number of permitted visitors below the level required to meet operating costs. “Our reserves could disappear pretty quickly,” she wrote.


I don’t doubt that the museum is facing hard times, as are so many cultural institutions, large and small. But given the numbers in the financial filings, I remain skeptical about the extent of the immediate peril.


Crisis tends to rally the troops. In response to the tweeting and hand-wringing engendered by the Guardian’s report, donations to the Survival Appeal leaped: The campaign exceeded its goal within days, with more raised in the twenty-four hours after the story appeared than in the previous two months. Scrolling through donors’ messages, with their heartfelt testimonials to the lasting importance of Jane Austen’s life and work, it’s hard not to be moved.


And maybe also a little bit annoyed at this ginning-up of possibly unnecessary panic.


If the £87,000 (about $109,000) that the Survival Appeal has now raised is enough, as the museum’s tweet says, to ensure a full “recovery” from the crisis, it’s hard to understand why holding nearly three times as much in reserves entailed a risk of closure within seven months. On the other hand, based on Dunford’s accounting, the funds raised in the Survival Appeal will only cover about three months of expenses -- roughly making up for the money lost during the closure so far, but hardly mitigating the built-in structural problems of living indefinitely in a pandemic-afflicted world. To quote Austen's Mr. Bennet, "It seems an hopeless business."


Of course, it's not hopeless at all; there is plenty of money available to save priceless cultural treasures like Chawton cottage. But that money isn't going to come from the pockets of Janeites, however generous. Perhaps the energy spent encouraging small-bore contributions would be better invested in lobbying the British government to prevent the nation's cultural heritage from becoming another of COVID's victims.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2020 01:00PM

Even in quarantine – especially in quarantine? -- Janeites apparently can’t get enough Jane Austen. Or so we might conclude from the attendance numbers at Chawton House's recent online events.


Over the past month, Chawton House, the Austen-linked research library and stately home in Hampshire, England, has held two weekend festivals -- the May 15-17 Lockdown Literary Festival, featuring writers and academics talking about their (usually Austen-related) work; and the May 30-31 Virtual Garden Festival, which took visitors through the beautiful grounds of the Elizabethan mansion, once owned by Austen’s older brother Edward Knight.


According to a recent email from the North American Friends of Chawton House, the site’s fundraising arm on this side of the Atlantic, more than fifteen hundred Janeites tuned in for at least one session of the literary festival; the best-attended individual talks drew some twelve hundred YouTube views. (Many of the videos are still available on Chawton House's YouTube channel.) The garden festival seems to have drawn smaller numbers, with YouTube hits in the hundreds.


Even better news for financially challenged Chawton House: During that first weekend’s festival, the NAFCH collected more than $4,000 in donations.


Chawton House needs the help: Like other cultural organizations that usually rely on ticket sales, it’s been hit hard by months of virus-induced closure. In 2018, the last year for which data is available online, Chawton House attracted nearly fifteen thousand visitors (see #5 on page 6 of the PDF), earning nearly £144,000 (about $183,000) from admission fees and sales of food and gift-shop merchandise.


This year, much of that income has evaporated. Instead, Chawton is relying on gifts to its Emergency Appeal from Janeites who, even if they can’t visit in person, nevertheless can’t get enough Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2020 01:00PM

When I read fanfiction that updates Jane Austen’s stories to contemporary settings, I often find myself exasperated by the names. Specifically, by the use of Jane Austen’s character names with no acknowledgment that, here in the twenty-first century, they are bound to ring some bells.


I mean, really: If you were a lawyer named Elizabeth Bennet practicing before a judge named Fitzwilliam Darcy, or an aspiring rock musician named Elizabeth Bennet touring with a guitar god named Fitzwilliam Darcy, or even a magazine writer named Liz Bennet exchanging icy banter with a neurosurgeon named Fitzwilliam Darcy, wouldn’t you expect some giggles from your friends? Some irritating wink-wink-nudge-nudge about how you two must be meant for each other? Some off-hand references to Colin Firth’s wet shirt?


But no—typically, these stories play out in a Bizzaroworld identical to our own in every particular except for the strange, universal amnesia about a book called Pride and Prejudice.


And so I greatly enjoyed a recent first-person account on the British news website Metro.co.uk by a young journalist and consultant named Elizabeth Bennett. With a marked lack of poetic justice, this Lizzy—actually, she goes by Biz--is neither a Janeite herself nor the daughter of Janeites: Born on the cusp of contemporary Austenmania, just five years before the airing of the BBC’s iconic P&P, she was named for relatives, rather than for Our Heroine.


As a fifteen-year-old high school student, she read the novel featuring her namesake for the first and only time. “The jokes from classmates about Mr. Darcy got a little tiresome,” she admits. On the other hand, when she went to a Barcelona police station to process required working papers, the officer in charge turned out to be a Janeite, and Bennett got her forms stamped in record time. Karma, I guess.


The Bennett story is part of a Metro series about living with a celebrity’s name. Be sure to check out the hilarious video entry from April, “Hello, my name is. . . Jane Austin,” featuring a middle-aged woman whose parents considered naming her Beverley or Chantelle but decided to go for something less. . . flashy.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s power to console during times of trauma is an established trope by now: cue mention of how British authorities prescribed her to shellshocked soldiers during World War I.


So perhaps it’s not surprising that Medicinal Austen should have a role to play in our current traumatic times, as something of an inspiration for a technologically updated version of that shellshock prescription.


According to the British news website inews.co.uk, the three adult sons of coronavirus patient Geoff Woolf, a seventy-three-year-old lawyer, knew their father would need plenty of reading material to sustain him during a long, grueling hospital stay that has included two months on a ventilator, with no visitors allowed.


His sons bought Woolf a Kindle e-reader to keep him going and, as his condition worsened last month and they were finally allowed to see him, played the audiobook they knew would mean the most to him: Pride and Prejudice.


"This was the book Dad always read when he was ill and wanted to feel some comfort," twenty-eight-year-old Sam Woolf, an actor who has performed audiobooks, told the news site. "We hope he can hear it. There's evidence to suggest words can sometimes get through to unconscious patients. He had a little movement and has looked like he may have been reacting to it."


The staff at their father’s London hospital thought other virus-isolated patients would benefit from the same stimulation, and so the Woolf brothers have launched an effort to supply more recovering virus patients with audiobook-equipped Kindles. Partnering with the audiobook company Audible, they’ve obtained one hundred and fifty appropriately sanitized devices for four hospitals, along with single-use earphones donated by British Airways.


Now two of the Woolf sons hope to expand the effort to other British cities, with the help of a GoFundMe appeal that has already raised almost all of its £5,000 goal (about $6,200). They’re calling the project Books for Dad, in tribute to the man who read to them when they were children and taught them to love words.


Sadly, Geoff Woolf is unlikely to survive, but if Books for Dad succeeds in helping other patients, his children think, the loss of this Janeite won’t be in vain. "We wanted something positive to come from what's happened to Dad, a kind of legacy," Sam Woolf says.


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