Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 10 2020 01:00PM

When valuable editions of Jane Austen’s novels come up for auction, the selling point is usually something about the books themselves: first editions, complete sets, original bindings. Back in February, blog readers will recall, a well-heeled collector paid more than $240,000 for a complete set of Austen first editions offered by a New York auction house. (Sigh. Jealous much?)


In an online auction of Austen editions that is ongoing right now, however, the selling point is not so much the books themselves as their provenance: They were once owned by a glamorous and enterprising Victorian hostess whose own life story reads like something out of a novel.


The auction is a benefit for Chawton House, the Austen-linked stately home in Hampshire, England, that now houses a research library for the study of early English writing by women. Like so many cultural destinations that depend on admissions fees for their support, Chawton has suffered during coronavirus lockdown; the North American Friends of Chawton House hopes the money raised from the book sale will help mitigate the damage.


And the books themselves, donated by Texas collector Sandra Clark, are pretty terrific: a near-complete set of Austen’s novels published in 1856, as part of Richard Bentley’s famous “Standard Novels” series. As Janeites will recall, it was Bentley who brought Austen’s works back into print in the 1830s, after a short lapse in the decade or so after her death. The four volumes – a fifth, containing Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, is missing, alas – are bound in stamped green cloth with gilt accents.


Still, it’s the set’s former owner, Lady Molesworth of Pencarrow, who is clearly the main draw. Born Andalusia Grant Carstairs in 1809, she trained as a singer at the Royal Academy of Music, parlayed a professional career as an actress and singer into marriage with a country squire forty years her senior, became a rich widow in short order, and then, after returning to society, remarried, this time to a baronet of her own age.


Blessed through one marriage with money and through another with rank, like a real-life Lady Denham, Andalusia turned her new husband’s homes in London and Cornwall into coveted society destinations, hosting political and literary salons and house parties featuring Mansfield Park-like home theatricals. She propelled her awkward husband into Parliament and, eventually, the Whig cabinet, and, after his death, took a viscount as her lover. Why no one has yet turned her life into a romance novel is a mystery to me.


Bidding on Lady Molesworth’s Austens began at $450 but has already reached nearly $2,000, with bids accepted until noon next Tuesday. Like most rare books, these are well out of my price range, but especially given the good cause the auction will benefit, I hope the set finds a home with a lucky Janeite.


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