Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 20 2020 01:00PM

Three years ago, blog readers will recall, a branch of the UK’s Society of Young Publishers sponsored a Jane Austen pub quiz – i.e., a trivia contest, like those held in neighborhood watering-holes across the land – in Oxford, England. At the time, one of my commenters suggested that US participants should petition to attend via Skype.

Be careful what you wish for.

Thanks to COVID-19, a UK-based Jane Austen trivia competition will now be open to participants located anywhere in the world. Chawton House, the Elizabethan mansion in Hampshire once owned by Austen’s brother Edward, is hosting a Jane Austen Quiz next Monday. The live-on-Zoom event will run from 7-9:30 pm British time – 2-4:30 pm on the US east coast.

“How much do you really know about Jane Austen’s life, works and times?” asks the Chawton House website. “Can you tell your Mrs. Clays from your Miss Carterets, your Colonel Forsters from your Mr. Dennys?”

Teams of one to four members can sign up for a nominal £5 fee (about $6.50), and UK winners will get a one-year visitor's pass to Chawton House and a cream tea in its tearoom. (International winners must settle for a subscription to the Chawton House literary magazine and free admission to a digital workshop.)

Ticket holders will receive instructions and a link closer to the day; meanwhile, it’s not clear from the event announcement how this whole thing is going to work. Do team members have to be located in the same room—a challenge for those of us still suffering through lockdown? Will answers be submitted and checked in writing, as in a traditional pub quiz, or will participants have to beat competitors to a buzzer, as in a Jeopardy!-style trivia bowl? And how will the organizers prevent illicit online research by out-of-camera-range cheaters?

I’m sure I speak for all US Janeites when I say: who cares. We must win this thing. I know it’s the middle of a work day, but national honor is at stake.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 9 2020 01:00PM

A thousand years ago – or, actually, back in January – the big Janeite news of 2020 was shaping up to be the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, the world’s first official Austen fan club.

Since then, of course, we’ve had to contend with the virus-induced closings of major Austen sites, along with concomitant fiscal pressures; and the virus-impelled cancelations of Austen events, partly mitigated by new online programming designed to fill the gaps.

But it’s still been eighty years since that day in May 1940 when an intrepid band of Janeites convened in Alton, Hampshire. Their mission: raising money to buy and preserve Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House, the place where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.

Despite the unsatisfactory circumstances in which we now find ourselves, a birthday celebration (online, of course) is planned: On July 11, Chawton House, the Austen-linked mansion down the road from the cottage, is sponsoring an afternoon of lectures and discussion about Chawton, the JAS, and the global phenomenon of Austen appreciation.

The event, which will run from 2 to 5:30 pm British time, is free, and videos of the proceedings will be available later on Chawton House’s YouTube channel. It’s an apt way to celebrate the beginnings of a worldwide community of Austen fans -- even if we have to supply our own cake and champagne.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 2 2020 07:00AM

The world continues to take baby steps toward reopening after quarantine. For Janeites, the latest encouraging sign is that the gardens of Chawton House will reopen this weekend.

Like everything else in Britain, Chawton House – the mansion in Hampshire, England, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother -- has been shut down since March, when the UK government instituted a lockdown to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

But now the government is (controversially) easing lockdown conditions, and starting Saturday visitors will be able to return to Chawton’s gardens, although not to the house or to its library of early English writing by women.

To maintain social distancing, garden visitors will have to book online in advance and promise to arrive during either a morning or an afternoon timeslot. A one-way route around the gardens will be marked, the tearoom will offer takeout only, and the too-close-for-coronavirus-comfort gift shop will migrate to an outdoor stall.

Channeling Mary Poppins, the Chawton House website admonishes everyone to behave appropriately, for the good of us all. “If visitors cannot keep to these rules Chawton House will be forced to close,” it chides. “You will take away a source of wellbeing from a community that cares for it and put the future of the charity at risk.”

Consider your knuckles pre-rapped! Of course, if you’re the disobedient type, you can always check out the gardens from the comfort of home, via the videos created a month ago during Chawton’s Virtual Garden Festival.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 25 2020 01:00PM

A month or two ago, there was no joy in Austenland, as, one by one, treasured Jane Austen events fell victim to coronavirus cancelation. No Jane Austen Festivals in Bath or Louisville. No Regency Week in Alton, England. No Jane Austen Summer Program in Chapel Hill, N.C. No Jane Austen Society of North America conference in Cleveland, and no Jane Austen Society of Australia conference in Canberra.

But Janeites are an indefatigable lot, and everywhere you turn this summer, online Jane Austen divertissements seem to be multiplying like dandelions.

Already, Chawton House, the stately home in Hampshire once owned by Austen’s brother, has hosted two virtual events: a Lockdown Literary Festival featuring talks and workshops by Austen authors and scholars, and a Virtual Garden Festival that took viewers through the grounds of the estate.

There’s talk of a “viral Jane Austen festival” to raise money for Jane Austen’s House in Hampshire, England, aka Chawton cottage; and the canceled Louisville and Cleveland events will be reborn online in, respectively, July and October.

If you can’t wait that long, however, the Jane Austen fanfiction writers at Austen Variations are hosting “JAFF in June,” a series of readings, conversations, and mini-performances spread across two weekends.

I’m late to this party -- the festivities kicked off last Friday -- but you can catch most of the past events on YouTube (June 19 here and June 20 here). Meanwhile, a full slate of activities – a panel discussion, historical lectures, readings from new releases and works in progress, plus a group viewing of the 2007 film adaptation of Persuasion -- is planned for Saturday and Sunday.

Creative, fun, and intellectually engaging as they are, none of these events can fully substitute for the in-person camaraderie of fellow Janeites. But something is better than nothing, right?

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