Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 7 2021 02:00PM

It’s been more than three years since a trio of passionate Janeites formed the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), an organization dedicated to recovering the scattered contents of the library owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight and housed at Godmersham, his estate in Kent, England.

And now comes word that a key item in that missing collection – “the Holy Grail in these endeavors,” according to GLOSS co-founder Peter Sabor, an English professor at McGill University in Toronto – has been found and purchased for public display.

The Holy Grail in question is a first edition of William Cowper’s Poems, originally published in 1782. Cowper was reportedly Jane Austen’s favorite poet; she mentions him in her letters and novels, with Fanny Price quoting a line of his in Mansfield Park and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, deploring Edward Ferrars’ “tame” and “spiritless” reading of his poetry. It is likely that Austen perused this very volume during at least one of her extended visits to Edward’s family.

Only about 500 of the 1,250 books listed in an 1818 catalogue of the Knight family’s holdings are currently in the possession of Chawton House, the research library situated in the Elizabethan mansion that was Edward’s second home in Hampshire. Recovering the remaining volumes – identifiable through their bookplates – is GLOSS’ goal. (You can view a reconstruction of the Godmersham library on the clever and entertaining Reading with Austen website.)

How this particular acquisition came about remains somewhat obscure: Although Chawton House’s press release refers to funding from both GLOSS and Friends of the National Libraries, a UK non-profit that supports British libraries considered to be of national importance, it does not say how much those entities had to pay for the Cowper, or who sold it.

Still, such details of provenance won’t interfere with our enjoyment – in person or online – of that most tantalizing of literary relics: a beloved book that Jane Austen may once have held in her hands.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2020 02:00PM

A year ago, I confidently predicted a 2020 filled with the usual array of Austen events: “Teas, balls, fairs, festivals, conferences, discussions, lectures, and walking tours celebrating Austen and the Regency.”

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the universe does not smile upon confident predictions.

As it happens, 2020 marked the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, which inaugurated institutionalized Janeite fandom, and in many ways, the Austen fan community rose to the occasion presented by this awful year, striving to create virtual community with an outpouring of creativity and enthusiasm.

While in-person events were scuttled, online alternatives proliferated: the Louisville Austen festival migrated to YouTube, the Jane Austen Society of North America convened on the web, and events that might ordinarily have been local – like an Australian AustenCon and an Arizona conference on fandom – suddenly went international.

While the major Austen pilgrimage sites were shuttered for much of the year, sustaining serious financial damage along the way, they found opportunities to bring their programming to a worldwide virtual audience, with Chawton House sponsoring online conferences and a newly rebranded Jane Austen’s House creating a panoramic online tour and a special Christmas treat.

While live theater went dark, you could stream any number of Austen adaptations, from a much-praised play based on The Watsons to a Zoom-enabled update of Pride and Prejudice to the new Emma from playwright Kate Hamill.

And the cinematic Austen universe only expanded, from the pre-pandemic U.S. broadcast of the Sanditon miniseries, to the theatrical and (post-pandemic) streaming release of Autumn de Wilde’s new Emma, to the debut of Modern Persuasion.

Best of all, those six great novels sat on our shelves, always available for a reread. They were our constant reminder that even during the worst of years, art endures, bringing us escape, perspective, and consolation amid loneliness and grief.

In that spirit, as this year finally ends -- and not a minute too soon! -- let's give Jane Austen the last word, from chapter 19 of Sense and Sensibility.

"Remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by everybody at times, whatever be their education or state," Mrs. Dashwood tells the mysteriously melancholy Edward Ferrars. "Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope."

Here’s hoping for a better 2021.

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.

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