Deborah Yaffe


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?

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, May 25 2020 01:00PM

Fresh off their successful Lockdown Literary Festival earlier this month, the indefatigable folks who run Chawton House, the stately home in Hampshire, England, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, have another treat in store for us.

This one, I must admit, sounds like an even greater challenge than the multiple-speakers-across-multiple-time-zones feat that was the online literary festival. This time, we won’t be hanging out in the library talking about books; we’ll be strolling through the gardens, talking about plants. Take that, coronavirus!

The extensive grounds of Chawton House feature two terraces, a lime avenue, a wilderness, a fernery, a walled garden, a shrubbery, an herb garden, and even a ha-ha—a veritable feast of fictional and historical associations for dedicated Austen readers, not to mention dedicated green thumbs.

Chawton’s Virtual Garden Festival, coming up on Saturday and Sunday, will include “gardening talks and tips from our Head Gardener Julia and her team of garden volunteers, botanical workshops, discussions with heritage gardeners, and a chance to take part in our virtual ‘best in show,’ ” the website promises. Everything is free, except for online creative writing workshops, which cost £5.

I’m not much of a gardener myself—scratch that; I’m no kind of gardener myself—so I doubt I’ll be able to do much with whatever tidbits of wisdom Head Gardener Julia imparts. Still, even here in New Jersey, this spring’s azaleas and irises are looking unusually vibrant after two months of accidental pollution-reduction. I can only imagine the beauty of the Chawton House gardens. Except now I won’t have to imagine.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 14 2020 01:00PM

Like everyone else, the Janeite community has been battered by pandemic and lockdown, with iconic tourist sites closed and financially struggling, while beloved annual events face cancellation or indefinite postponement.

Amid all this gloom and doom, it’s encouraging to find green shoots of optimism—most imminently, the online Lockdown Literary Festival, sponsored by Chawton House in Hampshire, England, which starts tomorrow and runs through Sunday.

The festival will include talks, discussions, and creative writing workshops featuring an array of novelists, critics, and historians -- mostly talking about Jane Austen, or at least about her world and her influences. You'll be able to learn about female pirates, hear Austen-inspired novelists read from recent work, go behind the scenes at Austen literary sites, and gain new insights into Regency fashion.

Except for the sold-out workshops, which required pre-registration and a £5 fee, the events are free for viewing on Chawton House's YouTube channel. Pre-recorded talks will be uploaded beginning at 10 am (British time), and live-on-Zoom-or-Twitter Q&As will follow many of them.

It's not quite a substitute for those in-person Austen events we're already missing, but it’s bound to be a pleasant break from Netflix.

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