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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 25 2019 01:00PM

The fascinating Reading with Austen project, a digital recreation of Edward Austen Knight’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent, got some further publicity last week via an article in the literary/historical journal Lapham’s Quarterly.


As blog readers will recall, Reading with Austen, which went live last fall, features publication information and, where available, digital images of the more than twelve hundred books listed in an 1818 catalogue of the Knight family library. We know Jane Austen spent time in the library during her visits to the family of her brother, who took the name Knight in honor of the wealthy relatives who adopted him.


Recreating the library’s holdings – more than a third of the books are currently on loan to Chawton House, the research library located in the Knight family’s second home, in Hampshire -- offers a window into the literary context that shaped Austen’s work.


“I think it gives us a picture of someone who has the capacity to be much more than this kind of closeted spinster in a bonnet,” Gillian Dow, Chawton House’s former executive director, told Lapham’s writer Rebecca Rego Barry.


Barry’s article situates the Reading with Austen project in the context of similar efforts to recreate, physically or digitally, the book collections of Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Edith Wharton. Meanwhile, efforts continue to find, digitize, and perhaps acquire the Knight library’s long-scattered volumes, the better to reconstruct the intellectual milieu that nurtured Jane Austen’s genius.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 22 2019 01:00PM


Seventy years ago this week, the premier Janeite pilgrimage site welcomed its first pilgrims.


On July 23, 1949, Chawton cottage, the house in the southern English county of Hampshire where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, opened to the public. Admission cost £1/6d, the equivalent of £2.34 (about $2.91) today.


Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is more than an Austen residence. It is the place where, after four years of unhappiness in Bath, followed by four more of stress and financial insecurity – eight years in which her literary output seems to have slowed to a trickle – Austen, at thirty-three, finally found the psychological breathing-space to write again.


Chawton cottage was in the gift of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, who inherited Chawton House, the nearby Elizabethan manor, and its accompanying estate from the Knights, the rich relatives who adopted him when he was a teenager. By the time Edward handed over the cottage, it was four years since his father’s death, and his mother and sisters, along with their old friend Martha Lloyd, had spent that time moving repeatedly in search of an affordable situation.


Whether Edward’s generosity was restrained by his wife, Elizabeth Bridges Austen, who was reportedly not a member of Jane Austen’s fan club (“A little talent went a long way with the Goodneston Bridgeses of that period; & much must have gone a long way too far,” Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy wrote decades later), remains speculation. It’s a fact, however, that Edward came through with his offer of housing within months of Elizabeth’s sudden death.


The move to Chawton cottage on July 7, 1809 – almost exactly 140 years before the opening of the museum – inaugurated an extraordinary burst of creativity. During her Chawton years, Austen revised the three novels she had drafted in her twenties (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) and wrote three new masterpieces (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion), at last finding publishers, and a reading public, for her life’s work.


To modern eyes, the “cottage,” with its amply proportioned rooms and spacious garden, seems rather too large for that sobriquet, if not quite as large as the palatial dwelling imagined by Robert Ferrars, on the occasion when Elinor Dashwood decided not to pay him “the compliment of rational opposition.” Indeed, by the time it came to the notice of the Austen enthusiasts who preserved it, Chawton cottage had spent a century divided into three apartments for employees of the Chawton estate.


In the 1940s, as England valiantly fought the Nazis, a small group of home-front Janeites fought to save Chawton cottage for the nation, founding the UK Jane Austen Society – the world’s first – to raise money for the purchase. Ultimately, the house was bought by a grieving father in memory of the son he had lost in the war.


This week, the museum will celebrate its anniversary in style: Tomorrow, the first seventy visitors will be admitted at the 1949 price, and on Saturday, a joyous birthday party will feature Regency dancing, Pimm’s cups, picnics in the garden, and, almost certainly, plenty of costumed Janeites.


More or less simultaneously, the museum will be wrapping up its successful appeal for £10,000 in donations toward the purchase of a once-lost fragment of an Austen letter – a reminder that today the museum is not just a Janeite tourist attraction but also an important scholarly resource.


I first visited Chawton cottage in 1982, at sixteen, more than a decade before Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt inaugurated contemporary Janemania, and I found the place magical, one of those rare literary shrines in which a beloved author’s presence seems palpable. My next visit, twenty-nine years later, during my research for Among the Janeites, felt less satisfactory: too much Firthian kitsch in the gift shop, too many tourists crowded into too small a place. (Myself among them, of course – but naturally I didn’t think of myself as just another tourist. One never does.)


Still, whatever the drawbacks of Austen’s modern, movie-driven celebrity, Chawton cottage deserves its self-declared status as “the most treasured Austen site in the world,” even if that extravagant boast does sound like the kind of thing Lady Catherine de Bourgh would say. Wandering through its rooms, a Janeite tuned to the right emotional frequency can still feel Austen's presence everywhere: in the tiny writing table on which she composed her novels, in the elegant quilt she helped to stitch, in the turquoise ring and topaz cross she wore.


Ultimately, Chawton cottage is the place that is most quintessentially Austen, where her life and her work came together and made her, if not the person she was, then at least the writer we know her to be. Seventy years on, it remains the one indispensable Austen shrine.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 17 2019 01:00PM

Although Jane Austen is a quintessentially British writer, her admirers in North America are legion. Indeed, the Jane Austen Society of North America, with more than five thousand members, is considerably larger than the original Jane Austen Society in the UK.


So it’s good news that the North American Friends of Chawton House, which raises money for the research library housed in a Hampshire mansion once owned by Austen’s brother Edward, has upgraded to a spiffy new website.


Regular blog readers will recall the saga of Chawton House, which was restored to its former glory by Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, whose rare-book collection anchors the library’s holdings in early English writing by women. Lerner’s money supported the library for years, and in 2016, when she decided to withdraw that support, a scramble to replace her sizeable contribution began. (Review the details here and here.)


Among those trying to help are the North American Friends, who have raised $160,000 in the past two years, according to board president Janine Barchas, an Austen scholar who is an English professor at the University of Texas-Austin.


“Many friends are needed to help this worthy charity and historic property establish a bright future of financial independence,” Barchas writes on the new website. “After all, Chawton House and the rich literary history it now safeguards should never have been one person’s financial responsibility to shoulder.”


Donations are tax-deductible. As for that feeling of helping to preserve Jane Austen’s literary context: priceless.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2018 01:00PM

The transformation of Chawton House from purely academic destination into full-service Janeite tourist draw continues: The stately home where Jane Austen’s brother once lived, and which now houses a library of early English writing by women, is bidding farewell to its English-professor executive director and looking for a new CEO.


Chawton’s board hopes to find someone with “a strong track record in commercial delivery and fundraising” and “experience in positive stakeholder management,” according to a job description posted online late last month. Strikingly absent from the listing is any reference to scholarly chops – PhD, background in Austen studies, that kind of thing.


As regular blog readers will recall, Chawton has been in decorous turmoil for two years, since Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, whom I profiled in Among the Janeites, announced she would end her financial support. In the 1990s, Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Edward Austen Knight’s dilapidated Elizabethan manor house and for years afterwards continued to spend six-figure annual sums on its upkeep.


Since Lerner’s departure, the board and the outgoing executive director, University of Southampton professor Gillian Dow, have cut costs, sought grants, launched a fundraising appeal, and changed the institution’s name from “Chawton House Library” to just plain “Chawton House,” in hopes of rebranding sober scholarship as fun-filled Austen tourism. (See details of the saga here and here.)


It’s a tricky balancing act: Keeping Chawton, with its extraordinary collection of rare books, alive as a site for serious scholarship, while simultaneously attracting the tourist dollars of the folks who trek down the road to Jane Austen’s House Museum to buy Colin Firth tea towels and snap selfies with Austen’s desk. In a sense, Chawton House is a microcosm of the struggle within the Janeite world between devotees of Classic Author Austen and fans of Pop Culture Jane.


Yes, it's a challenge to walk this line between the academic and the pop, but it's not impossible: the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. does it with great success, simultaneously hosting scholarly conferences and hawking Shakespeare magnetic poetry.


Here’s hoping that Chawton House, a true Janeite gem, can find its footing too. A quick Google search suggests that the announced salary for the new CEO -- £55,000 (about $72,000) -- is no better than average for the heads of smaller charities outside London, so perhaps this will be a job for someone young and ambitious. Applications are due by Friday, so start polishing that resume.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 20 2018 01:00PM

Fifteen years ago, Silicon Valley gazillionaire and Janeite Sandy Lerner opened Chawton House, a research library dedicated to the proposition that Jane Austen wasn’t early English history’s only interesting female writer.


A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking she was, given how little we hear, even now, about all the women who were scribbling away before and during Austen’s lifetime. What’s to blame for this historical amnesia – and for the lack of visibility, remuneration, and respect that even now plagues female authors?


The list is long, of course (see under: Patriarchy), but an intriguing new project locates one culprit in the entrenched old boys’ network of rare-book dealers and collectors. Over the past three months, a newcomer to that world, London-based writer and rare-book dealer A.N. Devers, has raised more than $40,000 in a Kickstarter appeal that will fund The Second Shelf, an online rare-book shop and quarterly publication dedicated to the work of women writers.


“Book collectors help determine which writers are remembered and canonised, and which are forgotten,” Devers wrote in The Guardian this spring. “The collector trade is a part of a supply line, to readers’ bookshelves, universities, archives and libraries. Historically it has been male-dominated. . . , white, and oriented around a western canon.”


It’s fascinating to think about how collecting itself creates and perpetuates the value, both monetary and intangible, that we accord to the cultural artifacts collectors prize. Surely there’s a dissertation topic in there somewhere. (Read more about Devers’ project, and about gender issues in the book trade, here, here, here, and here.)


The project is ambitious, maybe too much so: Hard enough to launch a fledgling rare-books shop without trying to start a magazine as well. The quarterly, whose first issue is slated for publication next month, will be part rare-books catalog, part female-focused literary magazine, with some big names on the list of contributors. (Details remain sparse, but you can already buy a Second Shelf tote bag and T-shirt.)


Even if Devers has bitten off more than she can chew – time will tell -- you’ve got to love the idea, and the moxie. I learned about The Second Shelf too late to contribute to its crowd-funding campaign, but had I been prompter, I still wouldn’t have been able to afford the mouth-watering prize available to anyone pledging a Lerneresque £20,000 (nearly $25,500): an 1813 second edition of Sense and Sensibility owned by Austen’s close friend and housemate Martha Lloyd. It looks like no one else snapped it up, though, so presumably Devers still has it, if you’re interested.


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