Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 20 2017 01:00PM

There are many things I would be willing to do to secure the future of Chawton House Library, one of the Austen world’s great treasures. Starring in my very own wet-shirt-Darcy video is not among those things.

The library's future is in some doubt because, as blog readers will recall, Sandy Lerner -- the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who bought and renovated Chawton House, and whom I profiled in Among the Janeites – decided last year to end her continuing financial support after 2017.

That’s left a major fundraising challenge for Chawton House, which hosts researchers and sponsors scholarly conferences revolving around its priceless collection of early English writing by women.

To coincide with this week’s bicentenary of Austen’s death, the library unveiled a new fundraising website laying out some of the details: A looming sixty-five percent budget gap. An “urgent, large-scale funding campaign.” And -- yes -- a slightly kooky ice-bucket-ish challenge, #TheDarcyLook, wherein participants post a video of their white-shirted selves being doused with water, text a £3 donation to the library, and nominate three friends to do the same.

That particular sugggestion seems to be aimed at male donors; I suppose Chawton House thought it might look a bit strange for an institution dedicated to Austen, that supposed doyenne of female propriety, to instigate a wet-T-shirt contest for women. Even so, I'm not sure about this one -- and I had barely glanced in my husband's direction before he pre-emptively announced his refusal -- but, then, I didn't do the original ice bucket challenge, either. Maybe those Austen-loving kids will be into it?

Chawton House Library has grand plans to expand its facilities beyond the main house, where Austen’s older brother Edward lived and where Austen herself visited often. The vision: “A more recognised, commercially viable destination” offering “larger and more extensive visitor facilities and providing an enhanced experience of the Chawton estate.”

Presumably, that would mean close collaboration with Jane Austen’s House Museum, housed down the road in beloved Chawton Cottage, where Austen lived for the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.

A unified, enhanced Chawton site, with everything from Austen relics to rare books – and, presumably, enhanced gift shops as well -- sounds like a magnet for Janeite tourism. But only if we Janeites, wet and dry, come up with the money to keep Lerner's visionary creation alive.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 29 2017 01:00PM

Any plans late next month? No? Then head over to the web site of Jane Austen 200 – the clearinghouse for events scheduled this year in Hampshire, England, to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death – and enter the sweepstakes.

The prize is a three-night, late-June stay in Winchester and Basingstoke, along with free tickets to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried; Chawton cottage, now a museum of her life; Chawton House Library, located in the mansion once owned by her brother Edward; and a book talk by historian, curator and TV presenter Lucy Worsley, author of a new Austen biography. Plus £100 (about $130) towards travel expenses.

OK, it’s obvious that this package is more of a draw for British Janeites, who a) can probably get to Winchester for not much more than £100; and b) had probably heard of Worsley before the recent plagiarism kerfuffle. But hey – three free nights in England is three free nights in England, right? And entering is a breeze, requiring only the answer to an Austen trivia question of such laughable simplicity that it’s practically an insult to Janeite intelligence.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 1 2017 01:00PM

Now that this Austen bicentenary year is in full swing, the announcements of commemorative events pegged to the July 18 anniversary of her death are coming thick and fast. The latest is the newly released slate of activities at Winchester Cathedral, which holds a special place in Janeite hearts, as the site of Austen’s grave.

Last week’s news release, accompanied by a handy leaflet, lists a variety of events, most scheduled for June and July, though a few continue into the fall.

There are once-a-month Austen-themed tours of the cathedral and its environs, exhibitions about Austen’s life and work and the literature she inspired, and a Book of Memories for visitors to sign. There are recitals of period music and an outdoor performance of a play based on Pride and Prejudice. There are talks on the role of Christianity in Austen’s life and work, by the former rector of Austen’s home church in Steventon; and on how she came to be buried in the cathedral, by the former head of Chawton House Library.

Best of all are the events planned for the bicentenary of Austen’s death and the days following. On July 18, the anniversary of her death, the cathedral will hold a special Evensong – certain to be especially affecting in the spectacular setting. Five days later comes a Regency tea party, at which attendees will be invited to read their favorite passages from Austen’s work.

And on July 24 comes a retracing of the procession that carried Austen’s body from the College Street house where she died to the cathedral for burial. Along the way, the bells will toll forty-one times, one stroke for each year of Austen’s too-short life.

OK, I admit it: I’m choked up even thinking about this.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 9 2017 02:00PM

Logically, there’s no particular reason we dedicated readers should yearn to visit the houses where our favorite writers were born, grew up, met their future spouses or wrote their great works. Events don’t leave their imprint on wood, glass and stone.

And yet they do, at least in our imaginations. So it was that my heart leapt last month when I ran across this account of a literary trail made up of forty-five “houses of bookish importance” scattered across Great Britain.

The trail, sponsored by the Historic Houses Association, which represents the UK’s privately owned historic homes, includes places associated with some of my favorite authors, including George Eliot’s birthplace, Arthur Conan Doyle’s alma mater, the castle where Shakespeare’s Macbeth murdered King Duncan, and the house whose attic supposedly inspired Jane Eyre.

Yes, there are also Austen connections. Among the trail’s attractions are Chawton House, owned by Austen’s older brother Edward; and Goodnestone Park, the family estate of Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Bridges. Austen spent plenty of time in both places, though what connection either has to her novels is a matter of speculation.

Unless you’re planning a trip to Britain, this literary trail is likely to be fodder for armchair daydreaming rather than active vacationing. But if you're lucky enough to have such a trip on your agenda – well, then, as I noted last year, Goodnestone is now renovated and available for rental. Perfect for a getaway for yourself and twenty-three of your closest friends.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 7 2016 02:00PM

Unless Queen Elizabeth II is a secret Austen fan, the richest living Janeite is probably Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems (and one of the people I profiled in Among the Janeites).

Lerner, you may recall, sank some $20 million of her fortune into renovating Chawton House, the Elizabethan pile in Hampshire, England, once owned by Austen’s older brother Edward Knight. As if that weren’t generous enough, Lerner also donated her personal rare-book collection to serve as the nucleus of a research library for the study of early English writing by women, located in Chawton House.

After more than twenty years, Lerner is apparently ready to move on: Late last month, Chawton House Library announced that she will step down as chair of its board immediately and will stop her annual financial support at the end of 2017. Although she’s setting up an endowment to help fund future operations, the loss of such a deep-pocketed patron is bound to hurt.

“Her intention is that we should use her generous support as a ‘challenge’ gift to raise matched funding to secure the future of the Library,” Chawton’s web announcement states.

I’m not privy to the internal workings of Chawton House Library, but during the recently concluded Jane Austen Society of North America conference, a well-connected Janeite told me that Lerner’s decision to leave Chawton came after years of tension.

As is customary in these cases, Chawton’s announcement doesn’t even hint at a less-than-amicable parting, but it’s not hard to pick up notes of anxiety amid the official optimism: “challenges that will demand creativity and commitment. . . . need to work towards a sustainable future. . . . must protect and preserve this significant literary heritage. . . . know we can secure our future. . . .”

Obviously, those in a position to know don’t think the library’s sustainable, secure future is assured just yet. Here’s hoping they find a way to keep Sandy Lerner’s powerful vision alive, even without Lerner herself around to ensure it.

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