Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 19 2016 01:00PM

When I was a girl – yes, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth – I was a dab hand at needlepoint. I stitched plastic canvas into keepsake boxes and picture frames and bookmarks. I made my mother a coupon-case to carry while she shopped at the grocery store. I worked samplers for my cousins’ weddings.

I’ve barely picked up a needle in decades – these days I lack the time and, truth be told, the eyesight – but I’m still captivated by beautiful needlework (so elegant! So delicate! So unbelievably time-consuming!) Hence my delight in a five-minute video released last week by Chawton House Library, highlighting its display of modern needlework based on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century patterns.

The needlework display, known as “The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off,” accompanies a library exhibit commemorating the bicentennial of the publication of Emma. The stitch-off got its accidental start last November, when University of Kent English professor Jennie Batchelor acquired a 1796 edition of The Lady’s Magazine, the Good Housekeeping of its day, which happened to include an embroidery pattern.

Enthusiastic embroiderers latched onto Batchelor’s blogs and tweets about her find, volunteering to work the pattern themselves. Eventually, ten Lady’s Magazine patterns were made available online, and an international embroidery bee was launched.

Judging from Batchelor’s blog and Chawton House Library’s video, the results were breathtaking. Some participants recreated the patterns with scrupulous historical accuracy; some stitched modern interpretations. The display includes reticules, shoe uppers and a kissing ball, among a wealth of other items.

(What does any of this have to do with Jane Austen? Well, we know from her nephew’s 1870 memoir that she was a talented needlewoman, and she would certainly have read The Lady’s Magazine. That’s good enough for me.)

Alas, the Stitch Off display, and the Emma exhibit, close on Sunday, so if you happen to be in England, now’s the time to drop by.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 25 2016 01:00PM

I am, of course, aware that online listicles with titles like “22 Places in the UK That Are a Must-See for Jane Austen Fans” are silly clickbait to which I should pay no mind. However, I am constitutionally incapable of passing such pieces by without a teensy-weensy bit of grumbling.

So let’s get on with it.

Buzzfeed’s twenty-two-item list includes three places with rock-solid connections to Jane Austen’s life: Chawton cottage (#1), where she spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels; Chawton House (#2), one of her brother Edward’s properties, which she often visited; and Winchester Cathedral (#3), where she is buried.

Then there are three places with legit links to the novels: Chatsworth House (#10), which Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit during their holiday trip in Pride and Prejudice; Box Hill (#16), where Emma insults Miss Bates; and the Bath Assembly Rooms (#22), where Catherine Morland meets Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

Throw in a couple sites with rather more tangential relationships to the life, the work or both: Saltram House (#12), whose one-time mistress, the Countess of Morley, was a fan of Austen’s writing; and Stoneleigh Abbey (#19), which Austen is known to have visited and whose chapel is likely to have served as the inspiration for the Sotherton chapel in Mansfield Park.

Heck, I’m in a forgiving mood, so I’ll even grant that the Jane Austen Centre in Bath (#4), although an entirely artificial creation for tourists, belongs on the list, given that Austen did spend several unhappy years living in the city.

But thirteen of the twenty-two places on the list – nearly two-thirds – are stately homes and/or picturesque villages known to Austen lovers only as locations where Austen movies were shot.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have been to some of these places, and they are delightful. If you want to visit them, don’t let me stand in your way. (Although I really can’t imagine making a special trip to Newby Hall -- #20 – merely because the execrable Billie Piper Mansfield Park was shot there. Maybe that’s just me.)

But here’s my point. If you’re compiling a list of places in the UK for Austen fans to visit, it seems a tad perverse to take up nearly two-thirds of your list with movie locations while omitting a bunch of places with real Austen connections: places like St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, where Austen’s father was the rector for the first twenty-five years of her life; the Vyne, where Austen attended a ball or three; Godmersham Park, where Jane and Cassandra often stayed with Edward’s family; Goodnestone Park and House, the home of Edward’s in-laws, where the Austen sisters also visited; Lyme Regis, where key scenes in Persuasion take place; or the British Library, where Austen’s portable writing desk is on display.

Yes, I will grant you that Steventon is hard to get to, Godmersham House is closed to the public, and Goodnestone costs a small fortune to rent for a night. But such minor logistical considerations never stopped a real fan.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 13 2015 01:00PM

If you liked the inspiring story of how Sandy Lerner turned Edward Austen Knight’s decaying family pile into the beautiful and important Chawton House Library, you're bound to love this recent tale from the UK's Daily Telegraph. I admit that the story of St. Giles and the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury has nothing much to do with Jane Austen, but it’s such a captivating yarn that I couldn’t resist sharing.

I ask you: how often do you get a tattooed former DJ with a double-barreled surname inheriting a decaying seventeenth-century mansion after his father is murdered by a Playboy-model-turned-prostitute third wife? Throw in the tragic death of the elder brother, the love story with the veterinary surgeon, and the slightly wayward younger son’s maturation into his responsibilities, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a truly excellent romance novel.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 30 2015 01:00PM

The big Jane Austen news this week: the evil, soulless folks who get their jollies – and their profits – by infecting your computer with malware may be Janeites!

Well, probably not, but it was bizarrely fascinating to learn, via the midyear security report of tech giant Cisco Systems, that hackers have started pasting text from Sense and Sensibility on those dangerous web pages to which their spam emails try to lure us.

“Antivirus and other security solutions are more likely to categorize these pages as legitimate after ‘reading’ such text,” Cisco explains. And users who foolishly click on the email links and encounter the Austen text may be less suspicious than they ought to be, the report speculates, allowing the hackers more time to infect target computers.

(Although the example Cisco reproduces on page 13 of its report really ought to make a true Janeite suspicious – the lines of text are non-consecutive and apparently randomly selected from at least eleven different chapters of the novel, and they’re attributed to one “jane austin.”)

It’s not clear why S&S was chosen – what, the hackers don’t like Emma? – but there is a certain poetic justice to Cisco’s role in exposing this particular scam. As readers of Among the Janeites will recall, Sandy Lerner, the dedicated Janeite who founded the Chawton House Library, made her millions by co-founding Cisco.

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