Deborah Yaffe

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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.



By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 27 2020 01:00PM

It’s no secret that the closing of pretty much everything in response to the coronavirus pandemic has hit non-profits and arts organizations especially hard. And Janeites’ favorite pilgrimage spots are no different.


Already, the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, scheduled for mid-July, has announced that it's going virtual; it remains unclear whether closures will last long enough to force the postponement or cancellation of some other much-anticipated upcoming events, including Jane Austen Regency Week in Alton, England (June), the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England (September), or the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting in Cleveland, Ohio (October).


But it’s already obvious that the loss of months’ worth of tourist dollars could severely wound two iconic Austen sites: Chawton House, the research library housed in a stately home once owned by Jane Austen’s brother; and Jane Austen’s House, aka Chawton cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


Chawton House, whose financial struggles over the past few years practically merit a novel of their own, recently launched an online gift shop stocking the usual line in fridge magnets/bookmarks/tote bags/tea towels; merchandise will be shipped out once a week while the crisis lasts. Even better, if you donate at least $250 to the North American Friends of Chawton House, the library's fundraising arm on this side of the pond, you'll get a premium gift that is, depending on your taste, either cool or weird: a bobblehead doll that reimagines Jane Austen as a rock chick, complete with dark glasses, midriff-baring T-shirt, and battered guitar. If you missed out on your chance to own the original Jane Austen bobblehead--mine is shown below; eat your hearts out, Janeites--now's your chance to make up for it.



Meanwhile, Chawton cottage, hands down the world's most beloved Austen site, has launched an ominously named “Survival Appeal,” soliciting monetary help from the global Janeite community.


The virus crisis “will be crippling. The impact it will have on our ability to protect this special place could be too much,” the cottage’s website says. “As a registered charity without any regular public funding, we are entirely reliant on income from visitor admissions and purchases. Without this, we may not be able to maintain the House and its priceless collection while our doors are closed to the public.”


A world without Jane Austen’s House? Unthinkable. I hope this alarming wording is excusable hyperbole at a time of great stress, but who wants to take the chance? If you have money left over after buying three months’ worth of toilet paper, here’s one place to spend it


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 20 2020 01:00PM

Two years ago, Chawton House Library – a research center for the study of early English writing by women, located in an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother -- rebranded itself, dropping the “Library” from its name in an effort to lure non-scholarly tourists. Today, when you Google “Chawton House,” the top listing is a paid advertisement describing the site as “Historic House with Tearoom.” Step right up, folks!


And now in Janeite Rebranding, it’s the turn of the premier pilgrimage site for Austen fans: Chawton cottage, the far more modest establishment, down the road in Hampshire, England, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


Until recently, the cottage was officially known by the slightly awkward moniker of “Jane Austen’s House Museum.” But now, under a rebranding effort carried out by the design studio Pentagram, the name has been streamlined – no more “Museum,” just “Jane Austen’s House.”


The rebranding also encompasses a new visual style, which uses a color palette drawn from original wallpaper in the museum (oops, sorry: the house), a logo design inspired by Jane Austen’s handwriting, and a stamp based on the shape of her writing desk. It all comes together on everything from letterhead and posters to lanyards and souvenir tote bags.


The designers set out to avoid the silhouettes and pastels that have become cliched Austen signifiers, and more power to them on that. The new approach “provides a modern interpretation of a very well-known literary figure, while respecting the incredible heritage of her house and celebrating her most enduring appeal,” Pentagram writes on its website. I’m no expert on branding and visuals, but it all looks clean and attractive to me.


I am, however, a (self-styled, but never mind) expert on Jane Austen quotes, and it’s going to pain me to the point of anguish if Chawton cottage – of all places! – markets a tote bag implicitly claiming that “We are all fools in love” is a line written by Jane Austen.


Yes, that tote bag can be seen on Pentagram’s Instagram account and (at :43) in the promotional video embedded here (scroll down). It is, presumably, one of the proposed “series of coloured typographic tote bags featuring a selection of readers’ favourite Jane Austen quotes” that the company mentions as part of its work.


Except that no reader has ever encountered that quote, since – as I have pointed out before, though apparently to no avail -- it is a line from the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and not from the novel. *


I have no objection to merchandise adorned with movie quotes, as long as the quotes are identified as such. I have a great objection, however, to promiscuously mingling bona fide Austen lines with words that she never wrote and labeling the resulting gumbo “favorite Jane Austen quotes.” That’s taking rebranding too far. Chawton cottage can -- and should -- do better.




* I’m choosing not to troll Pentagram for its “There is no enjoyment like reading” tote bag, even though that quote, ripped out of context, means roughly the opposite of what Jane Austen intended. (Gotta pick your battles.) If the Bank of England does it, how can we expect better from a mere design firm?


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