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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 24 2019 01:00PM

Forty-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


When Jane Austen sat down to write a letter to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 211 years ago today, her family was in the midst of transitions both tragic and auspicious.


Two weeks earlier, thirty-five-year-old Elizabeth Austen, the wife of the third-oldest Austen son, Edward, had died suddenly, twelve days after giving birth to her eleventh child. And soon after her death, Edward had offered his sisters and widowed mother the use of a cottage on his estate at Chawton in Hampshire – a secure home at last, after more than three years of journeying from one unsatisfactory temporary lodging to another.


Austen biographers have speculated that it was opposition from Elizabeth -- a gently-bred woman who, family lore suggests, was no fan of her husband’s less exalted relations -- that prevented Edward from offering the cottage sooner.


Whatever the truth – and it’s unobtainable at this distance – the Austen women’s move to Chawton cottage in the summer of 1809 was a boon for world literature. Finally granted peace and stability, Austen found the time and mental space to write or revise all six of her completed novels, publishing four of them before her own untimely death in 1817.


Both the tragic and the hopeful aspects of the family’s situation are on display in Austen’s letter (#60 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), written from Southampton, where the Austen women were living with the family of another Austen brother, Francis.


Cassandra was staying at Edward’s home at Godmersham, in Kent, helping to care for his suddenly motherless children; meanwhile, the two oldest of Edward’s sons, ages fourteen and twelve, had recently arrived in Southampton for a visit with their grandmother and aunt.


Austen describes her efforts to entertain the two bereaved boys, distracting them from their grief with endless cup-and-ball games and a visit to a ship under construction. She promises that the tailor is at work on their mourning clothes, reports how moved her teenaged nephew was by the Sunday sermon, and passes along condolences from friends.


And, discreetly, she plans for a happier future. “Of Chawton I think I can have nothing more to say, but that everything you say about it in the letter now before me will, I am sure, as soon as I am able to read it to her, make my mother consider the plan with more and more pleasure,” Austen writes.


Her tone is sober and restrained, filled with genuine concern for her abruptly widowed brother and his young children. And yet, she cannot help her moments of optimism about that new home she glimpses on the horizon. “We are all quite familiarised to the idea ourselves,” she writes. “What sort of a kitchen garden is there?”


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 24 2019 01:00PM

Six years ago, the singer Kelly Clarkson was forced to part with a charming little piece of jewelry she had just picked up at auction in England: a turquoise ring that had once belonged to Jane Austen.


Upon hearing that a precious bit of the nation’s cultural heritage was about to depart for America – oh, the horror! – the UK government slapped an export ban on Clarkson’s ring. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, launched a public appeal that collected the $250,000 necessary to buy the ring back and put it on permanent display.


Apparently, it’s time again for public-spirited Janeites to dig into their wallets and help the museum preserve a treasured piece of Austeniana. A fragment of an 1814 Austen letter is for sale, and although the museum has already raised most of the £35,000 (about $44,500) purchase price, it must come up with the remaining £10,000 ($12,700) by July 31.


If the fundraising succeeds, the letter-fragment will go on display this year at the museum, which also owns another dozen Austen letters. But if the appeal fails, the fragment will likely disappear into a private collection.


The letter in question -- #112 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence – is dated November 29, 1814. While staying in London with her brother Henry, Austen wrote to her niece Anna Lefroy, discussing some family comings and goings and describing her underwhelmed reaction to a theatrical production of an eighteenth-century tragedy (“I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either”). As Austen letters go, it’s fairly routine: interesting because we are interested in everything about Our Author, but not all that exciting in itself.


The text of the letter has been known from family and scholarly sources since the nineteenth century, but sometime after the 1869 publication of the Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Anna Lefroy’s half-brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, the physical letter was cut up into at least five pieces.


One of these five pieces is in the British Library, and one is in private hands. Two are apparently lost, and as recently as eight years ago, when Le Faye published the fourth edition of her collection of Austen correspondence, the fifth section, which comprises about three-quarters of the text, was also believed lost.


But sometime since then, this lost section apparently resurfaced, and the museum is eager to get it. Signs look pretty good, I’d say: As of this morning, an online appeal had raised £2,871, nearly 29 percent of the required total.


But just in case things still look dodgy a month from now, the museum is hosting a July 23 benefit party featuring a talk by Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland at an antiquarian bookstore in London. Tickets are going for £48 (about $61), with proceeds supporting the fundraising appeal.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 4 2019 02:00PM

Back when I was in elementary school, ranking one’s friends – best friend, second-best friend, third-best friend – was a popular pastime.


But then I got older, and I realized that because people are individuals with different strengths and weaknesses, it doesn’t make sense to rank them on some imagined mono-dimensional scale. I love my close friends for their unique combinations of qualities – combinations that make them entirely incomparable and unrankable.


I feel the same way about writers. Since I wrote a book about Jane Austen fans, everyone assumes Jane Austen must be my favorite writer. But she isn’t. She’s one of my favorite writers. She has qualities that, say, Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte can’t match. But they have qualities that she can’t match, either.


All of which is by way of explaining why today’s post on my Jane Austen blog is about George Eliot.


Turns out that this year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Mary Ann Evans, who would grow up to write, under the name of George Eliot, seven striking and important novels, at least two of which are among the greatest ever written in English. Middlemarch — erudite, profound, empathetic, moving, unforgettable -- is coming with me to my desert island, right alongside Persuasion.


For 2019, Eliot’s birthplace, the Warwickshire town of Nuneaton, is planning the kind of extravaganza that we Janeites experienced two years ago, when we marked the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Nuneaton’s plans call for an art competition, a street fair, an interactive walking trail, a couple of new theatrical adaptations, and a Victorian-themed Christmas celebration, tied to Eliot’s November 22 birthday.


Sadly, Eliot’s boosters have so far been unable to raise the money necessary to turn outbuildings on the farm where she grew up into a visitors center that might serve as a draw for fans. (The latest plan: raising the money literally brick by brick.) Their travails underline the foresight of the founders of the UK Jane Austen Society, which was created in 1940 with the express purpose of buying and preserving Chawton cottage, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


Imagine the Janeite world without the place now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum.* Unthinkable! I’m crossing my fingers that one day we’ll have a similar shrine to the work of George Eliot, who is, after all, one of my favorite writers.



* Incidentally, the moving line on the memorial plaque outside Chawton cottage -- "Such art as hers can never grow old" -- comes from an 1859 essay by the literary critic George Henry Lewes, who just happens to have been George Eliot's common-law husband. He's also the guy who recommended Austen to Charlotte Bronte, with -- um -- less than positive results.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 31 2019 02:00PM

As regular blog readers know, I find few pursuits more enjoyable than the ogling of Jane Austen-related real estate. This week’s wallowing is brought to us courtesy of Country Life, that venerable catalog of How the Other Half – or, really, the Other One Percent – Lives.


It seems that a house is for sale in the fair village of Chawton, Hampshire -- known to Janeites as the site of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


This house, Chawton’s former rectory, is a seven-bedroom, three-bath affair totaling more than 6,800 square feet of living space situated on seven acres of land. There are gardens! Paddocks! A Coach House for stabling the horses!


The house was first built in the fifteenth century – original beams remain visible – but fortunately has been renovated a time or four since then. After serving as the village rectory, it was bought in the late nineteenth century by Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Austen’s older brother Edward Austen Knight and the inheritor of the Chawton estate.


According to Country Life, the home has come to be known as the Dower House because Montagu bought it for “the then-dowager,” although it’s not clear to me who this was: Montagu’s mother died before he acceded to the estate. (And while we’re on the subject of family: Does anyone know why Montagu inherited Chawton when his father had three surviving older sons?)


The Dower House has a further Austen-ish connection, since, beginning in1802, it was the home of Chawton rector John Papillon, whom Edward’s adoptive mother apparently once suggested as a perfect husband for the eternally unmarried Jane. “I am very much obliged to Mrs Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me--& she may depend upon it, that I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a December 1808 letter (#62 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.”


Alas for property values, Austen never did become mistress of the Chawton rectory: Mr. Papillon’s impending, yet never materializing, proposal seems to have become a running joke in the Austen family. (The Austens' Papillon connections are helpfully summarized on the website of the UK Jane Austen Society.)


Whatever its Austen associations, judging from the online photos, the Dower House looks delightful: spacious yet homey and filled with natural light. The price is a bit steep for most of us -- £1.9 million, or $2.6 million – but probably a bargain for the kind of people who read Country Life with more than ogling in mind.


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