Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 9 2020 01:00PM

A thousand years ago – or, actually, back in January – the big Janeite news of 2020 was shaping up to be the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, the world’s first official Austen fan club.

Since then, of course, we’ve had to contend with the virus-induced closings of major Austen sites, along with concomitant fiscal pressures; and the virus-impelled cancelations of Austen events, partly mitigated by new online programming designed to fill the gaps.

But it’s still been eighty years since that day in May 1940 when an intrepid band of Janeites convened in Alton, Hampshire. Their mission: raising money to buy and preserve Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House, the place where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.

Despite the unsatisfactory circumstances in which we now find ourselves, a birthday celebration (online, of course) is planned: On July 11, Chawton House, the Austen-linked mansion down the road from the cottage, is sponsoring an afternoon of lectures and discussion about Chawton, the JAS, and the global phenomenon of Austen appreciation.

The event, which will run from 2 to 5:30 pm British time, is free, and videos of the proceedings will be available later on Chawton House’s YouTube channel. It’s an apt way to celebrate the beginnings of a worldwide community of Austen fans -- even if we have to supply our own cake and champagne.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2020 01:00PM

Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life, is the Austen pilgrimage site par excellence, a locus of mingled joy and heartbreak. It’s the place where she found the time and mental space to write or revise all six of her completed novels, the place where she finally became a published author – and the place where she felt the first symptoms of the illness that would take her life at forty-one.

In the seventy-one years since Chawton’s establishment as a museum of Austen’s life, its curators have collected relics with near-holy significance for Janeites: the topaz cross her sailor brother Charles bought her, the turquoise ring she liked to wear, the small writing table on which she composed her masterpieces.

And all this could be in imminent danger, a report last week in the Guardian newspaper informed us: “Jane Austen museum under threat due to coronavirus. . . . at risk of closing before the end of the year. . . . collections of first editions, letters and objects owned by the Austen family set to be dispersed. . . .” It’s enough to send any self-respecting Janeite into a swoon.

The Guardian story set off a flurry of impassioned tweets, spearheaded by Austen scholars Paula Byrne and Helena Kelly, and an avalanche of donations soon followed, from more than two thousand Janeites around the world. "This means that we won't just survive, we will recover," the museum tweeted on Saturday, after the fundraising campaign met its target just two days after the ominous Guardian story.

A look at the museum’s financial filings, however, complicates the picture, suggesting that the imminent peril may have been less severe than suggested -- although, arguably, the long-term dangers may be worse.

There’s no doubt that Jane Austen’s House, like arts and culture non-profits the world over and small museums in particular, has been hit hard by the virus-induced closure of the last three months. According to financial statements filed late last month with Britain’s Charity Commission – I’ve appended parenthetical page references for the relevant data -- admission fees paid by its nearly thirty-nine thousand visitors (4) comprised two-thirds of the museum’s 2019 income (9), a funding stream that the closure eliminated entirely, albeit temporarily. (Donations and grants made up most of the remaining third.)

Chawton's visitor numbers have been declining since the highwater mark of fifty-five thousand reported in the financial filings for 2017 (2), the bicentenary of Austen's death. And like any responsible board, the museum’s trustees had planned for a significant decline in revenue even before anyone had heard of the coronavirus.

The 2019 financial report shows that, at the end of last year, Chawton cottage held reserves of more than £265,000 (5), or over $334,000 – slightly less than the admission fees collected in all of 2019. Those reserves were significantly below the £444,000-plus (about $557,000) held two years earlier (2017 records -- 3) and slightly below the £275,000 ($345,000) the 2019 board had declared to be desirable (2019 records -- 5). In response to the virus-induced closure, a far bigger drop in revenue than anyone could have predicted, the board furloughed most employees, halted non-essential spending, and, in late March, launched an emergency fundraising campaign, the Survival Appeal.

“With these measures in place and taking into account the reserves position,” the report says, “the Trustees are confident that the Museum can continue to operate in the short and medium term.” (11) And that's not even considering how slim is the chance that the British government would allow the closure of an iconic tourist site celebrating the work of someone now pictured on the national currency.

So why the headline predicting imminent calamity? Why the implication that the museum’s JustGiving campaign, with its goal of £75,000 (about $94,000), was a new development, rather than a two-month-old outgrowth of the Survival Appeal launched on March 27?

In an email response to my questions, museum director Lizzie Dunford noted that the financial statements, while filed on May 29, were signed in early April. “They represent the situation then rather than in late May,” Dunford wrote. “Everything changed as it became apparent that we weren't going to see the previously expected V-shaped economic recovery and instead were looking at months of decimated income and uncertainty.”

Dunford pointed out the significant challenges the museum faces going forward: barebones monthly expenses of £30,000 (about $37,000), which will rise upon reopening; a likely decline in international visitors and group tours, both mainstays of the budget; and social-distancing requirements that will cut the number of permitted visitors below the level required to meet operating costs. “Our reserves could disappear pretty quickly,” she wrote.

I don’t doubt that the museum is facing hard times, as are so many cultural institutions, large and small. But given the numbers in the financial filings, I remain skeptical about the extent of the immediate peril.

Crisis tends to rally the troops. In response to the tweeting and hand-wringing engendered by the Guardian’s report, donations to the Survival Appeal leaped: The campaign exceeded its goal within days, with more raised in the twenty-four hours after the story appeared than in the previous two months. Scrolling through donors’ messages, with their heartfelt testimonials to the lasting importance of Jane Austen’s life and work, it’s hard not to be moved.

And maybe also a little bit annoyed at this ginning-up of possibly unnecessary panic.

If the £87,000 (about $109,000) that the Survival Appeal has now raised is enough, as the museum’s tweet says, to ensure a full “recovery” from the crisis, it’s hard to understand why holding nearly three times as much in reserves entailed a risk of closure within seven months. On the other hand, based on Dunford’s accounting, the funds raised in the Survival Appeal will only cover about three months of expenses -- roughly making up for the money lost during the closure so far, but hardly mitigating the built-in structural problems of living indefinitely in a pandemic-afflicted world. To quote Austen's Mr. Bennet, "It seems an hopeless business."

Of course, it's not hopeless at all; there is plenty of money available to save priceless cultural treasures like Chawton cottage. But that money isn't going to come from the pockets of Janeites, however generous. Perhaps the energy spent encouraging small-bore contributions would be better invested in lobbying the British government to prevent the nation's cultural heritage from becoming another of COVID's victims.

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, Dec 23 2019 02:00PM

Another of those Janeite dream jobs -- arguably, the biggest Janeite dream job of them all -- has opened up: Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, is looking for a new director. The most recent incumbent, Mary Guyatt, left her post earlier this month to take a position overseeing restoration of the Houses of Parliament in London.

Chawton cottage is the most important Jane Austen site in England, the place where Austen lived for the last eight years of her life and where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels. It’s visited by an average of 40,000 people each year; during 2017, the bicentenary of Austen’s death, that number rose to 55,000.

Maintaining this shrine and expanding its offerings is a big job in the Janeite world: the job description calls for skills in curation, management, communications, budgeting, and fundraising. And all for the modest – by American standards – salary of about $52,000.

Applications are due by January 19, so start polishing those resumes. . .

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?”

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