Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 7 2021 02:00PM

It’s been more than three years since a trio of passionate Janeites formed the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), an organization dedicated to recovering the scattered contents of the library owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight and housed at Godmersham, his estate in Kent, England.


And now comes word that a key item in that missing collection – “the Holy Grail in these endeavors,” according to GLOSS co-founder Peter Sabor, an English professor at McGill University in Toronto – has been found and purchased for public display.


The Holy Grail in question is a first edition of William Cowper’s Poems, originally published in 1782. Cowper was reportedly Jane Austen’s favorite poet; she mentions him in her letters and novels, with Fanny Price quoting a line of his in Mansfield Park and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, deploring Edward Ferrars’ “tame” and “spiritless” reading of his poetry. It is likely that Austen perused this very volume during at least one of her extended visits to Edward’s family.


Only about 500 of the 1,250 books listed in an 1818 catalogue of the Knight family’s holdings are currently in the possession of Chawton House, the research library situated in the Elizabethan mansion that was Edward’s second home in Hampshire. Recovering the remaining volumes – identifiable through their bookplates – is GLOSS’ goal. (You can view a reconstruction of the Godmersham library on the clever and entertaining Reading with Austen website.)


How this particular acquisition came about remains somewhat obscure: Although Chawton House’s press release refers to funding from both GLOSS and Friends of the National Libraries, a UK non-profit that supports British libraries considered to be of national importance, it does not say how much those entities had to pay for the Cowper, or who sold it.


Still, such details of provenance won’t interfere with our enjoyment – in person or online – of that most tantalizing of literary relics: a beloved book that Jane Austen may once have held in her hands.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen never lived alone. From her earliest days, she was surrounded by parents and siblings; on visits away from home, she stayed with friends and extended family. Her writing time was snatched in shared living spaces rendered temporarily quiet enough to facilitate mental concentration. Surely she must sometimes have been frustrated by the enforced companionship.


Perhaps that’s why I like to imagine her as she describes herself in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#89 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen was on a long visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s stately home in Kent, and most of the letter recounts the doings of Edward’s family, friends, and visitors. “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Even[in]g,” Austen wote.


By the time she finished the letter, however, the others had apparently scattered: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” Austen wrote, “—at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody.”


The poem in question is Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk,” published in 1782, which famously begins, “I am monarch of all I survey.” Selkirk was the marooned sailor whose story helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Cowper imagines him lonely and despairing, pining for human contact.


Austen’s ironic self-description – as she well knew, she was mistress of nothing, least of all Edward’s many expensive books -- suggests more satisfaction than despair: a moment of breathing-room snatched amid the doings of a busy household.


But not for long: by the time Austen finished the letter, a few paragraphs later, she had a message for the people back home in Chawton, courtesy of her eight-year-old niece: “Louisa’s best Love & a Hundred Thousand Million Kisses.”


Louisa was the ninth of Edward’s eleven children. She sounds adorable, and probably also exhausting. No wonder Austen found her moment of solitude in the library worth memorializing in print


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