Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2018 01:00PM

The transformation of Chawton House from purely academic destination into full-service Janeite tourist draw continues: The stately home where Jane Austen’s brother once lived, and which now houses a library of early English writing by women, is bidding farewell to its English-professor executive director and looking for a new CEO.

Chawton’s board hopes to find someone with “a strong track record in commercial delivery and fundraising” and “experience in positive stakeholder management,” according to a job description posted online late last month. Strikingly absent from the listing is any reference to scholarly chops – PhD, background in Austen studies, that kind of thing.

As regular blog readers will recall, Chawton has been in decorous turmoil for two years, since Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, whom I profiled in Among the Janeites, announced she would end her financial support. In the 1990s, Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Edward Austen Knight’s dilapidated Elizabethan manor house and for years afterwards continued to spend six-figure annual sums on its upkeep.

Since Lerner’s departure, the board and the outgoing executive director, University of Southampton professor Gillian Dow, have cut costs, sought grants, launched a fundraising appeal, and changed the institution’s name from “Chawton House Library” to just plain “Chawton House,” in hopes of rebranding sober scholarship as fun-filled Austen tourism. (See details of the saga here and here.)

It’s a tricky balancing act: Keeping Chawton, with its extraordinary collection of rare books, alive as a site for serious scholarship, while simultaneously attracting the tourist dollars of the folks who trek down the road to Jane Austen’s House Museum to buy Colin Firth tea towels and snap selfies with Austen’s desk. In a sense, Chawton House is a microcosm of the struggle within the Janeite world between devotees of Classic Author Austen and fans of Pop Culture Jane.

Yes, it's a challenge to walk this line between the academic and the pop, but it's not impossible: the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. does it with great success, simultaneously hosting scholarly conferences and hawking Shakespeare magnetic poetry.

Here’s hoping that Chawton House, a true Janeite gem, can find its footing too. A quick Google search suggests that the announced salary for the new CEO -- £55,000 (about $72,000) -- is no better than average for the heads of smaller charities outside London, so perhaps this will be a job for someone young and ambitious. Applications are due by Friday, so start polishing that resume.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 19 2018 01:00PM

Janeites tend to know quite a bit about Jane Austen: her books, her characters, her family, her life and times. But hey – there’s always more to learn, right?

Next Monday sees the launch of “Jane Austen: Myth, Reality and Global Celebrity,” an online course developed by the University of Southampton in England and co-taught by Gillian Dow, a university English professor who is executive director of the library at Chawton House.

The class – a so-called MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course – requires a modest commitment: three hours a week for two weeks. No college credit is involved, but if you fork over $49, you can take tests and receive a “Certificate of Achievement” if you pass. Or you can just watch the lectures for free.

The instructors – Dow and Kim Simpson, a Southampton University lecturer who is currently a Chawton House postdoctoral affiliate – promise to cover a wide range of topics, from the social and historical context of Austen’s work to the marketing of Austen as a contemporary pop celebrity. Judging from the course’s promotional video, participants will also be treated to some lovely shots of iconic Austen-related locations.

The only prerequisite is “a basic knowledge of [Austen’s] novels,” which shouldn’t pose much of a problem for your average Janeite.

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