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, Oct 22 2018 01:00PM

In September 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, from their brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent. As regular blog readers will recall from last month’s post, Austen seemed to be enjoying her momentary peace and quiet: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” she told Cassandra.


The Godmersham library, both the room and the book collection, were grand enough to suit a prosperous landowner like Edward Austen Knight: At a time when books were true luxury items, he owned more than twelve hundred – non-fiction on a broad range of topics, as well as a good number of novels -- and housed them in a long rectangular room with two fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls.


Edward’s book collection was dispersed and the library itself in ruins by the early decades of the twentieth century. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it’s now possible for Janeites and bibliophiles to hang out there with Jane Austen, at least in imagination: Reading With Austen, a website that reconstructs Godmersham’s library, went live earlier this month.


Like the similar What Jane Saw project, which recreated a famous art exhibition Austen visited in London in 1813, Reading with Austen relies on a combination of old-fashioned scholarly sleuthing and up-to-date digital technology.


Using an 1818 catalogue of the library’s holdings, a team headed by Austen scholar Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Toronto, has situated a digital rendering of Edward’s holdings inside an artistic rendering of what his library may have looked like. Click on a book spine and you call up bibliographical information about the volume and, when available, an image of its title page, dedication, marginalia, and Knight family bookplate.


“When available”: There’s the rub. Only five hundred of the books listed in the 1818 catalogue, over a third of the total, are on loan to Chawton House, the rare-books library housed in Edward Austen Knight’s second home in Hampshire. Another fifty volumes are owned by libraries or museums; a few others have come on the market recently.


Edward’s first editions of Jane Austen’s novels aren't in Chawton House, but their digital facsimiles can be viewed on the web site; the physical copies are owned by Jane Austen's House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, located down the road from Chawton House. (On Reading with Austen, you can find the novels in the center of the South Wall; pinpoint their location by browsing the website’s catalog.)


Locating, photographing, and, where possible, acquiring the missing books is the job of the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), the brainchild of Sabor; Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; and Deborah Barnum, a rare book specialist who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont.


Absent a few miracles, scholarly and financial, it’s going to take a long, long time for all those lost sheep to find their way home. In the meantime, however, we can all spend a few hours at Reading with Austen, daydreaming in bibliophilic splendor alongside Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 26 2017 01:00PM

Somewhere out there, lost lambs are baa-ing to return to the fold, and a group of scholarly Bo Peeps is ready to shepherd them home.


The little lambs in question are hundreds of books formerly owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight, whose estates at Godmersham and Chawton once housed libraries fine enough to satisfy even the exacting tastes of a Mr. Darcy.


In the two centuries since a catalog of the Godmersham library identified some 1,250 books, the Knight family fortunes have declined, and many volumes have scattered to the wind. (The remaining volumes belong to Chawton House Library, the library for the study of early English writing by women that is now housed in the Knights’ restored Chawton House.)


Earlier this month, three Austen scholars – Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Deborah Barnum, a board member of the North American Friends of Chawton House Library who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont; and Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Canada – announced the formation of a group whimsically entitled the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society, or GLOSS. (Barnum in fact began posting about the group months ago.)


GLOSS’ goal is to track down the scattered Knight family volumes, whose inner covers bear one of the three bookplates of Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Edward Knight. (See the three bookplate designs here.) Locating the lost volumes will help to reconstruct the literary context that influenced Jane Austen, since she visited Edward’s family and had access to both his libraries.


Last February, while inspecting the Austen collection of a Texas Janeite, Barchas stumbled across an incredible find: Chawton’s copies of all six Austen novels, in the 1833 Bentley edition that brought Austen back into print for the first time after her death. The owner of the volumes, Sandra Clark, donated the books to Chawton House Library, and clearly GLOSS hopes other collectors who happen across one of Montagu George Knight’s bookplates will do the same: As regular blog readers will recall, cash-strapped Chawton is in no position to buy anything right now.


Failing that level of generosity, however, GLOSS is willing to settle for digital images of the books’ bindings, title pages and Knight bookplate. Anything to rescue those poor little lambs who have lost their way – baa, baa, baa.


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