Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 25 2019 01:00PM

The fascinating Reading with Austen project, a digital recreation of Edward Austen Knight’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent, got some further publicity last week via an article in the literary/historical journal Lapham’s Quarterly.


As blog readers will recall, Reading with Austen, which went live last fall, features publication information and, where available, digital images of the more than twelve hundred books listed in an 1818 catalogue of the Knight family library. We know Jane Austen spent time in the library during her visits to the family of her brother, who took the name Knight in honor of the wealthy relatives who adopted him.


Recreating the library’s holdings – more than a third of the books are currently on loan to Chawton House, the research library located in the Knight family’s second home, in Hampshire -- offers a window into the literary context that shaped Austen’s work.


“I think it gives us a picture of someone who has the capacity to be much more than this kind of closeted spinster in a bonnet,” Gillian Dow, Chawton House’s former executive director, told Lapham’s writer Rebecca Rego Barry.


Barry’s article situates the Reading with Austen project in the context of similar efforts to recreate, physically or digitally, the book collections of Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Edith Wharton. Meanwhile, efforts continue to find, digitize, and perhaps acquire the Knight library’s long-scattered volumes, the better to reconstruct the intellectual milieu that nurtured Jane Austen’s genius.


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.


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