Deborah Yaffe

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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 25 2020 01:00PM

A month or two ago, there was no joy in Austenland, as, one by one, treasured Jane Austen events fell victim to coronavirus cancelation. No Jane Austen Festivals in Bath or Louisville. No Regency Week in Alton, England. No Jane Austen Summer Program in Chapel Hill, N.C. No Jane Austen Society of North America conference in Cleveland, and no Jane Austen Society of Australia conference in Canberra.


But Janeites are an indefatigable lot, and everywhere you turn this summer, online Jane Austen divertissements seem to be multiplying like dandelions.


Already, Chawton House, the stately home in Hampshire once owned by Austen’s brother, has hosted two virtual events: a Lockdown Literary Festival featuring talks and workshops by Austen authors and scholars, and a Virtual Garden Festival that took viewers through the grounds of the estate.


There’s talk of a “viral Jane Austen festival” to raise money for Jane Austen’s House in Hampshire, England, aka Chawton cottage; and the canceled Louisville and Cleveland events will be reborn online in, respectively, July and October.


If you can’t wait that long, however, the Jane Austen fanfiction writers at Austen Variations are hosting “JAFF in June,” a series of readings, conversations, and mini-performances spread across two weekends.


I’m late to this party -- the festivities kicked off last Friday -- but you can catch most of the past events on YouTube (June 19 here and June 20 here). Meanwhile, a full slate of activities – a panel discussion, historical lectures, readings from new releases and works in progress, plus a group viewing of the 2007 film adaptation of Persuasion -- is planned for Saturday and Sunday.


Creative, fun, and intellectually engaging as they are, none of these events can fully substitute for the in-person camaraderie of fellow Janeites. But something is better than nothing, right?


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, Apr 20 2020 01:00PM

Two years ago, Chawton House Library – a research center for the study of early English writing by women, located in an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother -- rebranded itself, dropping the “Library” from its name in an effort to lure non-scholarly tourists. Today, when you Google “Chawton House,” the top listing is a paid advertisement describing the site as “Historic House with Tearoom.” Step right up, folks!


And now in Janeite Rebranding, it’s the turn of the premier pilgrimage site for Austen fans: Chawton cottage, the far more modest establishment, down the road in Hampshire, England, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


Until recently, the cottage was officially known by the slightly awkward moniker of “Jane Austen’s House Museum.” But now, under a rebranding effort carried out by the design studio Pentagram, the name has been streamlined – no more “Museum,” just “Jane Austen’s House.”


The rebranding also encompasses a new visual style, which uses a color palette drawn from original wallpaper in the museum (oops, sorry: the house), a logo design inspired by Jane Austen’s handwriting, and a stamp based on the shape of her writing desk. It all comes together on everything from letterhead and posters to lanyards and souvenir tote bags.


The designers set out to avoid the silhouettes and pastels that have become cliched Austen signifiers, and more power to them on that. The new approach “provides a modern interpretation of a very well-known literary figure, while respecting the incredible heritage of her house and celebrating her most enduring appeal,” Pentagram writes on its website. I’m no expert on branding and visuals, but it all looks clean and attractive to me.


I am, however, a (self-styled, but never mind) expert on Jane Austen quotes, and it’s going to pain me to the point of anguish if Chawton cottage – of all places! – markets a tote bag implicitly claiming that “We are all fools in love” is a line written by Jane Austen.


Yes, that tote bag can be seen on Pentagram’s Instagram account and (at :43) in the promotional video embedded here (scroll down). It is, presumably, one of the proposed “series of coloured typographic tote bags featuring a selection of readers’ favourite Jane Austen quotes” that the company mentions as part of its work.


Except that no reader has ever encountered that quote, since – as I have pointed out before, though apparently to no avail -- it is a line from the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and not from the novel. *


I have no objection to merchandise adorned with movie quotes, as long as the quotes are identified as such. I have a great objection, however, to promiscuously mingling bona fide Austen lines with words that she never wrote and labeling the resulting gumbo “favorite Jane Austen quotes.” That’s taking rebranding too far. Chawton cottage can -- and should -- do better.




* I’m choosing not to troll Pentagram for its “There is no enjoyment like reading” tote bag, even though that quote, ripped out of context, means roughly the opposite of what Jane Austen intended. (Gotta pick your battles.) If the Bank of England does it, how can we expect better from a mere design firm?


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