Deborah Yaffe

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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, Jul 26 2018 01:00PM

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


As a novelist, Jane Austen was one of the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. As a poet? Not so much.


The Austens were a literary family – reportedly, Austen’s mother was a dab hand at humorous verse, and as Oxford students, two of her brothers founded a magazine – so it isn’t surprising that Austen sometimes took a holiday from her true vocation and tried her hand at poetry.


Only a few of the results have survived, and although all are interesting to those of us for whom every scrap of Austen’s writing is a sacred talisman, as poetry – well, frankly, they aren’t very good.


The letter/poem that Austen wrote to her naval brother Frank, then in China, exactly 209 years ago today (#69 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a perfect example: as poetry, doggerel; as biography, delightful.


Austen writes the letter (which consists entirely of fifty-two lines of verse) to congratulate Frank on the recent birth of his second child and first son, who she hopes will turn out just like his father: a high-spirited boy who will grow into a kind and responsible man. She indulges in some jokey references to Frank’s childhood and then concludes with a glowing report on Chawton cottage, which the Austen women had moved into just three weeks earlier:


“Our Chawton home, how much we find

Already in it, to our mind;

And how convinced, that when complete

It will all other Houses beat

That ever have been made or mended,

With rooms concise or rooms distended.”


Today we know, as she could not, how important that “Chawton home” would become over the last eight years of Austen’s life. Chawton cottage -- now officially called Jane Austen’s House Museum -- was the place where she established the peaceful routines that enabled her to write or revise all six of her completed novels and send them out into the world.


It’s thrilling to glimpse her at the beginning of that fruitful journey – even if that glimpse comes by way of some pretty clunky verse.



By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 23 2018 01:00PM

Last summer, not long after the July 18 bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, officials in the English town of Basingstoke announced that tourist traffic had risen eighty percent, as fans flooded in to commemorate their favorite author in her home county of Hampshire.


Now a report by a tourism non-profit has put a price tag on the economic boost the Austen anniversary brought to the county: nearly £21 million in direct spending and new jobs generated by the estimated 265,500 extra visitors attracted by commemorative events.


Those events included an exhibit in Winchester that brought together six portraits, acknowledged or disputed, of the author; a walking trail in Basingstoke of book-shaped benches decorated in Austen themes; the erection in the Basingstoke town center of the first-ever statue of Austen; the unveiling in Winchester Cathedral of the new British £10 note featuring a portrait of Austen; and special or continuing displays at Jane Austen’s House Museum and Chawton House.


All the excitement “had a clear positive effect on visitor numbers at various visitor attractions,” according to the report from Tourism South East, as quoted in a press release issued by Hampshire tourism officials. Visits to embattled Chawton House more than doubled, and attendance numbers at the exhibition space featuring the Austen portraits also rose significantly.


Naturally, county officials would prefer not to wait until 2025, when the world will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Austen’s birth, for a repeat of last year’s moneymaking.


So this year Hampshire is showcasing its contributions to technology and engineering. Among them: The Spitfire – the fighter plane in which brave Royal Air Force fighters held off Nazi bombers during the 1940 Battle of Britain – was invented in Hampshire and introduced into use eighty years ago next month.


I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to find out whether courtship novels or fighter planes provide the bigger tourism payoff.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 21 2018 01:00PM

The Hampshire village of Chawton is the mecca of the Janeite faith: the community where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, the secure home where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, the place from which “all her works were sent into the world,” to quote the plaque outside her cottage.


So it’s understandable that at least one villager found himself a tad miffed when the world’s first statue of Austen was unveiled last summer in . . . the nearby market town of Basingstoke, where Austen probably shopped, danced and walked, but where she indubitably did not live.


“Basingstoke has the statue, and Winchester has the grave and features on the Austen £10 note, but Chawton has been left out,” Michael Sanders, retiring chairman of the Friends of Chawton Church, told a local newspaper. “And it was here she did all the work on her books.”


So Sanders and his committee raised the money necessary to get Chawton a consolation prize of sorts: not the life-size bronze of Austen on permanent display in Basingstoke, but a smaller version, known as a maquette, which sculptor Adam Roud made as a preliminary template.


The Basingstoke Austen statue was installed in the central marketplace at street level, as if Bronze Jane were just another passerby on her way to the shops. By contrast, the smaller Chawton version stands atop a pedestal in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, not far from the graves of Austen’s mother and sister and a short distance from Chawton House, the home of Austen’s brother Edward Knight. The statue gazes across the meadows toward the cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen lived from 1809 to 1817.


Among the participants in last Friday’s unveiling ceremony were Richard Knight, one of Edward’s descendants; the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire; the Bishop of Basingstoke; and the novelist Joanna Trollope, a patron of Chawton House and the author of a deeply mediocre Sense and Sensibility update, as well as children from the local school and the chair of Chawton House’s board.


As blog readers will recall, Chawton House itself has had a rocky year or two as it tries to raise enough money to replace the contribution of Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who renovated the property and turned it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. Most recently, the organization dropped "Library" from Chawton House's name, in the hopes of encouraging non-scholarly tourists to make themselves welcome.


With luck, the statue will provide yet another reason for Janeites to make their very own pilgrimage to Hampshire.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 18 2018 01:00PM

A couple of months ago, when Jane Austen’s House Museum unveiled the results of the collaborative quilting project it organized to commemorate the 2017 bicentennial of Austen’s death, I bemoaned the lack of close-up photos for those of us who couldn’t journey to England to view the quilt squares in person.


I’m happy to say that omission has now been rectified: All fifty-three panels in the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt are now viewable in three online galleries, along with information about the theme and creator of each panel.


The panels, which cover aspects of Austen’s life and work, vary widely: Some are abstract, some are representational; some are specific, some more suggestive. Panels portray the church in Steventon, where Austen spent her first twenty-five years; Winchester Cathedral, where she is buried; and the museum itself, aka Chawton cottage, where she wrote or revised all six of her finished novels. Each novel gets a panel of its own, as do the Juvenilia and the unfinished Sanditon. Some panels also tackle themes in Austen’s work, such as elopement, self-control, and women’s precarious legal status.


Of course, a two-dimensional representation of needlework can’t substitute for an in-person viewing – texture and materials come across only imperfectly on screen – but for those of us whose international travel budgets are not what we might wish, this is a serviceable way to experience one of the most delightful Austen bicentenary projects.


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