Deborah Yaffe


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?

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 23 2019 02:00PM

Another of those Janeite dream jobs -- arguably, the biggest Janeite dream job of them all -- has opened up: Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, is looking for a new director. The most recent incumbent, Mary Guyatt, left her post earlier this month to take a position overseeing restoration of the Houses of Parliament in London.

Chawton cottage is the most important Jane Austen site in England, the place where Austen lived for the last eight years of her life and where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels. It’s visited by an average of 40,000 people each year; during 2017, the bicentenary of Austen’s death, that number rose to 55,000.

Maintaining this shrine and expanding its offerings is a big job in the Janeite world: the job description calls for skills in curation, management, communications, budgeting, and fundraising. And all for the modest – by American standards – salary of about $52,000.

Applications are due by January 19, so start polishing those resumes. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 28 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s work is, of course, a priceless gift to world culture. But she also pays some more quantifiable dividends, as the latest auction news makes clear.

Last week, a September 1813 letter from Austen to her sister, Cassandra ((#88 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) sold at auction for more than $200,000 -- far above the predicted sale price of $80,000 to $120,000 -- and apparently set an auction record for an Austen letter.

No word yet on the identity of the lucky buyer, but at that price, odds are it was a private collector rather than a museum or library where the letter could go on display. As blog readers will recall, this was the second Austen letter to come on the market this year; the first was bought by Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, for a far lower price negotiated directly with the seller.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 22 2019 01:00PM

Seventy years ago this week, the premier Janeite pilgrimage site welcomed its first pilgrims.

On July 23, 1949, Chawton cottage, the house in the southern English county of Hampshire where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, opened to the public. Admission cost £1/6d, the equivalent of £2.34 (about $2.91) today.

Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is more than an Austen residence. It is the place where, after four years of unhappiness in Bath, followed by four more of stress and financial insecurity – eight years in which her literary output seems to have slowed to a trickle – Austen, at thirty-three, finally found the psychological breathing-space to write again.

Chawton cottage was in the gift of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, who inherited Chawton House, the nearby Elizabethan manor, and its accompanying estate from the Knights, the rich relatives who adopted him when he was a teenager. By the time Edward handed over the cottage, it was four years since his father’s death, and his mother and sisters, along with their old friend Martha Lloyd, had spent that time moving repeatedly in search of an affordable situation.

Whether Edward’s generosity was restrained by his wife, Elizabeth Bridges Austen, who was reportedly not a member of Jane Austen’s fan club (“A little talent went a long way with the Goodneston Bridgeses of that period; & much must have gone a long way too far,” Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy wrote decades later), remains speculation. It’s a fact, however, that Edward came through with his offer of housing within months of Elizabeth’s sudden death.

The move to Chawton cottage on July 7, 1809 – almost exactly 140 years before the opening of the museum – inaugurated an extraordinary burst of creativity. During her Chawton years, Austen revised the three novels she had drafted in her twenties (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) and wrote three new masterpieces (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion), at last finding publishers, and a reading public, for her life’s work.

To modern eyes, the “cottage,” with its amply proportioned rooms and spacious garden, seems rather too large for that sobriquet, if not quite as large as the palatial dwelling imagined by Robert Ferrars, on the occasion when Elinor Dashwood decided not to pay him “the compliment of rational opposition.” Indeed, by the time it came to the notice of the Austen enthusiasts who preserved it, Chawton cottage had spent a century divided into three apartments for employees of the Chawton estate.

In the 1940s, as England valiantly fought the Nazis, a small group of home-front Janeites fought to save Chawton cottage for the nation, founding the UK Jane Austen Society – the world’s first – to raise money for the purchase. Ultimately, the house was bought by a grieving father in memory of the son he had lost in the war.

This week, the museum will celebrate its anniversary in style: Tomorrow, the first seventy visitors will be admitted at the 1949 price, and on Saturday, a joyous birthday party will feature Regency dancing, Pimm’s cups, picnics in the garden, and, almost certainly, plenty of costumed Janeites.

More or less simultaneously, the museum will be wrapping up its successful appeal for £10,000 in donations toward the purchase of a once-lost fragment of an Austen letter – a reminder that today the museum is not just a Janeite tourist attraction but also an important scholarly resource.

I first visited Chawton cottage in 1982, at sixteen, more than a decade before Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt inaugurated contemporary Janemania, and I found the place magical, one of those rare literary shrines in which a beloved author’s presence seems palpable. My next visit, twenty-nine years later, during my research for Among the Janeites, felt less satisfactory: too much Firthian kitsch in the gift shop, too many tourists crowded into too small a place. (Myself among them, of course – but naturally I didn’t think of myself as just another tourist. One never does.)

Still, whatever the drawbacks of Austen’s modern, movie-driven celebrity, Chawton cottage deserves its self-declared status as “the most treasured Austen site in the world,” even if that extravagant boast does sound like the kind of thing Lady Catherine de Bourgh would say. Wandering through its rooms, a Janeite tuned to the right emotional frequency can still feel Austen's presence everywhere: in the tiny writing table on which she composed her novels, in the elegant quilt she helped to stitch, in the turquoise ring and topaz cross she wore.

Ultimately, Chawton cottage is the place that is most quintessentially Austen, where her life and her work came together and made her, if not the person she was, then at least the writer we know her to be. Seventy years on, it remains the one indispensable Austen shrine.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2019 01:00PM

The Janeite word of the moment, it would appear, is “fragment.”

* Last week, Jane Austen’s House Museum launched an urgent appeal for donations to fund the purchase of a recently rediscovered portion of an 1814 Austen letter.

* A few days later, the British broadcaster ITV released tantalizing on-set photos from its shoot of Sanditon, the upcoming eight-part television mini-series based on the novel Austen left incomplete upon her death in 1817.

* And yesterday it was announced that playwright Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, an unfinished novel that Austen abandoned around 1805, will have a London premiere this fall.

Among these three fragments, the Austen letter is the least mysterious, since it comprises the lion’s share of a text that was published in full before its physical pieces were dispersed. By contrast, no one knows how Austen planned to finish The Watsons and Sanditon (although I’ve reviewed later efforts at completions here and here).

Given this built-in uncertainty, it’s no surprise that the current adapters felt free to take some liberties. Sanditon screenwriter Andrew Davies is apparently bringing us a rollicking melodrama that, judging from the photos, will feature the gorgeous production values and even more gorgeous actors we’ve come to expect from the company that brought us Downton Abbey. The British air date is sometime this fall; Masterpiece, which will air the show in the U.S., has not yet announced a schedule.

Wade’s theatrical version of The Watsons, which was produced last year at a theater festival in southeast England, takes a different tack, making post-modern hay out of the Pirandello-esque concept of literary characters left stranded in an unfinished work. Wade herself – or, at any rate, a writer named Laura -- shows up to debate matters with her heroine. The reviews were great, and if I had any chance of being in London between September 20 and November 16, I’d be first in line when tickets go on sale next week. Since that, alas, cannot be, I'll rely on blog readers to report back.

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