Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 4 2019 02:00PM

Back when I was in elementary school, ranking one’s friends – best friend, second-best friend, third-best friend – was a popular pastime.


But then I got older, and I realized that because people are individuals with different strengths and weaknesses, it doesn’t make sense to rank them on some imagined mono-dimensional scale. I love my close friends for their unique combinations of qualities – combinations that make them entirely incomparable and unrankable.


I feel the same way about writers. Since I wrote a book about Jane Austen fans, everyone assumes Jane Austen must be my favorite writer. But she isn’t. She’s one of my favorite writers. She has qualities that, say, Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte can’t match. But they have qualities that she can’t match, either.


All of which is by way of explaining why today’s post on my Jane Austen blog is about George Eliot.


Turns out that this year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Mary Ann Evans, who would grow up to write, under the name of George Eliot, seven striking and important novels, at least two of which are among the greatest ever written in English. Middlemarch — erudite, profound, empathetic, moving, unforgettable -- is coming with me to my desert island, right alongside Persuasion.


For 2019, Eliot’s birthplace, the Warwickshire town of Nuneaton, is planning the kind of extravaganza that we Janeites experienced two years ago, when we marked the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Nuneaton’s plans call for an art competition, a street fair, an interactive walking trail, a couple of new theatrical adaptations, and a Victorian-themed Christmas celebration, tied to Eliot’s November 22 birthday.


Sadly, Eliot’s boosters have so far been unable to raise the money necessary to turn outbuildings on the farm where she grew up into a visitors center that might serve as a draw for fans. (The latest plan: raising the money literally brick by brick.) Their travails underline the foresight of the founders of the UK Jane Austen Society, which was created in 1940 with the express purpose of buying and preserving Chawton cottage, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


Imagine the Janeite world without the place now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum.* Unthinkable! I’m crossing my fingers that one day we’ll have a similar shrine to the work of George Eliot, who is, after all, one of my favorite writers.



* Incidentally, the moving line on the memorial plaque outside Chawton cottage -- "Such art as hers can never grow old" -- comes from an 1859 essay by the literary critic George Henry Lewes, who just happens to have been George Eliot's common-law husband. He's also the guy who recommended Austen to Charlotte Bronte, with -- um -- less than positive results.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 31 2019 02:00PM

As regular blog readers know, I find few pursuits more enjoyable than the ogling of Jane Austen-related real estate. This week’s wallowing is brought to us courtesy of Country Life, that venerable catalog of How the Other Half – or, really, the Other One Percent – Lives.


It seems that a house is for sale in the fair village of Chawton, Hampshire -- known to Janeites as the site of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


This house, Chawton’s former rectory, is a seven-bedroom, three-bath affair totaling more than 6,800 square feet of living space situated on seven acres of land. There are gardens! Paddocks! A Coach House for stabling the horses!


The house was first built in the fifteenth century – original beams remain visible – but fortunately has been renovated a time or four since then. After serving as the village rectory, it was bought in the late nineteenth century by Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Austen’s older brother Edward Austen Knight and the inheritor of the Chawton estate.


According to Country Life, the home has come to be known as the Dower House because Montagu bought it for “the then-dowager,” although it’s not clear to me who this was: Montagu’s mother died before he acceded to the estate. (And while we’re on the subject of family: Does anyone know why Montagu inherited Chawton when his father had three surviving older sons?)


The Dower House has a further Austen-ish connection, since, beginning in1802, it was the home of Chawton rector John Papillon, whom Edward’s adoptive mother apparently once suggested as a perfect husband for the eternally unmarried Jane. “I am very much obliged to Mrs Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me--& she may depend upon it, that I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a December 1808 letter (#62 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.”


Alas for property values, Austen never did become mistress of the Chawton rectory: Mr. Papillon’s impending, yet never materializing, proposal seems to have become a running joke in the Austen family. (The Austens' Papillon connections are helpfully summarized on the website of the UK Jane Austen Society.)


Whatever its Austen associations, judging from the online photos, the Dower House looks delightful: spacious yet homey and filled with natural light. The price is a bit steep for most of us -- £1.9 million, or $2.6 million – but probably a bargain for the kind of people who read Country Life with more than ogling in mind.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 3 2019 02:00PM

Over the last eight years, we’ve marked a plethora of Jane Austen anniversaries: the bicentennials of the publications of all six of her novels (2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2018) and the bicentennial of her death (2017). It’s lucky we’ve had all that practice, because 2019 will bring us three more notable Austen anniversaries – or, to be exact, three Austen-fandom anniversaries:


--Thirty years ago, the Jane Austen Society of Australia (JASA) was founded. A birthday party is already scheduled for December 14, just two days ahead of Austen’s own 244th.


--Forty years ago, the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) marked its debut with an October 5 dinner at Manhattan’s Gramercy Park Hotel, attended by one hundred guests and covered in the New Yorker magazine. On the same evening this year, about six times that many people will raise a glass to JASNA in Williamsburg, Virginia, the site of this year’s Annual General Meeting. The conference theme is “200 Years of Northanger Abbey.” Actually, it’s 201 years, but who’s counting?


--Seventy years ago, the most beloved Austen pilgrimage site, Jane Austen’s House Museum – aka Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – welcomed its first visitors. On the July 23 anniversary of the opening, the museum’s first seventy visitors will get in for the 1949 admission price (about a quarter of the current cost), and four days later everyone is invited to a birthday party.


After all the partying, by this time next year, you may feel inclined to take a breather. But don’t get too comfortable: 2020 marks the eightieth anniversary of the UK Jane Austen Society, the world’s first, whose initial goal was the raising of money to preserve Chawton cottage. And once that anniversary is safely over, it will be time to start thinking about the biggie just over the horizon: 2025, the two hundred and fiftieth year since Austen’s birth.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 20 2018 02:00PM

Eighteen months ago, not a single statue of Jane Austen was on public display anywhere in the world. And now, it appears, we will soon have three within a ten-mile radius.


Back in July 2017, the Hampshire town of Basingstoke, where Austen shopped and danced but never lived, unveiled a bronze figure of the author to commemorate the bicentenary of her death. In June of this year, the nearby village of Chawton, where Austen not only lived but also wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, installed its own, smaller version of the same statue.


And last month, Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, quietly inaugurated a fund-raising campaign for its own Austen bronze, to be installed in the cathedral’s Inner Close. The sculptor is Martin Jennings, who has created public statues of everyone from George Orwell to the late Queen Mother. He envisions Austen backgrounded by a tree, a quill pen, and the famous writing desk on display in nearby Chawton cottage, aka Jane Austen’s House Museum. (I’m not bowled over by the mockup visible in this video, but I’m no art critic, so don’t pay attention to me.)


The cathedral has set an ambitious-sounding fundraising target of £250,000 (about $316,000) for the project, but so far its publicity efforts seem curiously low-key, at least to a pushy American like me. Although I have a Google alert for online mentions of Austen’s name, the campaign never surfaced there; instead, I stumbled across the Winchester effort by accident – only to learn that a JustGiving page has apparently been operational for nearly a month.


It looks as if I’m not the only Janeite in the dark: As of this morning, the crowdsourcing had raised a grand total of £71.65 ($90) from three donors, one of whom cheerfully commented, apropos of exhorting continued effort, “It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do!” (**headdesk**)


Meanwhile, when a local newspaper reporter went looking for a quote last week, “a cathedral spokesman declined to discuss the Jane in the Close project.” Umm – what? It’s two weeks before the year’s biggest gift-giving holiday, and you don’t seize the chance to publicize your effort to raise money to commemorate one of the world’s most beloved novelists? It might be time to shop for a new spokesman.


Perhaps the spokesman is speechless with bemusement (which I share) at the proliferation of images of someone whose face is essentially unknowable. Whether you meet Austen's statue in Basingstoke, Chawton, or WInchester -- or wherever town next chooses to erect a bronze version of Our Jane -- you'll always be meeting a fiction. Which, come to think about it, is actually kind of appropriate.


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.


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