Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 20 2018 01:00PM

Last year, I blogged about Alejandra Carles-Tolra, a young Spanish photographer, based in London, who had won a competitive grant to photograph Jane Austen fans.

Carles-Tolra’s photo essay, “Where We Belong,” is now finished. Twenty-one photos are available on her website, and a selection accompanied a recent article in the Guardian about her subject: the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society, a smallish band of British Janeites, most of them female, who met a few years ago at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, and now get together regularly to dress in Regency clothing and do Austen-y things.

The JAPAS – I still don’t get the whole pineapple thing, but perhaps a commenter can enlighten me – was founded by Sophie Andrews, a Janeite who blogs at Laughing with Lizzie and is also a featured “ambassador” for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. *

Carles-Tolra’s photos -- which show JAPAS members strolling, napping, and leaping, Lizzy Bennet-like, over a gate in a verdant field -- aim to explore “themes of belonging, femininity and escapism” in this “community of like-minded people,” she writes.

I’ll leave it to the photography critics to decide how expertly Carles-Tolra presents those themes. For the rest of us, it’s fun to catch the allusions – check out her Regency-costumed version of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” – and ogle the beautiful gowns.

* The literacy foundation was established by collateral Austen descendant Caroline Jane Knight, a member of the last generation to grow up at Chawton House, down the road from the Hampshire cottage where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 15 2018 02:00PM

They crop up regularly, those Janeite dream jobs. We read the announcements, and we think how lovely it would be to spend hours cataloguing artifacts at Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen wrote or revised all her completed novels, or dishing up tea and scones across the street at Cassandra’s Cup.

The latest such announcement, however, tops them all, because this Janeite dream job requires you to live at Chawton House, the restored Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. Yes, that’s right: Get the job of Deputy House Manager and you will live in a stately home where Jane Austen herself was a frequent visitor.

The job runs until December, pays a modest £25,000 (about $34,600) per year, and sounds (click through to the job description) as if it would require quite a lot of work: organizing group tours, running the gift shop, helping out in the tea room, assisting with special events and social media, and taking charge on the weekends. Depending how busy Chawton House gets – and, as blog readers will recall, it’s really, really hoping to get a lot busier – the job could be kind of a grind, for not much money.

And yet, ever since I read an interview with Caroline Knight, a member of the last generation of Austen descendants to live in Chawton House before American gazillionaire Sandy Lerner turned it into a library for the study of early English writing by women, I’ve thought of the house with a certain romantic nostalgia.

Living in a genuine Austen site: What an opportunity for a writer! Just breathing the air could probably ensure, if not literary immortality, then at least a couple of really good sentences. Alas, job applications were due on Saturday, so I guess I’ve missed my chance. I’ll have to look for my good sentences elsewhere.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 7 2014 01:00PM

Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald ran an engrossing interview this past weekend with Caroline Knight, a great-greatgreatgreatI'velostcount niece of Jane Austen.

Knight and her brother -- descendants of Austen’s brother Edward, who took the name Knight after he was adopted by wealthy cousins – grew up in Chawton House, the Elizabethan pile down the road from Chawton cottage. The cottage, which we now know as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is of course the place where Austen wrote or revised all her novels.

Knight, a business consultant who lives in Melbourne, is in the news right now because she’s launched a literacy charity (the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, natch) and wants publicity for this good cause.

But for us Janeites – not to mention us “Downton Abbey” viewers – what’s fascinating is the glimpse she offers into the life of a once-wealthy British family living in a formerly luxurious mansion that was falling down around their ears. Even as her semi-aristocratic family opened village fetes and hosted pheasant shoots, her father mowed the great lawn himself because no one could afford a gardener.

"It was us keeping up appearances, if you like," Knight tells the newspaper. "Where we lived was magnificent and the sitting room, library and great hall was very grand. The kitchen was in a hell of a mess, the attic rooms and back rooms hadn't been touched for years. It was the peripherals of the house that needed repair, the roof, the structural work you couldn't see. I had no sense of the fact that the place was falling down slowly.''

A few years after the last family event in the Great House – Knight’s eighteenth-birthday celebration – the property was taken over by Silicon Valley multimillionaire Sandy Lerner, whose successful quest to restore the house and turn it into a center for the study of early English writing by women is chronicled in a chapter of Among the Janeites.

Knight has returned only twice, she told the interviewer, but against her better judgment, part of her still misses that life. ''Even at nineteen, intellectually I knew this house was unsustainable, something has got to happen to it,” she says. “But that doesn't stop the heart, does it?''

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