Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 4 2017 02:00PM

The past year’s drama at Chawton House Library has sometimes seemed more appropriate to one of the Gothic romances Jane Austen satirized in Northanger Abbey than to a sedate center of literary scholarship with impeccable Austenian connections.


Regular blog readers will recall the highlights: A deep-pocketed donor – Silicon Valley multimillionaire Sandy Lerner, who spent $20 million to renovate the decaying Elizabethan mansion once owned by Austen’s older brother Edward – ended her ongoing financial support. The board launched an “urgent” fundraising appeal. The estate’s four beloved Shire horses and their human caretakers were sent packing as a cost-cutting measure. Local animal-lovers protested, and then started an online petition seeking reversal of the decision.


For those of us who think Chawton House Library, with its mission of promoting research into early English writing by women, is one the gems of the Janeite world, it’s all been disturbing and disheartening.


So much the more, then, can we rejoice at a recent piece of good news: The fundraising campaign has yielded its first big result, a two-year, £100,000 ($135,000) grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation, a UK philanthropy that funds projects in many areas, including education, British heritage, and the arts.


“It’s a great boost which shows that we are on the right track, and should act as a catalyst for other funders to follow,” said Chawton’s fundraising director, Jane Lillystone.


Chawton House is certainly not out of the woods yet. According to the library’s financial records, Lerner’s funding in 2015 totaled more than $600,000, so even the generous new grant replaces barely ten percent of that. But it’s certainly a hopeful start. If you want to add your own small mite to the effort, you can find Chawton’s fundraising campaign here.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 26 2017 01:00PM

Somewhere out there, lost lambs are baa-ing to return to the fold, and a group of scholarly Bo Peeps is ready to shepherd them home.


The little lambs in question are hundreds of books formerly owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight, whose estates at Godmersham and Chawton once housed libraries fine enough to satisfy even the exacting tastes of a Mr. Darcy.


In the two centuries since a catalog of the Godmersham library identified some 1,250 books, the Knight family fortunes have declined, and many volumes have scattered to the wind. (The remaining volumes belong to Chawton House Library, the library for the study of early English writing by women that is now housed in the Knights’ restored Chawton House.)


Earlier this month, three Austen scholars – Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Deborah Barnum, a board member of the North American Friends of Chawton House Library who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont; and Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Canada – announced the formation of a group whimsically entitled the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society, or GLOSS. (Barnum in fact began posting about the group months ago.)


GLOSS’ goal is to track down the scattered Knight family volumes, whose inner covers bear one of the three bookplates of Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Edward Knight. (See the three bookplate designs here.) Locating the lost volumes will help to reconstruct the literary context that influenced Jane Austen, since she visited Edward’s family and had access to both his libraries.


Last February, while inspecting the Austen collection of a Texas Janeite, Barchas stumbled across an incredible find: Chawton’s copies of all six Austen novels, in the 1833 Bentley edition that brought Austen back into print for the first time after her death. The owner of the volumes, Sandra Clark, donated the books to Chawton House Library, and clearly GLOSS hopes other collectors who happen across one of Montagu George Knight’s bookplates will do the same: As regular blog readers will recall, cash-strapped Chawton is in no position to buy anything right now.


Failing that level of generosity, however, GLOSS is willing to settle for digital images of the books’ bindings, title pages and Knight bookplate. Anything to rescue those poor little lambs who have lost their way – baa, baa, baa.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 4 2016 01:00PM

Have you been racking your brain to think of a fun vacation house-share for two dozen of your closest Janeite friends? Well, rack no more – the solution is at hand.


Comes word that Goodnestone Park, an Austen-linked stately home in the southeastern English county of Kent, is fully renovated and available for holiday rentals and wedding parties. For your stay – the two-night minimum will run you £3,500, or nearly $5,000 – you get the run of an estate that includes twelve double-occupancy bedrooms, a dining room that seats twenty-four, and nearly fifteen acres of garden.


Goodenstone (pronounced “GUN-est’n” or “GOOD n STON,” according to the BBC) is a 1704 Palladian mansion originally owned by the Bridges family of baronets, whose later descendants claimed, through some feat of aristocratic alchemy, the loftier rank of the FitzWalter barony. (Check out the history here.)


Unlike way too many allegedly Austen-linked stately homes, this one has genuine connections to the family: Jane’s older brother Edward married Elizabeth Bridges, a daughter of the third baronet, and the couple spent their early married life at Rowling, a country house on the property, a mile away from the mansion, where the twenty-something Jane Austen visited them. (Past tours of Austen’s England conducted by the Jane Austen Society of North America have stopped at Goodnestone, but, alas, the JASNA trip I joined in 2011, when I was researching Among the Janeites, did not.)


Is Goodnestone, as this report has it, “the Charming English Estate That Inspired Pride and Prejudice”? Sigh. Who knows what, precisely, inspired Pride and Prejudice? Jane Austen isn’t telling. But judging from the photos, calling Goodnestone a “Charming English Estate” seems entirely justified.


Yes, it’s pricey – as far as I can tell, the per-night rate during the summer ranges from £958 to £2,275 ($1,363 to $3,237), depending on how long you stay -- but split twenty-four ways, that’s actually considerably less than a luxury hotel room.


I’m in! Anyone want to join me? We’ll have to act fast, since the place is already booked up through late July.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 13 2015 01:00PM

If you liked the inspiring story of how Sandy Lerner turned Edward Austen Knight’s decaying family pile into the beautiful and important Chawton House Library, you're bound to love this recent tale from the UK's Daily Telegraph. I admit that the story of St. Giles and the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury has nothing much to do with Jane Austen, but it’s such a captivating yarn that I couldn’t resist sharing.


I ask you: how often do you get a tattooed former DJ with a double-barreled surname inheriting a decaying seventeenth-century mansion after his father is murdered by a Playboy-model-turned-prostitute third wife? Throw in the tragic death of the elder brother, the love story with the veterinary surgeon, and the slightly wayward younger son’s maturation into his responsibilities, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a truly excellent romance novel.


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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