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 2 2017 01:00PM

Although the Shire horses of Chawton House Library have been dispersed to new homes, the local campaign to reverse that decision apparently lives on. The latest development: An online petition calling for the horses’ restoration, which was posted at Change.org last week, had drawn more than 500 signatures as of last night.


The petition, created by a group that calls itself Save Our Shires (SOS), says the decision by Chawton trustees to rehouse the four horses and lay off their two human supervisors “treated the local village community with disdain” and “violated one of [the library’s] guiding principles.”


The Chawton House Library mission statement, available on the website of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, lists among the library’s aims “creating and maintaining a working manor farm of the late eighteenth-century at the property,” which was owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. But Chawton House is better known as a research library housing a valuable collection of early English writing by women.


As I’ve written before (here and here), Chawton’s trustees have explained the elimination of the Shire horses as a cost-cutting measure necessitated when Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley multimillionaire who founded the library, announced that she was withdrawing her ongoing financial support.


A look at Chawton’s financial statements for 2015, the most recent year available, makes the problem clear: According to the records, a family foundation run by Lerner and her ex-husband donated more than £459,000 (about $615,000) to the library in 2015 – nearly 61 percent of Chawton’s £754,000 ($1 million) in income that year. Meanwhile, maintaining the Shire horses (see the last page of the statement) cost more than £47,000 ($63,000).


In its petition, SOS asks supporters of its cause to boycott the library as a tourist destination and to refuse contributions to the fundraising campaign launched over the summer to replace Lerner’s contributions. Although no one can fail to regret the departure of Chawton’s beautiful horses, it’s hard for me to see what end is served by an effort to starve a cash-strapped cultural institution of needed funds.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 18 2017 01:00PM

The ongoing saga of Chawton House Library’s beloved Shire horses – likely casualties of the Austen site’s cost-cutting campaign – is yielding some interesting peeks into what’s been going on behind the scenes.


Last week, a local newspaper reported that a last-ditch effort to keep the horses at Chawton, the library of early English writing by women that is housed at the Hampshire estate of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward, had drawn interest from a deep-pocketed local conservationist.


According to the story in the Liphook Herald, the donor, Diana Tennyson (a Tennyson rides to the rescue of an Austen! You can’t make this stuff up), has offered “£10,000 security” in exchange for a promise that Chawton’s stables will stay open for six months of further planning for the horses’ future.


It’s not clear to me if that £10,000 would be enough to cover the full cost of maintaining the horses, but in any case, the matter is apparently moot: Chawton’s COO, James MacBain, says the horses have to go.


And here’s where the inside info comes in. One of the curiosities of Chawton’s money woes is the speed with which they appear to have arisen. Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who founded the library and poured millions into its renovation and operations, announced in the summer of 2016 that she would cease her financial support by the end of 2017. But the library didn’t launch a major fundraising campaign until almost a year later, leaving little time to replace Lerner’s sixty-five percent share of the operating budget.


In his interview with the newspaper, MacBain suggests why that problematic delay occurred: Lerner, he said, had promised “a very substantial one-off donation” that the library assumed would give it time to create a business plan. But months later, “it became apparent that no time or plans had been fixed by Dr. Lerner for this donation, and the trustees had to make speedy decisions in a very different and unwelcome context, recognizing that such a donation may well not ever materialize,” he said.


I have done no reporting of my own on this dispute, and no one seems to have asked Lerner for her side of the story. But with this much being said in public about matters that typically remain boardroom confidential, it doesn’t take a Kremlinologist to suspect that some truly bad blood has developed between Sandy Lerner and the treasured Janeite institution she created. What a shame.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 7 2017 01:00PM

When Silicon Valley multimillionaire Sandy Lerner opened Chawton House Library in 2003, the new Janeite landmark in Hampshire, England, bore her stamp in more ways than one.


Lerner's money had funded the $20 million renovation of the dilapidated Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother. Lerner's rare book collection formed the core of the library’s holdings in early English writing by women. And Lerner's passionate love of animals had ensured that the rolling acres surrounding the property would be home to a handful of Shire horses, the strong, sturdy breed traditionally used in farmwork.


But last year, the library announced that Lerner was leaving the board and would soon take her 65 percent share of the annual budget with her. And now comes word that the expense of maintaining the Shire horses hasn’t survived the subsequent cost-cutting.


“We have loved having Shire horses on our estate, but their upkeep is particularly expensive,” the library wrote last month on its web site. And so, despite grumbles from some locals, the four remaining horses will go to new homes, and their two human supervisors will lose their jobs.


Though it’s sad to see these beautiful animals go, I’m more intrigued by the question of just how bleak the library’s future really is. Signs point to anxiety. On its web site, the library describes its recently unveiled funding campaign as “urgent,” and the numbers involved are daunting: Reportedly, the library must raise £150,000 in eighteen months just to cover operating costs, with far more needed for the substantial capital investments envisioned to turn the site into a major tourist draw.


Still, I’d be surprised if Chawton House Library didn’t survive in some form. It’s hard to believe that even austerity-era Britain would let an Austen site go dark just months after celebrating the bicentenary of Our Jane’s death.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 20 2017 01:00PM

There are many things I would be willing to do to secure the future of Chawton House Library, one of the Austen world’s great treasures. Starring in my very own wet-shirt-Darcy video is not among those things.


The library's future is in some doubt because, as blog readers will recall, Sandy Lerner -- the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who bought and renovated Chawton House, and whom I profiled in Among the Janeites – decided last year to end her continuing financial support after 2017.


That’s left a major fundraising challenge for Chawton House, which hosts researchers and sponsors scholarly conferences revolving around its priceless collection of early English writing by women.


To coincide with this week’s bicentenary of Austen’s death, the library unveiled a new fundraising website laying out some of the details: A looming sixty-five percent budget gap. An “urgent, large-scale funding campaign.” And -- yes -- a slightly kooky ice-bucket-ish challenge, #TheDarcyLook, wherein participants post a video of their white-shirted selves being doused with water, text a £3 donation to the library, and nominate three friends to do the same.


That particular sugggestion seems to be aimed at male donors; I suppose Chawton House thought it might look a bit strange for an institution dedicated to Austen, that supposed doyenne of female propriety, to instigate a wet-T-shirt contest for women. Even so, I'm not sure about this one -- and I had barely glanced in my husband's direction before he pre-emptively announced his refusal -- but, then, I didn't do the original ice bucket challenge, either. Maybe those Austen-loving kids will be into it?


Chawton House Library has grand plans to expand its facilities beyond the main house, where Austen’s older brother Edward lived and where Austen herself visited often. The vision: “A more recognised, commercially viable destination” offering “larger and more extensive visitor facilities and providing an enhanced experience of the Chawton estate.”


Presumably, that would mean close collaboration with Jane Austen’s House Museum, housed down the road in beloved Chawton Cottage, where Austen lived for the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


A unified, enhanced Chawton site, with everything from Austen relics to rare books – and, presumably, enhanced gift shops as well -- sounds like a magnet for Janeite tourism. But only if we Janeites, wet and dry, come up with the money to keep Lerner's visionary creation alive.



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