Deborah Yaffe

Blog

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, Feb 5 2018 02:00PM

Nobody called it branding in Jane Austen’s day, although Lord Byron, at least, was an expert practitioner of the craft avant la lettre. But branding is exactly what seems to underlie the most interesting tidbit of Janeite news so far this month: Chawton House Library’s decision to rename itself just plain Chawton House.


Readers of Among the Janeites will recall that Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Chawton House, an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward, and turn it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. But in 2016, more than a decade after the 2003 opening, Lerner announced she would no longer fund operations, leaving the library scrambling to replace her money. (Find details of the ensuing saga here.)


Fundraising is still ongoing, but last week, Chawton House announced it was dropping the “Library” from its name. “We’ve had feedback that potential visitors to the house and gardens are confused and – in some cases – put off by having ‘library’ in the name, which could mean that it is only open to library users when this is certainly not the case,” said Chawton’s board chair, Louise Ansdell. “We want all to come and enjoy what we have to offer.”


Chawton is hoping to reposition itself – beautifully restored historic mansion, charming gardens, convenient tearoom -- as not only a scholarly research site but also an Austen-related tourist destination, along the lines of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, down the road. The project has its challenges: Although Austen certainly spent time at Chawton House with her brother’s family, she did not live or write there, making the big house less of a Janeite pilgrimage site than the cottage. On the other hand: Historic mansion. Charming gardens. Tearoom.


As for the fundraising, it seems to be making steady but slow progress: Chawton House won a £100,000 two-year grant (about $143,000) late last year, and its appeal to individual donors has raised £15,000 (about $24,000) in three months. That’s still only a fraction of the $600,000-plus that Lerner provided in 2015, however, so there’s still a long way to go. If you want to help, you’ll find Chawton’s fundraising site here.


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.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter