Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 7 2016 02:00PM

Unless Queen Elizabeth II is a secret Austen fan, the richest living Janeite is probably Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems (and one of the people I profiled in Among the Janeites).

Lerner, you may recall, sank some $20 million of her fortune into renovating Chawton House, the Elizabethan pile in Hampshire, England, once owned by Austen’s older brother Edward Knight. As if that weren’t generous enough, Lerner also donated her personal rare-book collection to serve as the nucleus of a research library for the study of early English writing by women, located in Chawton House.

After more than twenty years, Lerner is apparently ready to move on: Late last month, Chawton House Library announced that she will step down as chair of its board immediately and will stop her annual financial support at the end of 2017. Although she’s setting up an endowment to help fund future operations, the loss of such a deep-pocketed patron is bound to hurt.

“Her intention is that we should use her generous support as a ‘challenge’ gift to raise matched funding to secure the future of the Library,” Chawton’s web announcement states.

I’m not privy to the internal workings of Chawton House Library, but during the recently concluded Jane Austen Society of North America conference, a well-connected Janeite told me that Lerner’s decision to leave Chawton came after years of tension.

As is customary in these cases, Chawton’s announcement doesn’t even hint at a less-than-amicable parting, but it’s not hard to pick up notes of anxiety amid the official optimism: “challenges that will demand creativity and commitment. . . . need to work towards a sustainable future. . . . must protect and preserve this significant literary heritage. . . . know we can secure our future. . . .”

Obviously, those in a position to know don’t think the library’s sustainable, secure future is assured just yet. Here’s hoping they find a way to keep Sandy Lerner’s powerful vision alive, even without Lerner herself around to ensure it.

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, Jul 30 2015 01:00PM

The big Jane Austen news this week: the evil, soulless folks who get their jollies – and their profits – by infecting your computer with malware may be Janeites!

Well, probably not, but it was bizarrely fascinating to learn, via the midyear security report of tech giant Cisco Systems, that hackers have started pasting text from Sense and Sensibility on those dangerous web pages to which their spam emails try to lure us.

“Antivirus and other security solutions are more likely to categorize these pages as legitimate after ‘reading’ such text,” Cisco explains. And users who foolishly click on the email links and encounter the Austen text may be less suspicious than they ought to be, the report speculates, allowing the hackers more time to infect target computers.

(Although the example Cisco reproduces on page 13 of its report really ought to make a true Janeite suspicious – the lines of text are non-consecutive and apparently randomly selected from at least eleven different chapters of the novel, and they’re attributed to one “jane austin.”)

It’s not clear why S&S was chosen – what, the hackers don’t like Emma? – but there is a certain poetic justice to Cisco’s role in exposing this particular scam. As readers of Among the Janeites will recall, Sandy Lerner, the dedicated Janeite who founded the Chawton House Library, made her millions by co-founding Cisco.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 13 2014 02:00PM

Ogling unattainable real estate is one of life’s great pleasures, and the mother of all real estate ogling is upon us now: Wentworth Woodhouse may soon be on the open market, if preservationists can’t quickly raise the bargain asking price of £7 million.

Whether a long-ago owner, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, was really, as this Daily Mail article has it, “the man who inspired Mr. Darcy” is hardly a slam-dunk – as we Janeites know, that distinction has been bestowed upon more than one man, on the slimmest of evidence.

What’s beyond doubt is that this stunning, ginormous stately home in northern England – we’re talking ninety acres of parkland, five miles of corridors and, in its prime, a household staff of nearly four hundred – has a plethora of Austen-ish associations. Its four-hundred-year history is replete with Wentworths, Woodhouses, D’Arcys, Watsons, and Fitzwilliams, as Janine Barchas chronicled in her recent book, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity.

Alas, despite the soaring ceilings and jaw-dropping plasterwork, the place is a bit of a fixer-upper, with an estimated £42 million in needed repairs for such alarming items as subsidence damage, probably caused by extensive coal mining on the property.

Even Sandy Lerner, the multimillionaire Janeite who rescued Chawton House, might hesitate to take this on: we all know that repair costs have a way of ballooning beyond initial estimates. So don’t look at me. But surely someone will come forward to save this national treasure for future generations of Britons – not to mention their real-estate-ogling visitors.

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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