Deborah Yaffe


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.

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.

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