Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 10 2020 01:00PM

When valuable editions of Jane Austen’s novels come up for auction, the selling point is usually something about the books themselves: first editions, complete sets, original bindings. Back in February, blog readers will recall, a well-heeled collector paid more than $240,000 for a complete set of Austen first editions offered by a New York auction house. (Sigh. Jealous much?)


In an online auction of Austen editions that is ongoing right now, however, the selling point is not so much the books themselves as their provenance: They were once owned by a glamorous and enterprising Victorian hostess whose own life story reads like something out of a novel.


The auction is a benefit for Chawton House, the Austen-linked stately home in Hampshire, England, that now houses a research library for the study of early English writing by women. Like so many cultural destinations that depend on admissions fees for their support, Chawton has suffered during coronavirus lockdown; the North American Friends of Chawton House hopes the money raised from the book sale will help mitigate the damage.


And the books themselves, donated by Texas collector Sandra Clark, are pretty terrific: a near-complete set of Austen’s novels published in 1856, as part of Richard Bentley’s famous “Standard Novels” series. As Janeites will recall, it was Bentley who brought Austen’s works back into print in the 1830s, after a short lapse in the decade or so after her death. The four volumes – a fifth, containing Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, is missing, alas – are bound in stamped green cloth with gilt accents.


Still, it’s the set’s former owner, Lady Molesworth of Pencarrow, who is clearly the main draw. Born Andalusia Grant Carstairs in 1809, she trained as a singer at the Royal Academy of Music, parlayed a professional career as an actress and singer into marriage with a country squire forty years her senior, became a rich widow in short order, and then, after returning to society, remarried, this time to a baronet of her own age.


Blessed through one marriage with money and through another with rank, like a real-life Lady Denham, Andalusia turned her new husband’s homes in London and Cornwall into coveted society destinations, hosting political and literary salons and house parties featuring Mansfield Park-like home theatricals. She propelled her awkward husband into Parliament and, eventually, the Whig cabinet, and, after his death, took a viscount as her lover. Why no one has yet turned her life into a romance novel is a mystery to me.


Bidding on Lady Molesworth’s Austens began at $450 but has already reached nearly $2,000, with bids accepted until noon next Tuesday. Like most rare books, these are well out of my price range, but especially given the good cause the auction will benefit, I hope the set finds a home with a lucky Janeite.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2020 01:00PM

Even in quarantine – especially in quarantine? -- Janeites apparently can’t get enough Jane Austen. Or so we might conclude from the attendance numbers at Chawton House's recent online events.


Over the past month, Chawton House, the Austen-linked research library and stately home in Hampshire, England, has held two weekend festivals -- the May 15-17 Lockdown Literary Festival, featuring writers and academics talking about their (usually Austen-related) work; and the May 30-31 Virtual Garden Festival, which took visitors through the beautiful grounds of the Elizabethan mansion, once owned by Austen’s older brother Edward Knight.


According to a recent email from the North American Friends of Chawton House, the site’s fundraising arm on this side of the Atlantic, more than fifteen hundred Janeites tuned in for at least one session of the literary festival; the best-attended individual talks drew some twelve hundred YouTube views. (Many of the videos are still available on Chawton House's YouTube channel.) The garden festival seems to have drawn smaller numbers, with YouTube hits in the hundreds.


Even better news for financially challenged Chawton House: During that first weekend’s festival, the NAFCH collected more than $4,000 in donations.


Chawton House needs the help: Like other cultural organizations that usually rely on ticket sales, it’s been hit hard by months of virus-induced closure. In 2018, the last year for which data is available online, Chawton House attracted nearly fifteen thousand visitors (see #5 on page 6 of the PDF), earning nearly £144,000 (about $183,000) from admission fees and sales of food and gift-shop merchandise.


This year, much of that income has evaporated. Instead, Chawton is relying on gifts to its Emergency Appeal from Janeites who, even if they can’t visit in person, nevertheless can’t get enough Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 17 2019 01:00PM

Although Jane Austen is a quintessentially British writer, her admirers in North America are legion. Indeed, the Jane Austen Society of North America, with more than five thousand members, is considerably larger than the original Jane Austen Society in the UK.


So it’s good news that the North American Friends of Chawton House, which raises money for the research library housed in a Hampshire mansion once owned by Austen’s brother Edward, has upgraded to a spiffy new website.


Regular blog readers will recall the saga of Chawton House, which was restored to its former glory by Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, whose rare-book collection anchors the library’s holdings in early English writing by women. Lerner’s money supported the library for years, and in 2016, when she decided to withdraw that support, a scramble to replace her sizeable contribution began. (Review the details here and here.)


Among those trying to help are the North American Friends, who have raised $160,000 in the past two years, according to board president Janine Barchas, an Austen scholar who is an English professor at the University of Texas-Austin.


“Many friends are needed to help this worthy charity and historic property establish a bright future of financial independence,” Barchas writes on the new website. “After all, Chawton House and the rich literary history it now safeguards should never have been one person’s financial responsibility to shoulder.”


Donations are tax-deductible. As for that feeling of helping to preserve Jane Austen’s literary context: priceless.


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