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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Goodbye to Chawton's horses

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.


Sep 7 2017 08:15PM by Maggie Sullivan

I'm sure they wouldn't have taken such a step if it weren't necessary. I wonder if the "tension" that caused Ms. Lerner to step down had to do with this vision for the future. One gets the impression that she is not interested in making it a tourist attraction. But people want to see the house.

Sep 7 2017 09:29PM by Deborah Yaffe

I have no inside info, but the scuttlebutt says she was eager for them to get the place on a more independent financial footing so that she wouldn't have to subsidize it forever (and who can blame her for that?) Apparently, it was hard to solicit major donations when everyone knew there was a Silicon Valley gazillionaire on hand, so maybe she had to leave in order for them to start serious fundraising. Time will tell, I guess. . .

Sep 8 2017 07:33PM by Maggie Sullivan

No, that makes sense. But it's got to be hard these days.

Sep 8 2017 07:52PM by Deborah Yaffe

Oh, definitely. There are always more good causes than there are donors to fund them. . .

Sep 8 2017 10:39PM by A. Marie

I'm very troubled not only by this story, but by other recent news we've been getting from CHL. I realize that Lerner does not have bottomless funds, but I do think that her phase-out could have been handled a lot better. And, unfortunately, the new fund-raising appeals are coming at a really bad time, what with all the appeals for hurricane relief.

Sep 8 2017 11:35PM by Deborah Yaffe

It's hard for me to assess the quality of the phase-out, since I haven't done any reporting on this. They launched their fundraising campaign a good six or eight months after she left the board, which means they left themselves less than six months before the end of her funding to get replacement monies together; on the face of it, it would seem that you'd want to launch the campaign much more quickly, but perhaps they didn't have enough warning of her departure to put it all together. I'm sure there's a lot of behind-the-scenes gossip that an enterprising reporter could dig up. . .


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