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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Janeite SOS

It’s no secret that the closing of pretty much everything in response to the coronavirus pandemic has hit non-profits and arts organizations especially hard. And Janeites’ favorite pilgrimage spots are no different. Already, the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, scheduled for mid-July, has announced that it's going virtual; it remains unclear whether closures will last long enough to force the postponement or cancellation of some other much-anticipated upcoming events, including Jane Austen Regency Week in Alton, England (June), the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England (September), or the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting in Cleveland, Ohio (October). But it’s already obvious that the loss of months’ worth of tourist dollars could severely wound two iconic Austen sites: Chawton House, the research library housed in a stately home once owned by Jane Austen’s brother; and Jane Austen’s House, aka Chawton cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels. Chawton House, whose financial struggles over the past few years practically merit a novel of their own, recently launched an online gift shop stocking the usual line in fridge magnets/bookmarks/tote bags/tea towels; merchandise will be shipped out once a week while the crisis lasts. Even better, if you donate at least $250 to the North American Friends of Chawton House, the library's fundraising arm on this side of the pond, you'll get a premium gift that is, depending on your taste, either cool or weird: a bobblehead doll that reimagines Jane Austen as a rock chick, complete with dark glasses, midriff-baring T-shirt, and battered guitar. If you missed out on your chance to own the original Jane Austen bobblehead--mine is shown below; eat your hearts out, Janeites--now's your chance to make up for it.

Meanwhile, Chawton cottage, hands down the world's most beloved Austen site, has launched an ominously named “Survival Appeal,” soliciting monetary help from the global Janeite community. The virus crisis “will be crippling. The impact it will have on our ability to protect this special place could be too much,” the cottage’s website says. “As a registered charity without any regular public funding, we are entirely reliant on income from visitor admissions and purchases. Without this, we may not be able to maintain the House and its priceless collection while our doors are closed to the public.” A world without Jane Austen’s House? Unthinkable. I hope this alarming wording is excusable hyperbole at a time of great stress, but who wants to take the chance? If you have money left over after buying three months’ worth of toilet paper, here’s one place to spend it

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