Jeopardy and peril at Chawton House
Twenty years ago this summer, American tech mogul and Janeite Sandy Lerner finished up her multimillion-dollar restoration of an Austen-linked stately home and opened the refurbished building to the public. (I told the story of Lerner’s project in the third chapter of my book Among the Janeites.)
The previously dilapidated Elizabethan mansion in Hampshire, England, where Jane Austen’s older brother Edward Knight had once lived, was to be known as Chawton House Library, a research library dedicated to the study of early English writing by women and anchored by Lerner’s own extraordinary rare-book collection.
A lot can happen in twenty years.
Today’s Chawton House—the “library” part of the name was dropped five years ago, as part of a rebranding—has parted ways with Lerner, restructured its budget, developed new fundraising approaches, and launched online programming, all in the service of reinventing itself. Although it still sponsors research and scholarship, the new Chawton House is less a specialized academic destination than a fun-for-the-whole-family Regency-themed tourism experience. (Read more about the tumultuous saga here and here.)
But according to its rather plaintive twentieth-anniversary fundraising appeal, Chawton House is still not on firm ground, despite all that rebranding and reinvention—despite the improved gardens and the dedicated volunteer corps and the delicious cakes in the newly profitable tearoom.
“Chawton House is in jeopardy,” a press release explains (or even, to quote the fundraising email I received, “in jeopardy like never before.”) Everything from COVID closures to destructive storms to the high cost of heating in the post-pandemic UK “have left reserves exhausted and finances in a precarious state,” the release says. “We face a perilous and uncertain future,” warns Chief Executive Katie Childs. “We would be missed now if we were gone.”
In my experience of non-profit fundraising, it’s more common to claim strength and success than to warn of imminent demise, so it’s hard to know what to make of this kind of appeal: sober description of reality, or alarmist hyperbole designed to extract coin from dedicated Austen fans?
Either way, Chawton House is a Janeite gem that would indeed be missed if it were gone. And if that’s not enough motivation for you, here’s something more: Shell out at least $250 and you might score the latest limited-edition Jane Austen bobblehead, created by the North American Friends of Chawton House. It's too late to collect them all--see under "limited edition"--but apparently Chawton House could really use the money.