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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Say cheese

As an Anglophile happily married to a Brit, I say this with love: Sometimes the English are just so adorably, hilariously. . . English . . . that all you can do is giggle.

 

As, for example, while reading accounts of a recent public meeting held to discuss a new Jane Austen statue planned for the Inner Close of Winchester Cathedral.

 

In case you haven’t given this five-year-plus saga the attention it deserves, a brief recap: In 2018, the cathedral where Jane Austen is buried proposed erecting a bronze statue in her memory, commissioning a design from prominent sculptor Martin Jennings. Amid criticism over the cost, placement, and look of the statue, the plan fell apart. Then late last year, the cathedral revived the idea, offering up a modified, cheaper version of Jennings’ design and, it seems, making a concerted effort to build support, seek feedback, and answer criticism.

 

And thus it was that, during a public meeting late last month, Jennings was confronted by Elizabeth Proudman, a longtime official of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, who doesn’t like the idea of this statue. Doesn’t like it one. Little. Bit.

 

Why not? Because Austen didn’t live in Winchester but came there only to seek medical treatment during the last eight weeks of her life. (True.) Because “we don’t know what she looked like.” (True.) Because “she despised publicity.” (Complicated.) Because the statue “speaks for feminism, but that is not what Jane Austen was all about.” (Very complicated.)

 

And, most delightfully, because siting a statue in the cathedral’s peaceful Inner Close risks creating a “Disneyland-on-Itchen” that will “attract a lot of lovely American tourists to come and have a selfie with Jane Austen.”

 

American tourists! The horror!


In the weeks since the meeting, Proudman's oh-so-quotable remarks have been quoted pretty much everywhere; a local tour guide, Phil Howe, has called on Winchester not to "follow Bath’s hijacking of the Jane Austen brand with a cynical cultural misappropriation"; and the dean of the cathedral has defended the plan as an appropriate way to honor a daughter of Hampshire who knew Winchester well. It's a tragedy that Anthony Trollope isn't available to memorialize this deliciously out-of-proportion cathedral-city controversy.


Howe's accusations seem rather unfair to me: After all, Winchester has a genuine Austen connection, albeit a brief one. (Or an eternal one, depending on your point of view.)


But of course he's not wrong about one thing: It’s obvious that positioning itself to attract the hordes of selfie-seeking tourists who will descend on Hampshire in 2025 to mark the 250th anniversary of Austen’s birth is precisely what the cathedral (admission fee: £12.50/$16) is trying to do. A lack of visitors may promote serenity, but serenity doesn’t repair a thousand-year-old roof. If an avalanche of American Janeites is the greatest scourge that critics of this statue foresee, I think the cathedral will be moving ahead with its plans.

 

Time to book my 2025 trip to Winchester! I’ll pack my selfie stick.

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Kylowna Moton
Kylowna Moton
Mar 14

Very astute post, as usual. Proudman has, perhaps, not heard the expression “Don’t threaten me (the cathedral) with a good time!”


Giggly situation indeed! Btw, I am going to Winchester Cathedral this summer—even without the statue.

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Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
Mar 14
Replying to

Ooh, lucky you! You'll be too early for the statue, but perhaps not too early to meet some Brits who are grumpy about the statue. . .

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amsprayberry
Mar 14

My goombah Meg Levin has suggested an admirably simple compromise solution: Let the Cathedral have the statue; just put it somewhere out on the grounds. That way, the American tourists can take selfies till their arms hurt, and the shades of Pemberley...er, the Inner Close...will remain unpolluted.


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Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
Mar 14
Replying to

Yeah, but if--as I suspect--the main reason the Cathedral wants this statue is to lure more paying visitors, putting the statue in a place that can be reached without buying a ticket won't do the trick. But I don't know the geography of the Cathedral grounds: perhaps there are other places they could put Our Jane that would indeed be behind a (literal) paywall.

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