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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Statue wars

The controversy over Winchester Cathedral’s proposed Jane Austen statue is truly the gift that keeps on giving, at least for those of us who are connoisseurs of either crotchety Britishness or overwrought, tempest-in-a-teapot local controversies.

 

As blog readers will recall, the cathedral where Austen is buried has twice announced plans to erect a life-size bronze of the author standing by her writing desk. The initial proposal fell apart five years ago amid community opposition, and a revised plan announced late last year has unleashed similar grumbling.

 

We’ve had claims that the statue’s presence will turn the cathedral’s serene Inner Close into a “Disneyland-on-Itchen” overrun with selfie-snapping American tourists. We’ve had shade thrown on Bath for “hijacking of the Austen brand” and on Winchester for “cynical cultural appropriation.” We’ve had complaints that the statue’s £100,000 price tag (about $126,000) is a waste of money in economically straitened times, along with dark speculation that the whole project is part of a hidden “financial deal” that “the authorities are trying to justify,” perhaps because “the visits of the US Jane Austen society would help to swell the Cathedral’s coffers.”

 

And now comes the suggestion that the Austen statue should be scrapped in favor of a tribute to William Walker.

 

No, I hadn’t heard of him either, but he seems to have been a genuine Winchester Cathedral hero: the diver who toiled for five years, sometimes submerged twenty feet deep in pitch-black water, to shore up the medieval building’s collapsing foundation, during a long and complex repair project early in the twentieth century.

 

“If it was not for Walker there would be no cathedral, and thus no opportunity to waste money that should be directed elsewhere,” Winchester resident Michelle T. Fox-Rousell wrote recently in the letters column of the Hampshire Chronicle, where much of the debate over the statue has played out.

 

To my mind, a lot of this controversy over the statue seems curiously divorced from economic reality. Yes, of course behind-the-scenes deal-making is at work--but whether that seems scandalous or commonplace depends on whether you consider raising dedicated funds for an Austen statue to be a sinister cabalistic plot. William Walker was a hero—though hardly an unsung one*—but another statue of him isn’t going to draw tourist traffic. As for the potential onslaught of dreaded American Janeites—well, isn’t it preferable to support an expensive cultural treasure with the admissions fees of foreign visitors, rather than with infusions of public money?


Meanwhile, Fox-Rousell completely blows her credibility with me by referring to Austen as an “overrated writer.” I understand that tempers are high. But must we stoop to insults?

 

 

* In 2018, the cathedral staged an exhibition and held a service of remembrance to commemorate the centenary of Walker’s death, and he is already memorialized in not one but two cathedral statues—a small figure displayed inside the building and a bust located on the grounds.

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