Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 2 2017 01:00PM

Although the Shire horses of Chawton House Library have been dispersed to new homes, the local campaign to reverse that decision apparently lives on. The latest development: An online petition calling for the horses’ restoration, which was posted at Change.org last week, had drawn more than 500 signatures as of last night.


The petition, created by a group that calls itself Save Our Shires (SOS), says the decision by Chawton trustees to rehouse the four horses and lay off their two human supervisors “treated the local village community with disdain” and “violated one of [the library’s] guiding principles.”


The Chawton House Library mission statement, available on the website of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, lists among the library’s aims “creating and maintaining a working manor farm of the late eighteenth-century at the property,” which was owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. But Chawton House is better known as a research library housing a valuable collection of early English writing by women.


As I’ve written before (here and here), Chawton’s trustees have explained the elimination of the Shire horses as a cost-cutting measure necessitated when Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley multimillionaire who founded the library, announced that she was withdrawing her ongoing financial support.


A look at Chawton’s financial statements for 2015, the most recent year available, makes the problem clear: According to the records, a family foundation run by Lerner and her ex-husband donated more than £459,000 (about $615,000) to the library in 2015 – nearly 61 percent of Chawton’s £754,000 ($1 million) in income that year. Meanwhile, maintaining the Shire horses (see the last page of the statement) cost more than £47,000 ($63,000).


In its petition, SOS asks supporters of its cause to boycott the library as a tourist destination and to refuse contributions to the fundraising campaign launched over the summer to replace Lerner’s contributions. Although no one can fail to regret the departure of Chawton’s beautiful horses, it’s hard for me to see what end is served by an effort to starve a cash-strapped cultural institution of needed funds.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 28 2017 01:00PM

As summer turns to autumn, the Jane Austen bicentenary year enters its final quarter, and winding-up is in the air. The latest evidence: the Basingstoke BookBenches have dispersed to new homes.


Regular blog readers will recall that I’ve had mixed feelings about this public art project, Sitting With Jane, which scattered twenty-four Austen-themed benches, shaped like open books and decorated with specially commissioned artwork, in and around Basingstoke, not far from Austen’s final home at Chawton.


Judging from the photos, many of the benches were lovely. Unfortunately, however, two of the artists incorporated quotations from Austen movies into their designs – in at least one case, apparently without realizing that the words in question were not written by Austen. Sigh. It’s a losing battle, but one I will continue to fight nonetheless.


Still, however you feel about quote confusion, no one could argue with the success of the project’s finale, an auction of the benches earlier this month that raised more than £95,000 (about $129,000), three-quarters of which will go to a cancer charity hoping to build a new treatment center in Basingstoke.


Local coverage doesn’t make clear who bought most of the benches, but at least three (see here and here) will apparently remain on public display – welcome news for those of us who couldn’t make it to England this year.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 25 2017 01:00PM

Twenty-sixth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Janeites often wonder how Jane Austen would feel about her phenomenal posthumous fame. We’d like to believe that she would be thrilled to know her books are still read and loved after two centuries. But it’s hard to avoid the sneaking suspicion that she might find our enthusiasm excessive, embarrassing—perhaps even a bit grubby.


Support for that suspicion comes in the letter Jane Austen wrote to her older brother Francis exactly 204 years ago today (#90 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Writing to her sailor brother aboard his ship, the HMS Elephant, Austen sent along the latest family news and then mentioned that, two years after the anonymous publication of her first novel, it was becoming increasingly difficult to discreetly screen her authorship.


“Henry heard P. & P. warmly praised in Scotland. . . & what does he do in the warmth of his Brotherly vanity & Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!” Austen writes Frank, in fond but real exasperation. “A Thing once set going in that way—one knows how it spreads!–and he, dear Creature, has set it going so much more than once. I know it is all done from affection & partiality—but at the same time, let me here again express to you & Mary my sense of the superior kindness which you have shewn on the occasion, in doing what I wished.”


It’s clear from this passage that Austen sincerely hoped to preserve her anonymity – her barbed reference to Henry’s “vanity” and her gratitude for the “superior” discretion of Frank and his wife make it obvious that this was no little-old-me affectation. Less clear is why she cared so much.


Did she think it was something less than respectable for a clergyman’s daughter to write in the often-disparaged genre of the novel? Did she fear that, if her authorship became known, her neighbors would look for portraits of themselves in her books and begin wondering whether she was taking mental notes as they talked? Although she couldn’t have anticipated the coming avalanche of Colin Firth tote bags, did she perhaps worry that publicity could attract autograph seekers who would disturb the peace of her Chawton refuge? Or perhaps she simply felt the introvert’s horror at exposing the products of her private self to the scrutiny of the insensitive.


Impossible to know: On the few occasions she mentions her anonymity, she seems to take it for granted that the recipient of her letter needs no explanation of her reasons.


In any case, this letter seems to give us an Austen preparing to shed her already threadbare disguise. When her third book is published, she tells Frank, “I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it.--People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.”


So perhaps she saw the tote bags coming after all.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 21 2017 01:00PM

The Jane Austen adaptation factory never seems to stop churning out fresh material. By now, the proliferating combinations and recombinations for stage and screen – I’m not even talking about the books! -- are enough to make the head spin: straight-up Regency, Regency plus zombies, Regency plus murder mystery, Regency plus time travel, modern-day update (American), modern-day update (Indian), Austen biographical, ballet, opera, talking dog. . .


And yet more is on the horizon, judging from a few tidbits of news that came my way in the past week or two.


* ABC plans to air a pilot, and perhaps an entire TV series, adapted from Curtis Sittenfeld’s best-selling 2016 novel Eligible, which updated Pride and Prejudice to contemporary Cincinnati. Regular blog readers will recall that I enjoyed Eligible, and a “soapy drama series” based on it could be kind of fun – though after the first few episodes, it presumably won’t have much to do with Jane Austen. No word on when we can look for this, but I hope it's soon! I'm having new-Austen-adaptation withdrawal symptoms.


* Jane Austen’s relatively quiet life has, improbably, already spawned not one but two screen dramatizations (Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets). And now Austen the Musical – which is, as you might expect, a musical-theater version of that same quiet life – is launching UK and US tours. (The UK performances run from October 2017 to April 2018; no US dates have been announced yet).


Apparently, the show has already played to good reviews in arty venues like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I must confess that I felt a qualm when I ran across website copy telling me that “Austen the Musical explores Jane’s struggle to have her work published in a male dominated environment, her romances and her vow to reject a woman’s lifestyle in Georgian England.” (Qualms since a) it’s not clear that her publishing struggles were gender-related; b) her romances are mostly fictitious; and c) I’m unaware of any such feminist “vow.”) But I’m willing to give the show a shot if it comes to a theater near me.


* Meanwhile, the horizon has receded a bit for the long-awaited movie of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, according to an interview the film’s producer gave to the period drama website Willow and Thatch. (Scroll down to “Update 9/6/2017.”) Back in early 2016, there was talk of a 2017 release -- I blogged about the movie here and here -- but now it looks as if filming won’t even start until next year. Until then, I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with other products of the Austen adaptation factory.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 18 2017 01:00PM

The ongoing saga of Chawton House Library’s beloved Shire horses – likely casualties of the Austen site’s cost-cutting campaign – is yielding some interesting peeks into what’s been going on behind the scenes.


Last week, a local newspaper reported that a last-ditch effort to keep the horses at Chawton, the library of early English writing by women that is housed at the Hampshire estate of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward, had drawn interest from a deep-pocketed local conservationist.


According to the story in the Liphook Herald, the donor, Diana Tennyson (a Tennyson rides to the rescue of an Austen! You can’t make this stuff up), has offered “£10,000 security” in exchange for a promise that Chawton’s stables will stay open for six months of further planning for the horses’ future.


It’s not clear to me if that £10,000 would be enough to cover the full cost of maintaining the horses, but in any case, the matter is apparently moot: Chawton’s COO, James MacBain, says the horses have to go.


And here’s where the inside info comes in. One of the curiosities of Chawton’s money woes is the speed with which they appear to have arisen. Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who founded the library and poured millions into its renovation and operations, announced in the summer of 2016 that she would cease her financial support by the end of 2017. But the library didn’t launch a major fundraising campaign until almost a year later, leaving little time to replace Lerner’s sixty-five percent share of the operating budget.


In his interview with the newspaper, MacBain suggests why that problematic delay occurred: Lerner, he said, had promised “a very substantial one-off donation” that the library assumed would give it time to create a business plan. But months later, “it became apparent that no time or plans had been fixed by Dr. Lerner for this donation, and the trustees had to make speedy decisions in a very different and unwelcome context, recognizing that such a donation may well not ever materialize,” he said.


I have done no reporting of my own on this dispute, and no one seems to have asked Lerner for her side of the story. But with this much being said in public about matters that typically remain boardroom confidential, it doesn’t take a Kremlinologist to suspect that some truly bad blood has developed between Sandy Lerner and the treasured Janeite institution she created. What a shame.


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