Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 20 2018 01:00PM

Fifteen years ago, Silicon Valley gazillionaire and Janeite Sandy Lerner opened Chawton House, a research library dedicated to the proposition that Jane Austen wasn’t early English history’s only interesting female writer.


A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking she was, given how little we hear, even now, about all the women who were scribbling away before and during Austen’s lifetime. What’s to blame for this historical amnesia – and for the lack of visibility, remuneration, and respect that even now plagues female authors?


The list is long, of course (see under: Patriarchy), but an intriguing new project locates one culprit in the entrenched old boys’ network of rare-book dealers and collectors. Over the past three months, a newcomer to that world, London-based writer and rare-book dealer A.N. Devers, has raised more than $40,000 in a Kickstarter appeal that will fund The Second Shelf, an online rare-book shop and quarterly publication dedicated to the work of women writers.


“Book collectors help determine which writers are remembered and canonised, and which are forgotten,” Devers wrote in The Guardian this spring. “The collector trade is a part of a supply line, to readers’ bookshelves, universities, archives and libraries. Historically it has been male-dominated. . . , white, and oriented around a western canon.”


It’s fascinating to think about how collecting itself creates and perpetuates the value, both monetary and intangible, that we accord to the cultural artifacts collectors prize. Surely there’s a dissertation topic in there somewhere. (Read more about Devers’ project, and about gender issues in the book trade, here, here, here, and here.)


The project is ambitious, maybe too much so: Hard enough to launch a fledgling rare-books shop without trying to start a magazine as well. The quarterly, whose first issue is slated for publication next month, will be part rare-books catalog, part female-focused literary magazine, with some big names on the list of contributors. (Details remain sparse, but you can already buy a Second Shelf tote bag and T-shirt.)


Even if Devers has bitten off more than she can chew – time will tell -- you’ve got to love the idea, and the moxie. I learned about The Second Shelf too late to contribute to its crowd-funding campaign, but had I been prompter, I still wouldn’t have been able to afford the mouth-watering prize available to anyone pledging a Lerneresque £20,000 (nearly $25,500): an 1813 second edition of Sense and Sensibility owned by Austen’s close friend and housemate Martha Lloyd. It looks like no one else snapped it up, though, so presumably Devers still has it, if you’re interested.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2018 01:00PM

Thanks to her four reproductively prolific brothers – James, Edward, Frank and Charles produced an impressive total of thirty-three sons and daughters, all but five of whom lived into adulthood – the never-married Jane Austen has many, many collateral descendants.


Some of these nieces, nephews and many-times-great iterations thereof have capitalized on their Austen connections. Frank’s daughter Catherine Hubback was the first person to publish Jane Austen fanfic – a completion of the unfinished Watsons manuscript; James’ son, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote the first biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


Later generations published the first collection of Jane Austen’s letters (Edward’s grandson Lord Brabourne); wrote chronicles of the family’s history (Frank’s grandson John Hubback and great-granddaughter Edith Hubback Brown, and James’ grandson and great-grandson William and Richard Austen-Leigh); and helped found the Jane Austen Society of North America (James’ great-great-granddaughter Joan Austen-Leigh).


Last week brought news of the death of another such Austen descendant: ninety-nine-year-old Diana Shervington, a great-great-granddaughter of Edward, who spent the last third of her long life in Lyme Regis, one of England’s most Austen-evocative places. Shervington, a homemaker and potter whose two Austen-descended grandmothers were sisters (yes, that means her parents were first cousins), led an interesting life, judging from the obituaries (see here and here). Check out the tale of her wartime romance with the man who became her husband. Talk about a meet-cute!


Although Shervington’s sister-grandmothers had never known Jane Austen, they knew older relatives who had, and they shared these second-hand memories. And during Shervington’s childhood, her parents spent years at Chawton House, Edward’s former home, caring for an elderly relation who in turn left Shervington some of her Austen relics.


When the late-nineties Austen craze hit, Shervington gained Janeite semi-fame by donating some of those heirlooms to Lyme’s museum and showing others off during talks she gave to visiting Austen fans. Whether her particular brand of reminiscence was to your taste or not – I confess to being in the “not” camp, but nil nisi bonum and all that – it’s sad to see the snapping of another tenuous link to the real Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 23 2018 01:00PM

Last summer, not long after the July 18 bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, officials in the English town of Basingstoke announced that tourist traffic had risen eighty percent, as fans flooded in to commemorate their favorite author in her home county of Hampshire.


Now a report by a tourism non-profit has put a price tag on the economic boost the Austen anniversary brought to the county: nearly £21 million in direct spending and new jobs generated by the estimated 265,500 extra visitors attracted by commemorative events.


Those events included an exhibit in Winchester that brought together six portraits, acknowledged or disputed, of the author; a walking trail in Basingstoke of book-shaped benches decorated in Austen themes; the erection in the Basingstoke town center of the first-ever statue of Austen; the unveiling in Winchester Cathedral of the new British £10 note featuring a portrait of Austen; and special or continuing displays at Jane Austen’s House Museum and Chawton House.


All the excitement “had a clear positive effect on visitor numbers at various visitor attractions,” according to the report from Tourism South East, as quoted in a press release issued by Hampshire tourism officials. Visits to embattled Chawton House more than doubled, and attendance numbers at the exhibition space featuring the Austen portraits also rose significantly.


Naturally, county officials would prefer not to wait until 2025, when the world will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Austen’s birth, for a repeat of last year’s moneymaking.


So this year Hampshire is showcasing its contributions to technology and engineering. Among them: The Spitfire – the fighter plane in which brave Royal Air Force fighters held off Nazi bombers during the 1940 Battle of Britain – was invented in Hampshire and introduced into use eighty years ago next month.


I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to find out whether courtship novels or fighter planes provide the bigger tourism payoff.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 21 2018 01:00PM

The Hampshire village of Chawton is the mecca of the Janeite faith: the community where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, the secure home where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, the place from which “all her works were sent into the world,” to quote the plaque outside her cottage.


So it’s understandable that at least one villager found himself a tad miffed when the world’s first statue of Austen was unveiled last summer in . . . the nearby market town of Basingstoke, where Austen probably shopped, danced and walked, but where she indubitably did not live.


“Basingstoke has the statue, and Winchester has the grave and features on the Austen £10 note, but Chawton has been left out,” Michael Sanders, retiring chairman of the Friends of Chawton Church, told a local newspaper. “And it was here she did all the work on her books.”


So Sanders and his committee raised the money necessary to get Chawton a consolation prize of sorts: not the life-size bronze of Austen on permanent display in Basingstoke, but a smaller version, known as a maquette, which sculptor Adam Roud made as a preliminary template.


The Basingstoke Austen statue was installed in the central marketplace at street level, as if Bronze Jane were just another passerby on her way to the shops. By contrast, the smaller Chawton version stands atop a pedestal in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, not far from the graves of Austen’s mother and sister and a short distance from Chawton House, the home of Austen’s brother Edward Knight. The statue gazes across the meadows toward the cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen lived from 1809 to 1817.


Among the participants in last Friday’s unveiling ceremony were Richard Knight, one of Edward’s descendants; the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire; the Bishop of Basingstoke; and the novelist Joanna Trollope, a patron of Chawton House and the author of a deeply mediocre Sense and Sensibility update, as well as children from the local school and the chair of Chawton House’s board.


As blog readers will recall, Chawton House itself has had a rocky year or two as it tries to raise enough money to replace the contribution of Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who renovated the property and turned it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. Most recently, the organization dropped "Library" from Chawton House's name, in the hopes of encouraging non-scholarly tourists to make themselves welcome.


With luck, the statue will provide yet another reason for Janeites to make their very own pilgrimage to Hampshire.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 19 2018 01:00PM

Janeites tend to know quite a bit about Jane Austen: her books, her characters, her family, her life and times. But hey – there’s always more to learn, right?


Next Monday sees the launch of “Jane Austen: Myth, Reality and Global Celebrity,” an online course developed by the University of Southampton in England and co-taught by Gillian Dow, a university English professor who is executive director of the library at Chawton House.


The class – a so-called MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course – requires a modest commitment: three hours a week for two weeks. No college credit is involved, but if you fork over $49, you can take tests and receive a “Certificate of Achievement” if you pass. Or you can just watch the lectures for free.


The instructors – Dow and Kim Simpson, a Southampton University lecturer who is currently a Chawton House postdoctoral affiliate – promise to cover a wide range of topics, from the social and historical context of Austen’s work to the marketing of Austen as a contemporary pop celebrity. Judging from the course’s promotional video, participants will also be treated to some lovely shots of iconic Austen-related locations.


The only prerequisite is “a basic knowledge of [Austen’s] novels,” which shouldn’t pose much of a problem for your average Janeite.


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