Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 7 2017 01:00PM

When Silicon Valley multimillionaire Sandy Lerner opened Chawton House Library in 2003, the new Janeite landmark in Hampshire, England, bore her stamp in more ways than one.


Lerner's money had funded the $20 million renovation of the dilapidated Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother. Lerner's rare book collection formed the core of the library’s holdings in early English writing by women. And Lerner's passionate love of animals had ensured that the rolling acres surrounding the property would be home to a handful of Shire horses, the strong, sturdy breed traditionally used in farmwork.


But last year, the library announced that Lerner was leaving the board and would soon take her 65 percent share of the annual budget with her. And now comes word that the expense of maintaining the Shire horses hasn’t survived the subsequent cost-cutting.


“We have loved having Shire horses on our estate, but their upkeep is particularly expensive,” the library wrote last month on its web site. And so, despite grumbles from some locals, the four remaining horses will go to new homes, and their two human supervisors will lose their jobs.


Though it’s sad to see these beautiful animals go, I’m more intrigued by the question of just how bleak the library’s future really is. Signs point to anxiety. On its web site, the library describes its recently unveiled funding campaign as “urgent,” and the numbers involved are daunting: Reportedly, the library must raise £150,000 in eighteen months just to cover operating costs, with far more needed for the substantial capital investments envisioned to turn the site into a major tourist draw.


Still, I’d be surprised if Chawton House Library didn’t survive in some form. It’s hard to believe that even austerity-era Britain would let an Austen site go dark just months after celebrating the bicentenary of Our Jane’s death.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 20 2017 01:00PM

There are many things I would be willing to do to secure the future of Chawton House Library, one of the Austen world’s great treasures. Starring in my very own wet-shirt-Darcy video is not among those things.


The library's future is in some doubt because, as blog readers will recall, Sandy Lerner -- the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who bought and renovated Chawton House, and whom I profiled in Among the Janeites – decided last year to end her continuing financial support after 2017.


That’s left a major fundraising challenge for Chawton House, which hosts researchers and sponsors scholarly conferences revolving around its priceless collection of early English writing by women.


To coincide with this week’s bicentenary of Austen’s death, the library unveiled a new fundraising website laying out some of the details: A looming sixty-five percent budget gap. An “urgent, large-scale funding campaign.” And -- yes -- a slightly kooky ice-bucket-ish challenge, #TheDarcyLook, wherein participants post a video of their white-shirted selves being doused with water, text a £3 donation to the library, and nominate three friends to do the same.


That particular sugggestion seems to be aimed at male donors; I suppose Chawton House thought it might look a bit strange for an institution dedicated to Austen, that supposed doyenne of female propriety, to instigate a wet-T-shirt contest for women. Even so, I'm not sure about this one -- and I had barely glanced in my husband's direction before he pre-emptively announced his refusal -- but, then, I didn't do the original ice bucket challenge, either. Maybe those Austen-loving kids will be into it?


Chawton House Library has grand plans to expand its facilities beyond the main house, where Austen’s older brother Edward lived and where Austen herself visited often. The vision: “A more recognised, commercially viable destination” offering “larger and more extensive visitor facilities and providing an enhanced experience of the Chawton estate.”


Presumably, that would mean close collaboration with Jane Austen’s House Museum, housed down the road in beloved Chawton Cottage, where Austen lived for the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


A unified, enhanced Chawton site, with everything from Austen relics to rare books – and, presumably, enhanced gift shops as well -- sounds like a magnet for Janeite tourism. But only if we Janeites, wet and dry, come up with the money to keep Lerner's visionary creation alive.



By Deborah Yaffe, May 29 2017 01:00PM

Any plans late next month? No? Then head over to the web site of Jane Austen 200 – the clearinghouse for events scheduled this year in Hampshire, England, to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death – and enter the sweepstakes.


The prize is a three-night, late-June stay in Winchester and Basingstoke, along with free tickets to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried; Chawton cottage, now a museum of her life; Chawton House Library, located in the mansion once owned by her brother Edward; and a book talk by historian, curator and TV presenter Lucy Worsley, author of a new Austen biography. Plus £100 (about $130) towards travel expenses.


OK, it’s obvious that this package is more of a draw for British Janeites, who a) can probably get to Winchester for not much more than £100; and b) had probably heard of Worsley before the recent plagiarism kerfuffle. But hey – three free nights in England is three free nights in England, right? And entering is a breeze, requiring only the answer to an Austen trivia question of such laughable simplicity that it’s practically an insult to Janeite intelligence.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 1 2017 01:00PM

Now that this Austen bicentenary year is in full swing, the announcements of commemorative events pegged to the July 18 anniversary of her death are coming thick and fast. The latest is the newly released slate of activities at Winchester Cathedral, which holds a special place in Janeite hearts, as the site of Austen’s grave.


Last week’s news release, accompanied by a handy leaflet, lists a variety of events, most scheduled for June and July, though a few continue into the fall.


There are once-a-month Austen-themed tours of the cathedral and its environs, exhibitions about Austen’s life and work and the literature she inspired, and a Book of Memories for visitors to sign. There are recitals of period music and an outdoor performance of a play based on Pride and Prejudice. There are talks on the role of Christianity in Austen’s life and work, by the former rector of Austen’s home church in Steventon; and on how she came to be buried in the cathedral, by the former head of Chawton House Library.


Best of all are the events planned for the bicentenary of Austen’s death and the days following. On July 18, the anniversary of her death, the cathedral will hold a special Evensong – certain to be especially affecting in the spectacular setting. Five days later comes a Regency tea party, at which attendees will be invited to read their favorite passages from Austen’s work.


And on July 24 comes a retracing of the procession that carried Austen’s body from the College Street house where she died to the cathedral for burial. Along the way, the bells will toll forty-one times, one stroke for each year of Austen’s too-short life.


OK, I admit it: I’m choked up even thinking about this.


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