Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 13 2017 02:00PM

Over the nearly five years I’ve been blogging about Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s House Museum -- aka Chawton cottage, the beloved pilgrimage site in Hampshire, England, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels -- has created more than one Janeite Dream Job.


There was the recruiting of trustees, the search for unpaid weekend help to deal with the crush of tourists – even the (non-cottage-related, but still) sale of Cassandra’s Cup, the teashop across the street.


The latest example: The museum is seeking volunteers to catalogue the various items uncovered in the cottage’s gardens over the past twenty years. No word on what these items include, but the job announcement is illustrated with a photo of decorative ceramic shards.


Although the work may have only a tangential relationship to Austen – Chawton Cottage was inhabited for more than a century after her death – you never know what may have turned up. “We hope the objects found will provide a greater insight into the history of the site as well as assisting with any future interpretation and dressing of the house itself,” the museum’s announcement explains.


The job is unpaid, but it has its perks: A 25 percent discount on Mr. Darcy tote bags and the rest of the merchandise in the museum shop, and “tea, coffee and biscuits during your shift.” Not to mention the truly priceless part of the experience: the chance to spend some hours hanging around Jane Austen’s last home.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 5 2017 01:00PM

For many Janeites, a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England, is incomplete without a stop at Cassandra’s Cup, the teashop across the street from the iconic cottage where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


Now it looks as if Cassandra’s is getting some competition, albeit a bit farther afield: Austen’s Cafe and Takeaway opened last month in Alton, the much larger town near the tiny village of Chawton, in the county of Hampshire.


Although Austen’s seems more self-consciously Janeite than Cassandra’s – the décor features Austen book covers, and the afternoon tea options include choices named “Emma” and “Darcy” – the menus of both restaurants will look pretty familiar to anyone who has eaten out recently in provincial England. It’s the usual mix of British staples (jacket potatoes, ham and cheese sandwiches) and vaguely foreign fare (paninis, eggs Benedict), all washed down with copious lashings of tea. Both restaurants even offer a cream tea (scones, jam, clotted cream) with prosecco, which really leaves one little to complain of.


Curiously, I am a Janeite who has never set foot in Cassandra’s Cup: the last time I was in Chawton, it looked crowded, and I didn’t want to spend my scarce tourist time queuing for lunch. It’s good to know that next time I’ll have two options for prosecco cream tea.


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, Jul 13 2017 01:00PM

For visitors to Jane Austen’s House Museum -- aka Chawton cottage -- where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all her finished novels, the memorial plaque that hangs beside the building’s original front door is a touching testimonial to Janeite devotion.


“Jane Austen lived here from 1809-1817 and hence all her works were sent into the world,” the lettering reads. “Her admirers in this country and in America have united to erect this tablet. Such art as hers can never grow old.”


As we prepare to commemorate next Tuesday’s bicentennial of Austen’s death, turns out that this plaque is marking its own important anniversary: It was erected exactly one hundred years ago, on the centennial of Austen’s death.


I learned this fact, along with other interesting details about the plaque’s design, from a post included earlier this year in the “Jane Austen in 41 Objects” series that Jane Austen’s House Museum is running this year. Blog readers will recall that this exhibition, which began in March and continues until December 15, highlights a different item each week, with a blog post explaining its significance in Austen’s life or the museum’s collection.


The memorial plaque -- whose final line is a quotation from G.H. Lewes, the Victorian literary critic best known today as George Eliot's common-law husband -- is #12 in the series (the latest entry, an Austen letter, is #18). According to the museum’s post, the tablet had become somewhat the worse for wear after enduring a century of British weather. To mark this year’s important occasion, the Jane Austen Society of North America provided funding for a restoration – proof that Janeite devotion has survived the past one hundred years with far less damage.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 1 2017 01:00PM

I love the idea of gardening – fresh air! Closeness to nature! The magic of growth and change!


I love the results of gardening -- beautiful flowers! Homegrown vegetables! Aromatic herbs!


In fact, I love everything about gardening -- except for the actual gardening, which involves dirt, sweat, and backbreaking, repetitive labor.


So I will leave to others the practical application of the latest Jane Austen bicentenary news: the launch, during last week’s Chelsea Flower Show in London, of a new “Jane Austen rose.” (Not to be confused with the Pride and Prejudice rose, released by the same grower in 2013.)


The Jane Austen rose


Suitable-for-planting versions of the new rose, described by The English Garden magazine as an “orange-flowered Floribunda” with “a light sweet scent,” will be on sale this fall for £12.95 (about $16.59). As usual with these Austen tie-ins, it's impossible to say wherein the Austen-ness of this particular flower inheres, but it certainly looks pretty.


And Janeites can feel particularly virtuous about buying their own rosebush because a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage. Later this year, a Jane Austen rose will also be planted in the museum’s garden. Where I hope to someday admire the results, since I’m unlikely to have one planted closer to home.


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