Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 18 2017 01:00PM

Forty-one is a tragic number for Janeites – the all-too-young age at which Jane Austen left this world exactly two centuries ago, at the height of her artistic powers. So it seems a tad ghoulish for Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton to have selected that number as the theme of its nine-month-long bicentenary exhibition, “Jane Austen in 41 Objects.”


Still, this is merely a quibble, since the exhibition itself – at least as far as I can tell from its online presence – seems endearing and delightful. Each week, the museum’s website features one object, accompanied by a blog post explaining its significance in Austen’s life and/or the museum’s collection. Some of the objects will be on display all year – the exhibition, which began in March, ends on December 15, the day before Austen’s 242nd birthday – and others only for a portion of that time.


Doled out at the rate of one per week, the objects featured so far have ranged from the familiar (Austen’s writing desk, the topaz crosses her sailor brother Charles sent his sisters) to the more obscure (a muslin shawl Austen may have embroidered, a needle case she gave to one of her nieces). Bloggers have included university scholars and museum staff.


All in all, it’s yet another entry on the growing list of enviable Austen bicentenary events occurring in sadly distant locales. Pretty soon, I suspect, the items on that list will number more than forty-one.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 3 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s books feature plenty of quietly competent women going about their work with minimal fuss – and, sometimes, minimal appreciation from others. Think of Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Fanny Price – even Miss Bates and Charlotte Lucas.


So it seems appropriate that my Jane Austen Google alert should recently have reminded me of two such real-life women whose work helped bring Jane Austen the celebrity she now enjoys.


--In a recent edition of the Review of English Studies (abstract available here; full text requires payment), Austen scholar Janine Barchas explores the life and work of Katharine Metcalfe (1887-1978), the editor of the first scholarly edition of Pride and Prejudice, published by Oxford University Press in 1912.


You might be forgiven for thinking that the first scholarly editions of Austen’s work began appearing a decade later, under the stewardship of the magisterial R.W. Chapman. That’s the story we Janeites have always heard – the “Chapman editions” were standard reference points for Austen quoting. (Still are, in some precincts.)


A classic story of a woman done out of the credit rightfully due her by an interloping male? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that: Chapman became Metcalfe’s husband in 1913.


Hmm. Mr. Collins, anyone?


--A belated obituary that appeared last month offered fascinating details about the life of Jean Bowden, who served from 1984 to 1994 as the curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum (aka Chawton cottage) where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


Bowden, who died in January at the age of 86, was known to me as the author of a column about the doings at Chawton that appeared regularly in the newsletter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. In her accounts of the museum’s newest acquisitions and the latest plants to bloom in the garden, Bowden came across as a charming, slightly fusty English spinster of the tea-drinking, cat-owning variety.


Turns out, however, that earlier in her career she had administered the orchid collection at the magnificent Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. She was the first woman to go on a Kew-sponsored specimen-collecting trip – four months in Nigeria – and later published a book about a little-known British botanist. And all this before presiding over significant restoration and refurbishment at Chawton cottage, that beloved Janeite pilgrimage site.


It seems apt, somehow, that these lesser-known women should have helped nurture the flame of Austen’s fame, even as noisier folks, some of them male, got more of the credit. Jane Austen would recognize the phenomenon.


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