Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 22 2018 01:00PM

In September 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, from their brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent. As regular blog readers will recall from last month’s post, Austen seemed to be enjoying her momentary peace and quiet: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” she told Cassandra.


The Godmersham library, both the room and the book collection, were grand enough to suit a prosperous landowner like Edward Austen Knight: At a time when books were true luxury items, he owned more than twelve hundred – non-fiction on a broad range of topics, as well as a good number of novels -- and housed them in a long rectangular room with two fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls.


Edward’s book collection was dispersed and the library itself in ruins by the early decades of the twentieth century. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it’s now possible for Janeites and bibliophiles to hang out there with Jane Austen, at least in imagination: Reading With Austen, a website that reconstructs Godmersham’s library, went live earlier this month.


Like the similar What Jane Saw project, which recreated a famous art exhibition Austen visited in London in 1813, Reading with Austen relies on a combination of old-fashioned scholarly sleuthing and up-to-date digital technology.


Using an 1818 catalogue of the library’s holdings, a team headed by Austen scholar Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Toronto, has situated a digital rendering of Edward’s holdings inside an artistic rendering of what his library may have looked like. Click on a book spine and you call up bibliographical information about the volume and, when available, an image of its title page, dedication, marginalia, and Knight family bookplate.


“When available”: There’s the rub. Only five hundred of the books listed in the 1818 catalogue, over a third of the total, are on loan to Chawton House, the rare-books library housed in Edward Austen Knight’s second home in Hampshire. Another fifty volumes are owned by libraries or museums; a few others have come on the market recently.


Locating, photographing, and, where possible, acquiring the rest is the job of the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), the brainchild of Sabor; Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; and Deborah Barnum, a rare book specialist who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont.


The missing books include – oh, tragic irony! – all Edward’s first editions of Jane Austen’s novels. (You can find their locations in the center of the South Wall by browsing the website’s catalog.)


Absent a few miracles, scholarly and financial, it’s going to take a long, long time for all those lost sheep to find their way home. In the meantime, however, we can all spend a few hours at Reading with Austen, daydreaming in bibliophilic splendor alongside Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen never lived alone. From her earliest days, she was surrounded by parents and siblings; on visits away from home, she stayed with friends and extended family. Her writing time was snatched in shared living spaces rendered temporarily quiet enough to facilitate mental concentration. Surely she must sometimes have been frustrated by the enforced companionship.


Perhaps that’s why I like to imagine her as she describes herself in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#89 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen was on a long visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s stately home in Kent, and most of the letter recounts the doings of Edward’s family, friends, and visitors. “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Even[in]g,” Austen wote.


By the time she finished the letter, however, the others had apparently scattered: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” Austen wrote, “—at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody.”


The poem in question is Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk,” published in 1782, which famously begins, “I am monarch of all I survey.” Selkirk was the marooned sailor whose story helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Cowper imagines him lonely and despairing, pining for human contact.


Austen’s ironic self-description – as she well knew, she was mistress of nothing, least of all Edward’s many expensive books -- suggests more satisfaction than despair: a moment of breathing-room snatched amid the doings of a busy household.


But not for long: by the time Austen finished the letter, a few paragraphs later, she had a message for the people back home in Chawton, courtesy of her eight-year-old niece: “Louisa’s best Love & a Hundred Thousand Million Kisses.”


Louisa was the ninth of Edward’s eleven children. She sounds adorable, and probably also exhausting. No wonder Austen found her moment of solitude in the library worth memorializing in print


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, Feb 15 2018 02:00PM

They crop up regularly, those Janeite dream jobs. We read the announcements, and we think how lovely it would be to spend hours cataloguing artifacts at Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen wrote or revised all her completed novels, or dishing up tea and scones across the street at Cassandra’s Cup.


The latest such announcement, however, tops them all, because this Janeite dream job requires you to live at Chawton House, the restored Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. Yes, that’s right: Get the job of Deputy House Manager and you will live in a stately home where Jane Austen herself was a frequent visitor.


The job runs until December, pays a modest £25,000 (about $34,600) per year, and sounds (click through to the job description) as if it would require quite a lot of work: organizing group tours, running the gift shop, helping out in the tea room, assisting with special events and social media, and taking charge on the weekends. Depending how busy Chawton House gets – and, as blog readers will recall, it’s really, really hoping to get a lot busier – the job could be kind of a grind, for not much money.


And yet, ever since I read an interview with Caroline Knight, a member of the last generation of Austen descendants to live in Chawton House before American gazillionaire Sandy Lerner turned it into a library for the study of early English writing by women, I’ve thought of the house with a certain romantic nostalgia.


Living in a genuine Austen site: What an opportunity for a writer! Just breathing the air could probably ensure, if not literary immortality, then at least a couple of really good sentences. Alas, job applications were due on Saturday, so I guess I’ve missed my chance. I’ll have to look for my good sentences elsewhere.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 4 2017 02:00PM

The past year’s drama at Chawton House Library has sometimes seemed more appropriate to one of the Gothic romances Jane Austen satirized in Northanger Abbey than to a sedate center of literary scholarship with impeccable Austenian connections.


Regular blog readers will recall the highlights: A deep-pocketed donor – Silicon Valley multimillionaire Sandy Lerner, who spent $20 million to renovate the decaying Elizabethan mansion once owned by Austen’s older brother Edward – ended her ongoing financial support. The board launched an “urgent” fundraising appeal. The estate’s four beloved Shire horses and their human caretakers were sent packing as a cost-cutting measure. Local animal-lovers protested, and then started an online petition seeking reversal of the decision.


For those of us who think Chawton House Library, with its mission of promoting research into early English writing by women, is one the gems of the Janeite world, it’s all been disturbing and disheartening.


So much the more, then, can we rejoice at a recent piece of good news: The fundraising campaign has yielded its first big result, a two-year, £100,000 ($135,000) grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation, a UK philanthropy that funds projects in many areas, including education, British heritage, and the arts.


“It’s a great boost which shows that we are on the right track, and should act as a catalyst for other funders to follow,” said Chawton’s fundraising director, Jane Lillystone.


Chawton House is certainly not out of the woods yet. According to the library’s financial records, Lerner’s funding in 2015 totaled more than $600,000, so even the generous new grant replaces barely ten percent of that. But it’s certainly a hopeful start. If you want to add your own small mite to the effort, you can find Chawton’s fundraising campaign here.


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