Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2018 01:00PM

The transformation of Chawton House from purely academic destination into full-service Janeite tourist draw continues: The stately home where Jane Austen’s brother once lived, and which now houses a library of early English writing by women, is bidding farewell to its English-professor executive director and looking for a new CEO.


Chawton’s board hopes to find someone with “a strong track record in commercial delivery and fundraising” and “experience in positive stakeholder management,” according to a job description posted online late last month. Strikingly absent from the listing is any reference to scholarly chops – PhD, background in Austen studies, that kind of thing.


As regular blog readers will recall, Chawton has been in decorous turmoil for two years, since Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, whom I profiled in Among the Janeites, announced she would end her financial support. In the 1990s, Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Edward Austen Knight’s dilapidated Elizabethan manor house and for years afterwards continued to spend six-figure annual sums on its upkeep.


Since Lerner’s departure, the board and the outgoing executive director, University of Southampton professor Gillian Dow, have cut costs, sought grants, launched a fundraising appeal, and changed the institution’s name from “Chawton House Library” to just plain “Chawton House,” in hopes of rebranding sober scholarship as fun-filled Austen tourism. (See details of the saga here and here.)


It’s a tricky balancing act: Keeping Chawton, with its extraordinary collection of rare books, alive as a site for serious scholarship, while simultaneously attracting the tourist dollars of the folks who trek down the road to Jane Austen’s House Museum to buy Colin Firth tea towels and snap selfies with Austen’s desk. In a sense, Chawton House is a microcosm of the struggle within the Janeite world between devotees of Classic Author Austen and fans of Pop Culture Jane.


Yes, it's a challenge to walk this line between the academic and the pop, but it's not impossible: the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. does it with great success, simultaneously hosting scholarly conferences and hawking Shakespeare magnetic poetry.


Here’s hoping that Chawton House, a true Janeite gem, can find its footing too. A quick Google search suggests that the announced salary for the new CEO -- £55,000 (about $72,000) -- is no better than average for the heads of smaller charities outside London, so perhaps this will be a job for someone young and ambitious. Applications are due by Friday, so start polishing that resume.


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, 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, Feb 5 2018 02:00PM

Nobody called it branding in Jane Austen’s day, although Lord Byron, at least, was an expert practitioner of the craft avant la lettre. But branding is exactly what seems to underlie the most interesting tidbit of Janeite news so far this month: Chawton House Library’s decision to rename itself just plain Chawton House.


Readers of Among the Janeites will recall that Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Chawton House, an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward, and turn it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. But in 2016, more than a decade after the 2003 opening, Lerner announced she would no longer fund operations, leaving the library scrambling to replace her money. (Find details of the ensuing saga here.)


Fundraising is still ongoing, but last week, Chawton House announced it was dropping the “Library” from its name. “We’ve had feedback that potential visitors to the house and gardens are confused and – in some cases – put off by having ‘library’ in the name, which could mean that it is only open to library users when this is certainly not the case,” said Chawton’s board chair, Louise Ansdell. “We want all to come and enjoy what we have to offer.”


Chawton is hoping to reposition itself – beautifully restored historic mansion, charming gardens, convenient tearoom -- as not only a scholarly research site but also an Austen-related tourist destination, along the lines of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, down the road. The project has its challenges: Although Austen certainly spent time at Chawton House with her brother’s family, she did not live or write there, making the big house less of a Janeite pilgrimage site than the cottage. On the other hand: Historic mansion. Charming gardens. Tearoom.


As for the fundraising, it seems to be making steady but slow progress: Chawton House won a £100,000 two-year grant (about $143,000) late last year, and its appeal to individual donors has raised £15,000 (about $24,000) in three months. That’s still only a fraction of the $600,000-plus that Lerner provided in 2015, however, so there’s still a long way to go. If you want to help, you’ll find Chawton’s fundraising site here.


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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