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Archive for February 3rd, 2019


A photograph of Tom Carpenter, the trustee of Chawton Cottage; he is carrying a portrait of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward

Friends,

Last night I came across in the latest issue of Times Literary Supplement (for January 25, 2019), an informative piquant review by Devoney Looser of a autobiographical book, Jane & Me. Its author, Caroline Jane Knight, a fifth great-niece (with now a little help from Devoney & the TLS), is launching this book maybe to provide herself with a raison d’être (a not “very promising heroine-in-training” says Devoney), a basis for her living independently someday. I think the information here and acid insights make it required reading for the Janeite, and discovered it’s behind the kind of magazine paywall where you must buy a whole subscription for a year, before you can read it. It is almost impossible to share a TLS article online as if you subscribe to the online version, you can only do it through an app on an ipad or some such device. So I here provide a summary, contextualized further by what I have drawn from Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites.

Why is the review valuable in its own right too: we learn a good deal about the history of Chawton House Library this century from the point of view of the family who owned it — Jane Austen’s collateral descendants. Caroline is a poor transmitter: Looser points to where Caroline has not even begun to do the research necessary on her own life, but there is enough here to make do, and if you know something from your work, or can add further research like Devoney, you can have some insight into Austen’s family and what she was up against as she tried to write honest entertainments.

In brief, Devoney tells the story of a downwardly mobile family who let the house fall into desuetude and the present Richard Knight leased it to Sandy Lerner whose great luck on the Net had brought her huge amounts of money, some of which she expended by renovating, it’s not too much to call it rescuing Chawton House into a building one could spend time in comfortably enough so that it could function as a library. While she set about building, she started a board of informed people who would know how to turn it into a study center for 18th century women’s writing. Austen’s peers & contemporaries.


Richard Knight and Sandy Lerner walking on the grounds together during some occasion

Let me first bring in Yaffe’s account who also sheds light on Richard Knight who was at the conference as a key note speaker and we can here gather a few truths about him. He had “inherited a crushing estate-tax bill and a `16th century house in need of a million British pounds’ worth of emergency repairs.” A developer’s plan to turn the place into a golf course and expensive hotel had collapsed by 1992. Enter Sandy Lerner. She had made oodles of money off an Internet business, is another fan of Austen, one common today who does not like the idea of Austen as “an unhappy repressed spinster,” something of a recluse, not able to see the money and fame she wanted. When Dale Spender’s book, Mothers of the Novel, presented a whole female population writing away (as Austen did), a female literary tradition, she found a vocation, collecting their books. After she heard a speech by Nigel Nicolson, where he offended her (talking of a woman who thought Jane Austen didn’t like Bath as “a silly, superstitious cow,” described himself as heading a group who intended to open a Jane Austen center in Bath even though Edward Austen Knight’s Chawton House was on the market (too expensive? out of the way for tourists?), she decided to “get even.” When she had the money two years later, she bought Chawton House. She wanted to make it “a residential study center where scholars consulting er rare-book collection could live under 19th century conditions.” This super-rich woman loved the sense these people would gain “a visceral sense of the historical moment,” wake up to “frost on the windows, grates without fires, nothing but cold water to wash in.”

She paid six million for 125 year lease on the house and its 275 acre grounds; another $225,000 for the stable block. She discovered it to be badly damaged, inhabited by tenants she found distasteful, “ugly,” rotting. Crazy rumors abounded in the village she was going to turn the place into a lesbian commune, a Euro-Disney style theme park, her husband testing missile systems in the grounds. She thought of herself as this great philanthropist. Culture clashes: the Chawton estate sold its hunting rights for money; she was an animal rights activist. Disputes over her desire to remove a swimming pool said to be a badger habitat protected under UK law. I saw the Ayrshire Farm here in Northern Virginia that she bought during the protracted lawsuits and negotiations over Chawton: an 800-acre spread in northern Virginia, where “she planned to raise heritage breeds under humane, organic conditions, to prove socially responsible farming was economically viable.” She started a cosmetics company whose aesthetic was that of the Addams Family (TV show). Chawton House was finally built using a sensible plan for restoration; a cemetery was discovered, a secret cupboard with 17th century telescope. Eventually Lerner’s 7000 rare books came to reside in a house you could hold conferences, one-day festivals and host scholars in. It had cost $10 million and yearly operating costs were $1 million a year.


Lerner’s Ayrshire Farmhouse today — it’s rented out for events, and hosts lunches and evening parties and lectures, has a shop ….

Lerner is unusual for a fan because she dislikes sequels and does not seek out Austen movies; it’s Austen’s texts she loves — yet she too wants to write a P&P sequel. I sat through one of her incoherent lectures so know first-hand half-nutty theory that every concrete detail in an Austen novel is crucial information leading to interpretation of that novel. I’ll leave the reader to read the details of her way of research, her travels in imitation of 18th century people: it took her 26 years to complete. How she has marketed the book by a website, and how Chawton was at the time of the book thriving (though her Farm lost money). Yaffe pictures Lerner at a signing of her book, and attracted many people, as much for her Internet fame as any Austen connection. Yaffe has Lerner against distancing herself from “our distastefully Twittering, be-Friending world, for the e-mail boxes overflowing with pornographic spam.” But she will buy relics at grossly over-inflated prices (“a turquoise ring” Austen wore) and give them to friends. She launched Chawton House by a fabulously expensive ball, to which Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul (dressed as aging Mr and Mrs Darcy) came. A “prominent chef” made 18th century foods (“nettle and potato soup, pickle ox tongue, sweetmeats”). She was in costume: “a low-cut, pale-blue ball gown. She even went horseback riding with Rintoul. A real thrill for a fan.


Chawton House Reading Room — there are two rooms, one open to the public, the other locked and filled with rare 18th century books

Devoney doesn’t say this nor Yaffe but I will: Chawton House never quite made it as sheerly a study center for women’s writing as originally envisioned; instead it became a sort of Jane Austen tourist site where festivals and conferences dwelling on Austen for fans were necessary, sometimes becoming a semi-popular community center like the Bronte Haworth house seems to be turning into. That’s not so bad, far worse was the people working for and at the place never acquired enough funding to do without Lerner; and over a fit of pique and probably long-standing resentments, some two years ago now Lerner pulled all her money out. It turns out 80% of funds came from her, and no way has been found to locate a substitute so the place can carry on its serious functions in the same way. Some new compromise will have to be found. Nearby is Chawton Cottage, now a small research center (for those select people who get to see its library), but more a tourist site; also nearby is the Austen family church where (among others) Austen’s sister, Cassandra and their mother, are buried. The house now (Looser says) “stands to revert back to Richard Knight’s family,” of whom Caroline is a member. All of us who know something of the house, who have experienced its scholarly meetings, its library, walked on its grounds, heard a concert at the church, mourn the fact that its fine director, Dr Gillian Dow has gone, to return full time as a scholar and lecturer to the University of Southampton.

This is the larger context for the story of Caroline and her older relatives from the turn of the century to now. Like other of these aristocrats who cannot afford to life the extravagant life of leisure they once did, Caroline (says Devoney) presents herself a slightly downtrodden: she and her parents lived in the basement of Chawton house while the rich tenants occupy the plum apartments above. One of the houses I was shown in the Lake District/Nothern Borders of England is owned by an aristocrat’s wife’s family; and the husband himself works to hold onto it by throwing it open to the public for various functions. He is clearly a well-educated man who lived a privileged elite life; nonetheless, he gave one of the talks. He told us he and his family living in the basement quarters below; their paying tenants above stairs.

The various Knights during Caroline’s life didn’t have many servants (oh dear poor things) and spent their time in less than admirable ways (watching TV say, horse racing — which costs). None of them were readers, and (as opposed to Devoney) I would say none of them ever produced anything near a masterpiece or important book, except maybe JEAL — if you are willing to consider how central his Memoir of his Aunt has been and how it has cast its spell over ways of reading Austen and understanding her ever after. A few have been minor literary people, and Joan Austen-Leigh and others been influential valued members of the British Jane Austen Society and they “grace” the JASNA every once in a while with their presence. Several have written sequels. Looser goes over a few of these, giving the impression that a couple which JASNA has promoted are better than they are.

Various financial troubles and also legal ones (including one male relative running over a local person with his car and “found not guilty of manslaughter” although he fled the scene) are covered by Devoney. When it comes to explaining the financial problems, Caroline says they are all a mystery. She omits any clarifying description of what the estate was like and which Knights lived here in WW2. Devoney supplies this: she tells of one recent Edward Knight’s time in India — his father had had been a royal favorite and a public-spirited magistrate, who loved to shoot birds. In 1951 thirty cottages in which tenants lived were auctioned off, and some went to occupants. They were in such bad shape apparently (again that is my deduction from what Looser gently implies) that one lucky man who could afford to buy the cottage said he got it for the price of a TV. Devoney implies this was dirt cheap. Not so: for many British people in 1951 the price of TV was out of their range; in the 1950s most Brits rented their TV


Chawton House recently from the outside

Death duties, genuinely high taxes each time the house changed hands is what did them in. (We no longer have even that in the US and the Republicans are salivating to change the death tax laws once again — these are important tools to prevent the growth of inequality.) I thought interesting that Chawton House was sold to one Richard Sharples, a conservative politician (1916-73) who served as governor of Bermuda and was assassinated (in Devoney’s words) “by black power militants.” Of course this bad-mouths these people, and when they were hung for the murder, there were days of rioting. I remember how horribly the white treated black and native people on Bermuda — so cruel that there are famous rebellions (Governor Eyre) wth terrifying reprisals by the British and colonial gov’ts. In the 20th century Sharples’ widow’s only recourse was to sell the property, furniture, books, portraits in 1977. There have over the century been a number of such sales to pay off death duties and some of the objects prized in museums, libraries came out of just such Sotheby auctions. Looser tells us in an aside there is a ditigal project trying to reconstruct the Knight Library as it was in 1935 (“Reading with Austen,” readingwithausten.com)

As to Caroline, she has apparently read very little of Austen’s fiction — that must very little indeed since Austen left only 6 novels which can easily be reprinted in one volume. She has appeared on TV, and is now she’s trying what a book can do. It’s not a memoir worthy of Jane Austen, says Devoney: the lack of elemental research even about her own life; Caroline’s account of herself features James Covey’s self-help book, The Habits of Highly Effective People, as the one that has gotten her through life. Wouldn’t you know it was seeing the 1995 P&P film by Andrew Davies that “kindled” Caroline’s interest in Jane Austen. I watched a documentary with Andrew Davies aired on BBC recently about just how much he changed the book to be about men; how much “correction” of it he made. Caroline still dreams of moving back to Chawton with the present male Richard Knight as ambassador (of what it’s not clear). I’ve been to JASNAs where Richard Knight gave a talk about his family in the mid-morning Sunday breakfast slot of the JASNAs. Here is Arnie Perlstein’s reaction to one.

Devoney ends her review with suggesting how much this history might remind us of Persuasion and the Elliot family and quotes Darcy in P&P: “I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.” Devoney does justice at her opening to a few of the immediate Austens who showed some literary ability and genuine interest and integrity towards their aunt: James, her brother was a minor but good poet; his three children include JEAL; Anne Austen Lefroy who tried to finish Sanditon and wrote a brief touching novel, Mary Hamilton; Caroline Austen wrote her Reminiscences; Catherine Hubback several novels, a travel book of letters, and a continuation of Austen’s The Watsons as The Younger Sister. Her son, grand-nephew, and granddaughter all wrote books to add to our knowledge of the family; Edward Knight’s grandson produced the first substantial edition of Austen’s letters. There the inspiration coming through and about the aunt seems to have ended.

***********************
From Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Jeffrey Palliser tells Alice, a visitor to this aristocratic family at their country mansion who wonders what there is to do all day, about what he as an example of his relatives’ lives does with his time:

“Do you shoot?”
“Shoot! What; with a gun?”
“Yes. I was staying in a house last week with a lady who shot a good deal.”
“No; I don’t shoot.”
“Do you ride?”
“No; I wish I did. I have never ridden because I’ve no one to ride with me.”
“Do you drive?”
“No; I don’t drive either.”
“Then what do you do?”
“I sit at home, and—”
“Mend your stockings?”
“No; I don’t do that, because it’s disagreeable; but I do work a good deal. Sometimes I have amused myself by reading.”
“Ah; they never do that here. I have heard that there is a library, but the clue to it has been lost, and nobody now knows the way …

None of this loss and mismanagement or lack of literary interest or ability as part of a family history is unexpected. In her discreet last chapter of her fine biography of Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin records the earliest phases of this decline, together with or amid the real attempts of Catherine Hubback’s part of the family and other descendants of Frank to publish respectable books about Jane Austen. I imagine the valuable library gathered since Chawton House Library became a functioning study center (a large room in the present Chawton house) will remain intact but nowadays (as some of us know) libraries filled with books are not valued by booksellers or even libraries or universities in the way they once were. I know people who found they could not even give away a particularly superb personal library, and others driven to sell theirs for very little in comparison say for what they would have gotten in 1980 or so and that would not have covered how much it cost them over a lifetime.

Ellen

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