Two hundred years after Jane Austen’s death, she is the focal point of a campaign to raise money to pay for the upkeep of her older brother’s former home, Chawton House, which is operated by the Chawton House Library charity and features a collection of women’s writings. The 16th-century building, located in the idyllic English countryside, needs to raise approximately £150,000 (about $197,000) to cover a funding shortfall after its principal sponsor, American philanthropist Sandy Lerner, withdrew financial support.
According to an Alton Herald article, Lerner’s funding accounted for 65% of the Chawton House Library’s income. That ended last year. Chawton House Library “now aims to launch a major capital programme to expand its facilities, enabling it to reach its full potential as a historic literary landmark, and to ensure its long-term financial sustainability.”
Lerner, co-founder of router company Cisco, rode to the rescue in 1992, saving the great house from disrepair by buying the leasehold and embarking on a major restoration program. This included establishing the library of women’s writings, partly in collaboration with the University of Southampton. The Alton Herald continues, “It has also developed a modest income as a visitor attraction, with increasing numbers of individuals and families coming to enjoy the house and grounds, alongside the Austen-related heirlooms and library.”
Making the House Great Again
It’s hardly ironic that this appeal should happen around the bicentenary of Austen’s death. She didn’t live at Chawton House—the Great House, as it was called—but at a nearby cottage, which is known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, a separate entity. Chawton House and the cottage were the property of Austen’s brother Edward, who was left the property by a childless member of the Knight family. He added the name Knight to Austen, becoming Edward Austen Knight. Jane lived at the cottage from 1809 to 1817 with her mother and sister Cassandra and visited Chawton House many times.
Jane Lillystone, director of fundraising at Chawton House, says the campaign, Reimagining Jane Austen’s ‘Great House,’ has the initial aim of collecting the funding from public fundraising. “We have an additional target of £290,000 from grant-giving trusts and foundations as well. … The £150,000 is intended to support operational costs over the next 18 months—to enable us the time to apply for major capital funds (approx. at least £7 million) towards achieving our ambitious plans of creating a cultural literary destination within the grounds of the Great House, offering larger and more extensive visitor facilities and providing an enhanced experience of the Chawton estate that was Jane Austen’s home throughout the final, productive years of her life.”
Chawton House Library will seek grants from national bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. As part of the fundraising campaign, it is promoting various events. One of these is #TheDarcyLook, an ice bucket challenge of sorts that was inspired by the scene in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice that saw Mr. Darcy, played by Colin Firth, set hearts aflutter by emerging from a lake wearing a dripping-wet white shirt. Would-be Mr. Darcys raise money by achieving the wet white shirt look after having water poured, or thrown, over them. This stunt has, says Lillystone, “attracted a lot of attention (we had 29k views and 277 shares within the first few days of going live) and we are keen that this gains international recognition as well. … There are more challenges being planned and these will be launched over the coming months via our fundraising website.”
Lillystone says the funding appeal has received backing from high-profile writers. Joanna Trollope (a Chawton House patron) says in a statement, “It’s a fascinating Elizabethan house in itself, with some important Austen heirlooms, including books that we know Jane read. But it now also houses a unique collection of early writing by women—a library of which Jane herself would thoroughly approve.”
Edward Rutherfurd (who pledged $10,000) says in a statement, “There is nothing else like Chawton House. It’s a living and a growing treasure, a magical place that must be preserved for future generations—and enhanced into a world heritage destination.”
The Chawton House Library has a manuscript in Jane Austen’s hand called Sir Charles Grandison, a play based on Samuel Richardson’s novel of the same name. Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, is also using the bicentenary of Austen’s death to appeal for money. Its Jane’s Fund will help pay for restoration work on the house——because, as its website notes, “recent surveys have shown that vital building repairs are required to ensure that the fabric of the house does not deteriorate further.” Donors who give £1,000 (about $1,300) or more to Jane’s Fund will get a private tour of the house for their troubles.
Right on the Money
Naturally, Jane Austen’s House Museum has its own money-raising gimmick. It is asking the ever-generous British public to donate the first £10 note bearing an image of Jane Austen they get their grubby hands on to its campaign to “Bring Jane Home.”
The new bank notes are supposed to hit the nation’s tills, purses, and wallets in September. I’m sure many will find their way to Chawton House. Bank of England governor Mark Carney recently unveiled the new note at Austen’s resting place at Winchester Cathedral. (She won’t be going home from there.) The note features Austen and one of her characters, Elizabeth Bennet, as well as an illustration of her writing desk and of another of her brother’s homes, Godmersham Park. It also showcases a quote from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”
Austen will be the first female writer—although not the first woman, other than female monarchs—to appear on a Bank of England note, following in the footsteps of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens as the only writers to have made this particular grade.