We’re coming to the end of the year commemorating the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, but I prefer to celebrate the great author’s birth. While the month of July marked her death, the month of December (specifically the 16th) marks her 242nd birthday. This celebration falls in the middle of the Christmas season, a time of joy and giving.
For this reason, I’d like to ask readers to consider a small holiday gift that celebrates not only Austen but also a dozen other early women writers. I’m speaking of donating to the Chawton House Library (photo by headline), which requires a major infusion of cash if it is to survive and prosper.
This is the Great House, as it was known when Jane Austen’s brother owned it, and it served as a gathering place for the Austen clan. The library was founded by American entrepreneur and philanthropist Sandy Lerner in 1993 to restore the neglected literary heritage of women writers. She saved the property from conversion to a golf course, oversaw the rehabilitation of a house in serious disrepair, and stocked the library with her own extraordinary collection of works by early women writers.
Sandy’s generosity in gifting all of the library assets to the UK registered charity she set up–Chawton House Library–was recognized in Britain by the awarding of an honorary Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2015. She has been joined by many other book collectors and scholars who have generously donated books to enhance the collection, which is available to scholars and the general public.
After more than two decades of personal support, in which she provided roughly 65 percent of the library’s operating costs, it was time for Lerner to step back and for the Austen community and lovers of literature in general to step in. The result is that Chawton House Library is in the middle of a major fundraising campaign, both to protect and improve the house and grounds and to expand the collections and resources.
People are already rallying to the cause. The Garfield Weston Foundation, one of the largest charitable organizations in the world, has contributed £100,000. Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay and portrayed Elinor in the 1995 movie “Sense and Sensibility”—launching today’s Austen renaissance—and her husband, Greg Wise, who played Willoughby, have announced their support.
But as with most projects of this nature, the rare major donations need to be supported by numerous small donations. Janeites, in particular, should rally to the cause. The library has several specific ways to give, including #BrickbyBrick, in which you buy a brick, or you can adopt a book. Among the boo
ks available to be adopted are the letters and works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “Evelina” by Fanny Burney, and “Pride by Prejudice,” by “A Lady.”
Suggested donations begin at £25 pounds ($40), but they’ll accept less.
Citizens of the United Kingdom can donate to the library directly. North Americans can contribute through the North American Friends of Chawton House Library, a nonprofit that will enable you to take a tax deduction.
North Americans, who have donated generously to other restoration projects involving Austen and her era (including English churches), can help again—there are more of us! The Eastern Pennsylvania region of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), led by Dan Macey and regional coordinator Paul Savidge, have already raised $4,500 at a recent holiday dinner. Fundraising activities would be a natural for every JASNA region.
For those not familiar with the Great House, it was the home of the Knight family, wealthy childless relatives of the Austens. The Knights adopted Jane’s older brother, Edward, as a young man and made him their heir. The main Knight estate was at Godmersham in Kent, eight miles south of Canterbury, and that’s where Edward moved as a youth and lived for many years.
In turns out, however, as Linda Slothouber documents in “Jane Austen, Edward Knight, and Chawton,” that the Knight family’s holdings in Hampshire, around Steventon (where Jane grew up) and Chawton (16 miles southeast, where she lived the last eight years of her life) were at least as large as their holdings in Kent. These included farms, timberlands, and houses—including many of the homes in Chawton village.
In 1809, after his mother and his sisters Cassandra and Jane and their sister-in-law Martha Lloyd had traipsed about southeast England for four years in search of cheap quarters, Edward made the old bailiff’s cottage at the bottom of the village of Chawton available to the Austen women. That house is now the separate Jane Austen’s House Museum.
It was in the peace and tranquility of Chawton Cottage that Austen wrote or heavily revised the six major works that brought her posthumous fame.
In addition, Edward began to spend more and more time in Hampshire on estate business. Once his patroness, the elder Mrs. Knight, died in 1812, his time in Hampshire increased still more. This shift created a hub for the Austen family in Chawton. Whenever Edward and his family were in resi
dence, the other Austen siblings would visit regularly, while the Austen sisters would walk to the Great House almost daily. (Frank and his family lived there for a while when he was without a sea command.) The Austen women could walk south down the lane from their cottage in less than ten minutes, either to the church or the Great House, just up the hill behind the church.
Jane’s letters after 1809 recount the enjoyment the Great House provided the family, saying that she went up to the house and “dawdled away an hour very comfortably” or that “we four sweet Brothers and Sisters dine at the Great House today. Is that not natural?” or that “Edward is very well and enjoys himself as much as any Hampshire born Austen can desire.—He talks of making a new Garden.”
These holdings remained in the Knight family and generally prospered until social change and increased taxation led to the decline or demise of many great houses in the twentieth century (see “Downton Abbey”). During World War II, Chawton House, along with other country estates, became home to children evacuated from large cities to avoid German bombing.
Caroline and Paul Knight were the last of the line to grow up in the Great House, which experience Caroline Knight documents in “Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage,” published this year (2017). The last Knight to inherit the home, which had fallen into disrepair, was Richard Knight, who sold it in 1992 to the developers, from whom Sandy Lerner retrieved the lease.
Today the responsibility for protecting Chawton House Library falls on all of those who care about Austen’s life and work.
Consider a Christmas donation in honor of Jane’s Christmas-time birthday. We can all help to save one of the finest women’s libraries in England and simultaneously honor Jane Austen.