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Facing an Uncertain Future, a Jane Austen Landmark Seeks the Public’s Help

Chawton House, which was once owned by Austen’s brother, has launched a crowdfunding campaign after losing the support of its main beneficiary

(Charles D P Miller/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Celebrations marking the 200th year since the death of Jane Austen have placed a renewed focus on historic sites associated with the beloved author. There is an exhibition at her cottage in Chawton, another dedicated to her nights on the town of Basingstoke, and even a walking tour tracing Austen’s funeral procession. But one place in the author’s life is struggling to stay afloat. As Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, the Chawton House Library, which was once inhabited by Austen’s brother, is trying to raise funds after its main beneficiary withdrew support.

Chawton House, also known as “Great House,” is located in the county of Hampshire. It was built in the 16th century and later inherited by Edward Austen Knight. According to the Chawton House website, Edward offered a cottage on the estate to his mother and two sisters, Jane and Cassandra. According to Katie Jones of Country Living, Jane spent her last eight years living in the Chawton cottage (now the Jane Austen's House Museum) and she often wandered from there to visit her brother and his family at the Great House. In one of her letters, she wrote that she “dawdled away an hour very comfortably” there.

In 2003, with the help of the American entrepreneur and philanthropist Sandy Lerner, Chawton was transformed into a library and research center devoted to early women writers. The institution holds a first edition of Fanny Burney’s 1782 novel, Cecilia, a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, published in 1792. Chawton is also home to first and early editions of all of Austen’s novels, along with a manuscript written in the author’s hand.

Chawton has now hit upon hard times. Lerner, who provided the institution with 65 percent of its funding, has decided to direct her resources to other projects. Chawton has set a goal of raising £150,000 (nearly $195,675 USD) over the next 18 months to maintain its facilities and programming. To do so, Chawton has launched a crowdfunding campaign, appealing for the public’s help in seeing the site “through to the next chapter.”

Donations will assist the charity that runs Chawton House with its plans to transform the site into a major literary landmark. “We have ambitious plans to create a cultural literary destination within the wider grounds of the ‘Great House,’ offering larger and more extensive visitor facilities and providing an enhanced experience of the Chawton estate,” the institution’s website states.

To raise awareness about the campaign, Chawton has launched an initiative titled #TheDarcyLook, which asks donors to wear a white shirt and douse themselves in water—think the ice bucket challenge, but with a touch of Colin Firth.

The charity will also apply for capital grants to help keep Chawton House open, hopefully ensuring that contemporary visitors—like Jane Austen before them—will be able to dawdle away an hour at the Great House for many years to come.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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