Jane Austen's Great House launches urgent appeal to stay open

Chawton, home to Austen manuscripts and a library of early women writers, has launched a fundraising push to secure its place as a literary destination

As Jane Austen becomes the new face of the £10 note, Chawton House Library, the “Great House” where she whiled away many an hour, is hoping that at least some of the currency bearing her image will be directed its way. The charity is looking to raise around £150,000 over the next 18 months to stay afloat after its main backer withdrew support. It will also be applying for millions in capital grants over the next few years to transform its focus.

The Elizabethan residence in Hampshire, built by the Knight family in the 1580s, was inherited by Jane’s brother Edward centuries later. He offered the nearby bailiff’s residence, now the Jane Austen’s House Museum, to his mother and sisters Jane and Cassandra. But the author was a frequent visitor to her brother’s home, eating and reading there, and walking in its grounds. “I went up to the Great House between 3&4, & dawdled away an hour very comfortably,” she wrote in 1814.

A first edition of Northanger Abbey in the Lower Reading Room at Chawton House
A first edition of Northanger Abbey in the Lower Reading Room at Chawton House Photograph: M Focard de Fontefiguieres

The house had fallen into disrepair when American entrepreneur and philanthropist Sandy Lerner intervened in 1992. Lerner reopened it in 2003 as a library and research centre after extensive restoration, turning it into a home for early women’s literature. The library features an original manuscript in Austen’s own hand, first and early editions of her novels, as well as writing by women authors who inspired her, and others whom she in turn inspired.

Open to visitors since 2015, Chawton House is facing an uncertain future after Lerner stepped down from the board of trustees last year, and her foundation decided to focus on other projects. Before that, Lerner’s foundation had covered around 65% of its operating costs.

“We know Jane Austen’s Great House should be a major historic literary landmark but it does not currently have the facilities to reach its full potential,” the charity says on a newly launched website for its “urgent, large-scale” fundraising campaign. “It’s fairly urgent, but exciting as well,” said director of fundraising Jane Lillystone on Thursday.

An event in Dallas, Texas, organised by the Jane Austen Society of North America, has already raised $17,200 (£13,200) for the campaign, while Chawton House has just launched a social media campaign called TheDarcyLook, which is encouraging supporters to raise money by drenching a man wearing a white shirt – a la Colin Firth as Mr Darcy – in water, in homage to the ice bucket challenge.

“I hope Jane would have liked it,” said Lillystone. “She often had a very different opinion about things, and liked to tease, so I hope she would.”

The £150,000 goal is intended to cover operating costs over the next 18 months. Chawton House will also be applying for “at least” £7m in grants from organisations such as Arts Council England. The charity said: “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 that was Jane Austen’s home throughout the final, productive years of her life.”

The campaign is backed by authors including Chawton House patron Joanna Trollope, who called it “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.”

Treasures held in the collection include Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a first edition of Fanny Burney’s 1782 Cecilia, the closing lines of which inspired the title of Pride and Prejudice, and a dramatic adaptation of Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison, which the House believes was used for private family theatricals, written in Austen’s own hand.

Lillystone hopes that, with the desired funding, Chawton House will be able to broaden its appeal to become a “literary destination” for schools, locals and tourists, highlighting the works of Jane and other early women writers. Its visitor numbers for 2017 are 4,313, since it began its open-house season on 20 March – up 100% on last year.

“It’s about getting people to come here and enjoy it,” Lillystone said. “People are inspired by Jane Austen and [the campaign] is about tapping in to that.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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