“Talks and Tours Day: Jane Austen in Chawton,” or More Fun than You Might Expect

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On Friday, July 7, 2017, Chawton House Library (CHL) and Jane Austen’s House Museum (JAHM) hosted “Talks and Tours Day: Jane Austen in Chawton.”

The day began with a series of talks; it concluded with tours of CHL’s current exhibit on Austen and Germaine de Stael–alliteratively called “Fickle Fortunes”–and JAHM’s wallpaper and Wedgewood dishes!

The talks:

Deidre Lynch and Kathryn Sutherland, ‘The style of her familiar correspondence was in all respects the same as that of her novels’, a comparative talk considering Jane Austen as letter and novel writer

Hilary Davidson, ‘Jane Austen’s Pelisse Coat: shopping for fabrics and making clothes’

Jeanice Brooks, ‘Jane Austen’s Music Making’

Sue Dell, ‘The Austen Family Quilt’

Oh, what I learned! There is truly too much to write about, but I will share some highlights. From Sutherland and Lynch’s joint presentation I learned much about letter writing economy. Austen always filled her pages from margin to margin (top to bottom, side to side) in order to get the most bang for the buck. She needed to use as few sheets as possible with which to say as much as possible. In Austen’s time the letter writer did not pay the postage–oh, no, the letter recipient did. I did not know this before Friday. Letters cost by weight and distance. Who has the money to add an envelope? Nope–no envelopes. Want to see what one would look like? Click on this link. Sutherland compared some passages from Austen’s letters with her novels, which was also very informative.

Davidson’s talk knocked my socks off (if I were wearing any, that is). She talked about Austen’s pelisse (a light, but long outer coat-dress thingy–super technical language, I know!) She talked about the color and symbolism in terms of its British patriotic oak-leaf iconography. Davidson covered a range of images showing fashion changes in the 1790s-1810s, which was awesome to see.

Brooks’ talk addressed Austen’s musical preferences, the lack of mention in her novels of specific musical pieces, and the way contemporary-to-us scholars and filmmakers have tried to tie Austen to famous composers. Did she like Mozart? Haydn? etc. What did she list to, or better yet play, in her free time? Brooks dished on it all.

I loved all of the talks I mentioned, but Dell’s talk about Austen’s quilt just made my day. The quilt, which hangs in the museum, has such a story a tell–one that needs a talk like Dell’s to do it justice. Let me start with a picture of it:

This quilt was a communal project–mother, sisters, friends all worked on it. There are thousands of diamond fabric pieces, and the pieces all have a distinct pattern–no willy nilly design there. Can you see the large diamond in the middle, the medium diamonds throughout, and then the small diamonds adorning the perimeter? The whole thing was mapped out. Masterful! All done by women! I am in awe of this work of art (cuz that’s what it is) from the way it was created to what it represents. I learned a lot from Dell about quilt making as well. I was inspired to get started on one. Now I need some people to work on it with me.

The tours:

Gillian Dow, Curator’s Tour of ‘Fickle Fortunes: Jane Austen and Germaine de Staël, 1817-2017’

Mary Guyatt, ‘Wallpaper and Wedgwood: Objects in Jane Austen’s House Museum’

I went on the tours, even though I had already seen the exhibit and the objects, because I wanted to know more about the places in which I will be volunteering through early August. I wanted to hear the curators of each of the aforementioned exhibits talk about them candidly. That is what I got! I am fascinated by museums–always have been–so it was super cool to hear about what motivates an exhibit, how it is put together, and how museum curation actually works. Dow talked a lot about how to create a comparative exhibition. Guyatt talked about the things one must do to preserve a historical space while at the same time making it inviting for visitors.

I enjoyed this day immensely. As cliche as this sounds, I learned so much! It was a true pleasure to be a sponge and absorb as much information as possible. What a delight! I love it when research involves being in a space, seeing, and listening.

Bella the Cat; or, The Perks of Airbnb

Normally Chawton fellows and the international visitor (that’s my role) stay in the Chawton House Library Stables. Because CHL Stables is booked for the next few weeks, I am staying at the wonderful Sarah’s house in Alton for the time being. I found this place through Airbnb. It’s a wonderful house with wonderful hosts, including Sarah’s two housemates–her son, Henry, and their cat, Bella.

One of the perks of getting to stay here is spending time with this cute cat! Bella loves to rub her face all over you, and she likes back rubs. According to Sarah and Henry, Bella does not take to strangers. However, the first moment Adam and I met her she was rubbing against us. Her humans were shocked! Even their close friends do not get this treatment. Apparently smart cats know cat people. Yup, Bella could sense that we are cat people.

Although I miss my cat, Fluffy, I know that she is in good hands back in the States. She is on vacay with our friends, Kate and Ben. They took her in for six weeks–good, good friends indeed! In the meantime, Bella is keeping me company. 🙂

I hope to add a few post about Marmite, the JAHM cat!

BBC Radio4’s Kitchen Cabinet Recording

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Last night I helped the Chawton House Library (CHL) staff set up for an event: the live recording of BBC Radio4’s “Kitchen Cabinet.”  The show changes locations weekly (I presume) and invites an audience of hundreds to attend the recording. It goes like this: people can request free tickets, show up, and hope to get in (see the marquee/tent below). If they get in, they get to fill out a questionnaire, and if their questionnaire is chosen, they get to ask a panel of food experts their questions. Around five people are chosen from the audience to come sit in the front row and ask their questions. It is all very exciting! The panelists, shown below in a Chawton House photo op, were lively and funny, especially the host, Jay Rayner (at left).

The programme (Brit spelling) selected the CHL as a site in order to tie in with the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death (d. July 18, 1817). Austen’s brother’s family, The Knights, have a family cookbook–a series of recipes collected–including such wonderful entries, such as snail’s milk as a cure for a hangover! Um, ewwwwww. The panel referred to the book throughout the programme, and Austen expert Gillian Dow was on hand to comment on Austen’s relationship to food as in cooking, eating, and writing about sweets and savories.

On July 15 the recording will actually air. I hope to listen to it just to see what it sounds like without the hoards of motorcycles in the background. Oh, yeah, many retakes happened because there was a pre-motorcycle-race event (Isle of Man TT rehearsal) happening on the highway in the distance. Vroom! Vroom!

Most of my responsibilities for the event included setting up a book selling table with fellow CHL staff members, Darren and Christine.

Then Christine and I spent a couple of hours before the show trying to sell books–and we didn’t sell ANY. After the show we sold quite a few copies of The Knight Family Cookbook and The Compleat Housewife. Then we packed up and called it a day around 8:30 p.m.

All in all, I had a wonderful evening. I enjoyed being useful. (I really do like helping out with events.) I enjoyed hanging out with Christine. I enjoyed meeting the hundreds of people who poured into the event on such a lovely, warm summer’s eve! Not a cloud in the sky!

 

 

Jane Austen’s House Museum: An Introduction

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Yesterday I made my first official trip to Jane Austen’s House Museum (JAHM). From 1809-1817, Austen lived with her mother and sister in a Chawton cottage that is now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum. She revised Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice while living in Chawton, and she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Sanditon (an incomplete novel, cast aside due to illness) there, too. Chawton was the home of the adult Austen, “a Lady” who would publish four successful novels without much personal acclaim.

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Where did Austen revise, draft, and read her work? According to the museum curator, the table shown above served as her desk. After Austen’s death the table was actually given to a footman. Luckily, someone eventually returned it!

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Yesterday I met JAHM’s delightful staff members and volunteers, and I am excited to work with all of them. (Can you believe that my first meeting included a nice lunch–a BLT with British bacon–yum, rose lemonade, and chocolate ice cream!) I have the good fortune to be volunteering weekly as a steward at this museum. When I wandered around the 41 Objects exhibit yesterday, I was delighted to see so many items belonging to the Austen family–a few of them definitely used by Jane! Next week I will begin my sojourn at the JAHM by talking to visitors, keeping track of how many people enter and exit, and perhaps even opening or closing the house.

Being in this house is utterly delightful. It is bright and airy. The rooms are cozy, like Barton Cottage. I felt a sense of joy as I perused the rooms, kitchen, and grounds. I can imagine writing a great deal in this house!

Chawton House Library: An Introduction

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On July 4, I made my first trip to the Chawton House Library. This building was once the home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. Now it is a library that holds thousands of books and items from the Knight family’s collection and on women writers from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Thanks to Sandy Lerner, Chawton House has been restored and is now open to the public.

The reason for my coming to England this summer is in large part due to my interest in this library’s holdings. I want to see first hand Jane Austen’s play, Sir Charles Grandison. I want to look at Austen’s handwriting in person! I want to look at the books that she had access to when she visited her brother’s house. I want to explore the library’s inventory to see examples of 18th- and 19th-century marginalia–ideally Austen family marginalia. I want to read examples of women’s writing that I would not otherwise have access to in the States. On day one, I already got to do a few of these things briefly.

My first visit consisted of meeting the library staff, taking a brief tour of the house, learning more about my responsibilities as the JASNA IVP, and giving myself a crash course in the current exhibition’s theme: Jane Austen and Germaine de Stael (both writers died in 1817 within days of each other).

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I made it a point to wander the house as a visitor would do so that I would know what it is like for people to visit the house. It goes something like this: visitors enter the Great Hall on the first floor and mosey over to the dining room. In the dining room one finds Edward’s clothes, journal, and portrait (among other things).

Visitors then travel upstairs to a few more rooms and eventually make their way downstairs to the lower reading room. I will spend my Mondays in this room, which is locked on the outside so that visitors cannot wander in unattended.

The lower reading room is considered the end of the tour. In this room, visitors will see many shelves of library books from the collection. They cannot touch these books. They can only look at them and the items in the display cases. The display cases at present include a handwritten letter by Jane to her sister from the 1790s (squee!!), half of Austen’s Sir Charles Grandison, and some items from the Brontes (including a lock of Charlotte’s hair) and de Stael. It is my responsibility to answer any questions visitors have and to ensure that no one does anything foolish (Dear God, don’t let anyone do anything foolish).

I will also be responsible on Mondays for opening and closing the house. This means that in the morning I turn on lights, open the curtains, take off display case covers, and check humidity and temp readings. In the evening I basically do the reverse of the first three items on the list.

I also learned that tonight I will assist at an event! Chawton House Library is hosting a BBC Radio production, The Kitchen Cabinet, and the event is open to the public. I will help set up a book table and try to sell books (I guess).

As I left the library yesterday I did my best to remember all of the information I was given. I’m sure I won’t remember it all, but that’s OK, unless…oh, dear, I can think of a lot of things! Keep your fingers crossed for me!

At some point I will get to do some research at the library, but for the time being I am focusing on being useful.

Today I meet with the staff at Jane Austen’s House Museum. More on that later.

 

 

From Boston to London to Alton

My journey from the US to the UK began a few days ago. I got a ride to Portland, Maine. Then I boarded a Concord Coach bus there for Boston Logan Airport. Then I flew Delta/Virgin Atlantic Airlines to London Heathrow Airport. Upon leaving the airport I made it to a hotel on Gracechurch Street, where I stayed for a couple of nights. Now I am residing on the top floor of my Air BnB host’s beautiful home in Alton, UK. I stayed in London for a couple of days in the hope of making sure that any flight delays would not cut into my trip to Alton. While in London I did a lot of walking and bus riding so that I would not sleep all day and then be up all night. I managed to quickly get myself acclimated to UK time, which surprised me.

Below I post some pics to give you a visual idea of where I have been the last few days and how I got there.

  1. On the bus to Boston I enjoyed my spatial seat. On the plane to London (with noise cancellation headphones and eye mask) I tried to sleep but didn’t. I did see this gorgeous view from the plane.

2. Once in London, Adam and I hopped in a car (thanks, Uber) and made it to the Club Quarters hotel.

3. Then we walked around a lot and rode mass transit for two days.

4. Then we headed back to the airport to pick up a rental car (driving in the UK? what a great idea? how hard can it be?).

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5. And here’s my current room at Sarah’s house. Sarah is one of the nicest people I have met anywhere! The room is superb. The picture at bottom right shows how bright it is here at 10 p.m. (US time).

In a couple of weeks we leave Alton for Winchester. Then it’s on to the Chawton House Library Stables. I’ll post pics of those places in due time.

Shakespeare, Not Austen; or What You Will

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There you have it: Shakespeare’s Globe. While the theater does not sit on the exact site of the original, it’s close. Want to know more about the Globe? Check out this site. This summer, the Globe is home to a series of plays falling under the heading, “Summer of Love.”

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Plays in the group include Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, and King Lear (why Lear? you might ask–remember the love game that starts Act 1!). I saw Twelfth Night; or What You Will (a subtitle many people forget) on the evening of July 1. This production is one that must be seen at night, for it includes a screen image of the moon and a lot of purple and red light effects, as shown in this post-show pic below. (NB: We stood in the yard for only £5 and after the show sat in on a bench to get a different view.)

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I have to say that I was blown away by this production. I have seen the London Stage Actors perform the play, but that pales in comparison to Emma Rice’s version of this play. While reviews of Rice’s production have been mixed, I absolutely adore this production. In my opinion, it is difficult to stage Shakespeare’s comedies in the 21st century because so many of the jokes are lost on us–especially when directors try to stage them in 16th- and 17th-century costumed productions. Rice manages to forgo this problem by setting her production in 1979 Scotland. She retains the Bard’s language, but makes some necessary cuts to scenes that even I (lover of Shakespeare) found a bit annoying. She has turned the clown, Feste, into the most wonderful drag artist I have every seen and heard (played by the amazing Le Gateau Chocolat). Malvolio is played by a tiny actor with a big voice, Katy Owen. By the way, many of the parts are gender-swapped, which is fantastic! Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are Scottish. Sir Andrew and Orsino sport mullets. It is all so wonderful!

One of my favorite aspects of this production is the music. It is hip and fun. The musicians are amazing. The singing is amazing. I really felt like I was attending Twelfth Night: The Musical. I love musicals! 🙂 Take a listen to some of the songs:

 

 

All in all, I found this production funny, charming, and indicative of the ways contemporary artistic directors can help audiences connect with Shakespeare. I, for one, connected more with the play than I had before. I haven’t taught Twelfth Night in my Shakespeare class before, but after seeing/hearing this production, I probably will.

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For what it’s worth, after the show ended I got separated from my partner. I was pushed out of the theater; he was stuck on the inside waiting for me. For about 30 minutes, we waited for each other. I had nothing on me–my phone, wallet, etc. were all in the backpack he carried. Finally, as fate would have it, we found each other. As Viola and Sebastian find their way back to each other, so did my husband and I. It made for a tense half hour, but a wonderfully ridiculous story for years to come. Lost in the Globe? Locked out of the Globe? At least on our walk back to our hotel we stumbled upon the wonderful mural above. Thanks, trippy Shakespeare mural for this fun pic!

Today’s the Day!

I am currently en route to Boston for my red-eye flight to London. (Fingers crossed for a timely departure and arrival!) My plan is to arrive in London tomorrow, find my way to my hotel in Central London, and then try to stay awake. If at all possible–that is, if my energy holds–I will do some light sight-seeing and get on a Brit time schedule. My plan is to spend two and a half days in London to acclimate myself before heading to Chawton, and perhaps to go to the British Library or British Museum. I don’t know if Austen will fit directly into any of my London plans, but I definitely have some Shakespeare plans (and Austen read Shakespeare, so…related? Actually, I don’t have any knowledge of her reading the play mentioned in the next sentence.). On Saturday night I will see the new Twelfth Night production at The Globe.

Check back in a few days for an update!

Less than a Week Away

As I ready myself for travel to the UK, I am also priming myself to become a full fledged Janeite. You might have thought that I was already a Janeite, but you would have been mistaken. I was only a Janeite in the making before this summer. Although I attended a five-week NEH seminar on Austen and her contemporaries in 2012, I have been thinking intently and writing about Austen’s works for only five years–I’m practically a baby in the Austen world. This summer changes everything for me. I will spend six weeks immersing myself in everything Austen in the environs in which Jane became Jane Austen.

A couple of weeks ago I began this pre-immersion process. I started listening to audio versions of Austen’s novels. I began with Pride and Prejudice (narrated by Rosamund Pike) and then moved to The Watsons and Sanditon (both narrated by Anna Bentinck). I carried on with Emma (narrated by Juliet Stevenson). Tomorrow I will begin Persuasion (also narrated by Stevenson).

On top of this, I decided to binge watch the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice (swoon!) this past week, and to begin the BBC Emma. (NB: The latter production sacrifices fidelity at times for the sake of continuity, which bugs me a bit. However, the casting is divine, especially Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller.)

I have been rereading Austen’s juvenilia, especially pieces of it that I have not taught before, such as “A Letter from a Young Lady,” and one of her in-betweens, “Sir Charles Grandison.” I have also been reading David Nokes’ Jane Austen and Brian Southam’s Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts.

I have to admit: all of this listening, viewing, and reading has pumped me up! 🙂 I am so excited to go to England–which I want to call Austenland, but shouldn’t–this week!

A Week Away

Hi, All! Welcome to my blog about my time in England as the Jane Austen Society of North America’s International Visitor. In less than a week I will begin my sojourn to England, where I will fully immerse myself in everything Austen for six weeks. I will spend time volunteering and researching at the Chawton House Library and the Jane Austen’s House Museum. I will help the organizers of the Jane Austen Society of the UK hold their Annual General Meeting. I will visit exhibits on Austen in Winchester, Oxford, and Bath. I will visit the Hampshire Records Office. I will…. I will…. I will…. 🙂