It is a treasured place for fiction lovers: the house in the village of Chawton, Hampshire, where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life, from 1809 to 1817, and wrote some of her best-known novels. But last month the house, now a museum, was threatened with permanent closure due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Would it be a happy ending?
“I must be very clear,” museum director Lizzie Dunford tells the Catholic Herald. “This is because of the pandemic. Without the pandemic there would have been no campaign.”
The house, home to the Pride and Prejudice author, was forced to close its doors in March. “We are entirely dependent on visitor income,” says Dunford. Without visitors, prospects for Austen’s house were looking “very hairy indeed”.
On the brink of despair, Dunford created the “Jane Austen’s House Survival Appeal” on fundraising platform JustGiving. The results were – in Dunford’s words – “overwhelming”: the campaign went viral, thanks to a story in the local press which was picked up by the Guardian.
Interestingly, it wasn’t coverage in the national media that drove the campaign: it simply put the wheels in motion. Rallying the troops were novelist Gill Hornby and historians Paula Byrne and Helena Kelly. “I call them my three musketeers,” Dunford laughs. “Thanks to them, the campaign went through the roof.” The three “Janeites” relentlessly tweeted and promoted the appeal, leading to a flurry of donations from all over the world.
“We were all quite desperate when it seemed the house might have to close. It is a gem of a museum and a shrine for literary pilgrims,” Gill Hornby, author of bestselling novel Miss Austen, tells the Catholic Herald.
“We took to Twitter in a last-ditch attempt to spread the word and the results were astonishing. Funds poured in and the total clocked up before our eyes. It was heartening to discover that, among all those loud voices, hurling abuse about trans rights and Covid policies, was a quiet crowd of kind, generous Janeites, ready to do something so positive and good.”
But the most astonishing aspect of the campaign was that it showed how many lives Austen’s works have touched. People gave what they could, with donations from over 15 countries, including Romania, Mexico and Japan. Many of the donations were accompanied by personal stories from the benefactor. “The museum is my annual pilgrimage. It makes me feel whole again. It cannot close”, read one. Another donor wrote: “A dear friend of mine who passed away in 2014 aged 102 read Emma every year on Christmas Day. I’m dedicating the donation to him so his name is forever linked with Miss Austen.” One donation of £5 was accompanied by a note which read: “I can’t give a lot because I am out of work but I want to give to help the home of the author who means so much to me and for so many others.”
The Janeites certainly came out in force. At the time of writing, the JustGiving campaign had raised £91,420. With cheques yet to be counted, Dunford is hoping to meet the “astonishing” landmark of £100,000.
Despite the campaign’s phenomenal success, Dunford still has concerns. “We don’t know when we can reopen. But when we do, our visitor numbers will be drastically reduced due to social distancing measures. We estimate that we can only expect 25 per cent of the normal number of visitors, so we will still be losing 75 per cent of our income.”
But the last month has demonstrated why the museum’s work matters. “This campaign has shown the power of community and the power of love”, says Dunford. “Jane’s writing means so much to so many people.”