This project sets out to understand how Jane Austen's House Museum and Chawton House have told the stories of Jane Austen and British heritage over the course of the past 72 years. The two houses are nine minutes apart by foot, a walk taken regularly by Austen herself from her home at Chawton Cottage (now the Museum) to her brother’s home down the road (Chawton House). However, since the Museum’s establishment in 1947 and the House’s founding in 2003, the two houses have remained separate nonprofit cultural institutions with distinct purposes: the Museum preserves Austen’s home and legacy, and the House is primarily an early women’s writers research library.
Through newspaper articles, public appeals, and promotional material, I have traced the public narratives of both institutions in order to understand how Austen has been used to preserve or revise “British heritage.” I have not found two clear stories; instead, I have found a multitude of ambiguous Austens. The conflicting Austens I have discovered—domestic and feminist, patriotic and international, popular and academic—have been presented by each institution at different moments throughout their histories. But interestingly, “Jane Austen” seems to become less progressive or complex when each institution has experienced periods of particular financial difficulty. Whereas both the Museum and the House aim to provide a nuanced history of Jane Austen and British literature, their marketing demonstrates otherwise, simplifying the narrative and consequently losing its ambiguities. Ultimately, this paper asks whether British “heritage” can support an ambiguous Austen, or if “heritage” will always be reliant on funds, or a favorable marriage.
Level of Honors
Swidler, Emma, "Janeites and their Benefactors: The Heritage Industry and the Commodification of Nostalgia" (2019). Lawrence University Honors Projects. 137.