Lerner bought the Heap, her description, in 1994, and the Janeites have not been the same since.
-- A little Jane Austen humor for you: At Chawton House, the society's chairman reports on an Austen Web site, which includes the author's "Punishment List." On the list, he notes, is "a day's ramble with Mr. Collins." The crowd roars.
Chawton is an hour's train ride southwest of London in Hampshire County, where ancient hedgerows hide sunken lanes crossed by foxes and pheasants. The thatched-roof cottages and half-timbered houses have names like Five Daggers and Rotherfield Park. About 400 people live in the village, which has no street lights or stoplights. Residents include an eye surgeon, a retired police chief and the ex-commander of British forces in Gibraltar. Chawton's graveyard is full of families--including Jane Austen's--going back hundreds of years. Chawton House, once 5,000 acres strong, used to own the entire village.
Rose-dappled Chawton has clinched the South of England gardening competition nine years running. The locals celebrate with a pint or two at the village pub, perhaps the only bar in the world with a portrait of Jane Austen over the fireplace. Across from the pub is the brick cottage where the unmarried Austen lived for eight years until her death in 1817 at 41; it's now a private museum. Austen used to walk to Chawton House, five minutes away, and read stories to her nieces and nephews.
Since 1995, four of Austen's novels have been adapted for TV or films, including the blockbuster "Pride and Prejudice." The deluge began. Movie fans arrived clutching a paperback "Sense and Sensibility," with Emma Thompson on the cover, asking if Austen might sign their book. Around town T-shirts popped up: "Jane Who?" Crowds at the cottage more than doubled to 57,000 a year. Curators called in structural engineers to see if the 17th century building could bear the load. Hampshire County set up a hotline for tourists, with a recorded voice saying, "Hello, this is Jane Austen . . . "
Although Austen-mania began after Lerner bought the Chawton estate, which includes 275 acres of farmland, the besotted fueled suspicion. Who knew, the society muttered, if Lerner was truly one of the faithful or just an Austen-tatious fan roused by temporary passions? The British press speculated that she would turn the grounds into a Disney-esque theme park or lesbian commune and reported that she talked daily with the spirit of Benjamin Disraeli (she doesn't, but she used to have his picture on her wall). The Guardian sneered that she was "a wispy young thing with luxurious hair . . . nymphish in the best kind of way."
It was the sort of reaction that might have erupted, say, if Johnny Rotten had bought Monticello.
The fuss wasn't just about Jane Austen. Indeed, Sir Hugh Smiley, a co-founder of the U.K. Jane Austen Society in 1940, used to say that he had never read her books (neither had the current society president until after taking office). Nor was the fuss simply about Chawton House, a listed historic building but not the grandest property in Hampshire. This was about preserving the ghost of Austen's dewy Regency England, a time of manners and order, when the mighty British Empire was riding high. Could an eccentric gunslinger from California understand this?
-- Mind the nettles!--A warning villagers give outsiders about the stinging plants.
In late October 1992, Lerner booked a couple of oceanfront suites at Santa Monica's Miramar Sheraton hotel for friends at the Jane Austen Society of North America conference. They took a class on Georgian cooking, learning how to grill lamb chops rolled in marjoram and thyme. Afterward, they hit a local bakery and stuffed themselves with pastries and wine.
That Sunday, Lerner and her friends settled into a small ballroom for a closing speech by English biographer Nigel Nicolson, a fill-in for a speaker who had canceled because of family illness. Lerner knew him only as the author of "Portrait of a Marriage," the story of his gay parents, diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson and novelist Vita Sackville-West, who were prominent members of the Bloomsbury circle. Nicolson also had written a book about Jane Austen's homes, the topic of his speech in California.
By the way, he said, Chawton House is on the market. Again. A $40-million proposal to turn the house into a luxury hotel and two golf courses, which had been approved by the local planning board, was dead. A group of distant Austen relatives was now trying to buy the crumbling mansion and create a research center. Anybody who bought that ugly house, Lerner remembers him saying, would be a silly old cow. She looked around the room. She felt he was insulting the audience, mostly women over 60. Smart women who had gone to Swarthmore or Smith and then raised smart kids.