Reading With Jane Austen

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In 2017, we visited the Jane Austen House Museum and later Chawton’s House in Hampshire, which used to belong to Jane’s brother Edward Austen. The trip to the estate was memorable to me. It was raining nonstop that morning during our trip. We walked quite a bit to reach the Chawton’s estate and the roads were wet and muddy. On the way we passed a couple of farms filled with sheep. I imagined Jane Austen walking these very same roads on many occasions to reach her brother’s house.

I wondered if these wet and muddy walks were the inspiration behind Miss Bingley’s “To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.”

Chawton House

The lands around the house itself were massive. Upon reaching the entrance we walked down a very long pathway leading to the house passing lush woods on both sides of the road. The Palladian building, which dates back to 1743 looked stunning from a distance. It was nice to finally seek shelter from the rain. And what a spectacle it was to look out the house’s big windows. I dare say the rain made it look even more charming! Despite the grand exterior, the inside of the house feel surprisingly cozy and warm.

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After touring the place for close to an hour, I found myself standing in front of closed door. Outside the door a sign read, “Godmersham Library”. There were a couple of people waiting at the door. I found it odd that a library had to be closed like this. I figured we must be waiting for a tour so I stood with them. Eventually a man came from inside the room to usher us in. Once we were inside, the doors were closed again. We were told we couldn’t take any pictures inside the library or touch anything.

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The place was exquisite. It wasn’t an exceptionally large library but there was a large table in the middle with a lot of chairs, and at each side of the room stood a long wall set up with shelves and stacked with books. At the end of the room there was a group of 4 or 5 people sitting and working so intently. I could tell right away they weren’t tourists.  I asked the man at the door if they were having some sort of event which could explain closing the library from the rest of the house, not to mention things in the library like books and papers out of place here and there. I was told the group I was seeing at the end of the room was working on a big project that involved Jane Austen and digitizing the library’s collection. I must have looked so desperate for information, he reassured me that soon enough we will all find out what it is.

After coming back to Kuwait, I honestly forgot all about the Godmersham Library project. A couple of years passed and today while browsing through my feeds, I came across an article about a newly launched Godmersham Library project and it got me super excited!

The project, just as the man informed me, did in fact involve digitizing the library’s entire collection to emulate the way it looked originally– the way Jane Austen experienced it! And Jane spent a great deal in this library!

Now a bit of background about the library and the Godmersham estates in general.

The Knights & Godmersham Estate 

Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen was adopted by a rich distant cousin named Thomas Knight. Edward moved into Godmersham park and lived with the childless couple. Eventually Edward took the name Knight and Godmersham Park became his permanent home.

Jane’s brother inherited a collection of about 1,200 books, which he and his family continued expanding. It included books in many languages and covers various topics. It was described at the time as being “a most excellent library”.

Jane visited Godmersham Park (with her sister and parents sometimes) and stayed there for lengthy periods. Jane adored the Godmersham library and once told her sister Cassandra in a letter “we live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every even(ing)”. She was also quoted to have said  “I am alone now in the library, Mistress of all I survey”. 

Jane’s brother compiled a catalog of his library, which consisted of two leather volumes. In the first volume, Edward wrote the exact location of books along with other metadata such as the place of publication, size and description. The second book lists the authors in alphabetical order along with their corresponding books and shelf location.

Edward’s son (Jane’s nephew)- Edward Knight Junior inherited the estate from his father and in 1874 sold it. Although the house can still be seen today, the Godmersham library; however, did not survive. It was in shambles and ruins by 1920, at which point the bookcases were removed. Edward moved his family’s book collection to their Hampshire estate- Chawton House-  before selling the estate. Edward’s own son continued his father’s work and created handmade shelf tickets attached to the library’s books, showing their position in the library. Such time was devoted to make sure the location of each book was recorded and how it’s to be displayed. Sadly, over the years many of the library’s books were either auctioned or went missing. The rest is now scattered between Jane Austen’s own house museum, the Godmersham Park Heritage Center, or part of someone’s private collection. Some books found their way to the United States, Australia and Canada.

The Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS) is a research group that functions today to try and locate these missing volumes for the purpose of returning them back to Chawton House. The campaign has successfully managed to acquire some lost titles. Lots of people also stepped in and donated some of the library’s book.

The digital recreation of the library follows the description of the library left by floor plans, photographs and letters Jane wrote herself to Cassandra. Although it may not be perfectly accurate, a lot of effort was put to try and be as historically accurate as possible.

After these descriptions were collected, they were turned to an artist and a web developer to create the digital demonstration. A group of research assistants, volunteers, librarians, and archivists worked hand in hand to make this project happen.

Reading With Austen

The website is quite straightforward. An about page is set up to explain details in length  about how the data was retrieved and how the development went through.

Once you load the digital library you are visually and virtually facing a watercolored landscape of the library. The library is divided into three walls and each wall is further divided into several shelves.

Each book on the shelf is clickable. Once you hover over a title with your mouse, a small window springs up with the title of the book, the author, date of publication and a reference number (Catalog ID).

When you click on a title, it opens an information page which includes the book’s edition, format, and an external link to locate the title if available. Understandably many of the titles do not include an image copy. Those that do are displayed next to the metadata along with the cover and information page.

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There’s also a Catalogue section that allows the visitor to find books in the collection based on several criteria, “subject” isn’t one of them though.

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The overall objective of the project I believe is to create a library that makes Austen fans feel even more closer to their beloved author. One could easily imagine Austen browsing and reading in the library presented as it once was. It’s apparent that Jane comes from a family that appreciates books. Judging from the variety of books and special care taken to preserve the catalog. Not to mention there are several titles by contemporary female authors in the library which shows a level of open mindedness that perhaps wasn’t common at the time. The project gives the reader an opportunity to experience Jane Austen not only as an author but also as a fellow reader herself and it’s well worth the browse if you’re a fan.

The Godmersham Library Link

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