Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival, 15-17 May, 2020

Chawton House has staged an online festival of excellent talks, interviews, discussions and workshops over an intensive three-day weekend which has been a triumph of organisation. Many of the sessions are still available to view on YouTube.

Originally conceived as an actual festival at Chawton, it was forced to go online at short notice. It was part of the current emergency appeal for the future survival of the house, a crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown. If the key contribution of Chawton to promoting womens’ literature was ever in doubt, this event resoundingly proved otherwise. The number and variety of participants as speakers and audience from all over the world demonstrated the quality of important research and creative thought which makes the study of womens’ lives and writing so vibrant and exciting. The emotional and imaginative connection which the house continues to inspire was clear to see.

Papers were delivered with slides or as informal interviews and most included opportunities for questions via Twitter or Zoom to follow. The festival began with presentations about displays at Chawton on Jane Austen and responses to her novels and on the current Man-up! exhibition, as well as authors’ introductions to books related to female enterprise and courage, such as Julie Wheelwright’s Sisters in Arms: Female Warriors from Antiquity to the New Millenium, Sharon Wright’s Balloonomania Belles, and Wendy Moore’s Endell Street about a hospital which was entirely run by women during the first world war. Related doctoral research by Rebecca James on pirates and Alison Daniell’s on the formidable Elizabeth Knight, the only female squire of Chawton House, added to the sense of dynamic and fearless enterprise which characterised the women featured across all the festival talks.

Jane Austen’s lesser-known contemporary women writers such as Jane West and Jane Porter were discussed by Devoney Looser, and publisher John Murray II’s correspondence and collaborations with writers such as Mariana Starke and translator Sarah Austin were the subjects of Gillian Dow’s talk. Of course, Jane Austen herself and her legacy were essential elements of the three-day programme. This included Emma Clery’s research on the history of the Jane Austen Society and Janine Barchas’s entertaining survey of the many cheap and low-budget versions of Austen’s novels which were produced over the years both here and abroad. Many of these utilised Hollywood film stills for their sensationalised front covers. These prompted very personal memories and sharing of much-thumbed copies in the question and answer session. A fictionalised exploration of Austen and her sister Cassandra’s relationship by Gill Hornby in her new book Miss Austen and personal memories of living in the house as a child by Caroline Knight, as well as Chawton House volunteer Martin Caddick’s research into the house and its various residents over four hundred years set Chawton itself centre stage.

In addition to scholarly papers and readings from new work, an interesting aspect of the festival was the focus on practical creative writing in Claire Thurlow’s writing workshop and Sinéad Keegan’s session on writing found poetry sourced from Chawton’s archive. During Keegan’s sessions, participants were invited to share their own work, constructed, reassembled and edited to form new poems, and helpful advice and feedback were offered. The female accomplishment of needlework, so much part of an eighteenth-century woman’s daily life, was discussed by Jennie Batchelor. Her project which inspired beautiful examples based on The Lady’s Magazine embroidery patterns resulted in an exhibition at Chawton in 2016, and she has now published a book with Alison Larkin, Jane Austen Embroidery. One of her points was that the view of sewing as part of female drudgery and a symbol of oppression, from Mary Wollstonecraft onwards, needs to be reassessed. A final and delightful paper was given by Hilary Davidson who has recently published Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, and her slides dwelt on the fashion plates and satirical prints which often direct our views of the fashion of the early nineteenth century. Women were well aware of the niceties of detail and their implications for taste and decorum.

I have given a taste of the festival which included many more papers. There was a wealth of insights, new subjects to explore and new books to resist buying (or not!) but most of all, a real sense of joy and a shared love of the literature and history which Chawton has nurtured and enabled for many years now. Apart from missing the tea break chats which a normal conference encourages, I found Chawton’s online version was at least as stimulating if not more absorbing and immersive, and I am sure it left everyone involved determined to secure the future of this centre of womens’ writing for many years to come.

Miriam Al Jamil

Miriam Al Jamil is a committee member of WSG, as well as of The Johnson Society of London. She is chair of the Burney Society UK and fine arts editor for BSECS Criticks. She posts reviews on a variety of sites and in academic journals. Her chapter on a Zoffany painting was recently published in Antiquity and Enlightenment Culture.

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