Preserving Austen's Sensibility

September/October 2009

Reading time min

Preserving Austen's Sensibility

Courtesy Chawton House Library

Like a scene straight out of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy stood on the stone steps of a 16th-century manor, welcoming guests arriving for the evening’s ball. On July 3, 2009—200 years since Jane Austen first came to live at Chawton House in Hampshire, England—the boards of its Great Hall once more reverberated with the steps of Regency jigs, waltzes and reels.

The ball fulfilled a dream for Cisco Systems co-founder Sandy Lerner, MS ’81 (above), the current lady of Chawton House. Lerner fell in love with Austen in graduate school when she stumbled on a BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. In 1992, Lerner purchased a 125-year lease on the property, considered to be Austen’s literary home. After extensive restoration, the Great House opened its doors in 2003 as the Chawton House Library, a center for the study of women’s writing in English during the period from 1600 to 1830. The library offers scholars unparalleled access to more than 9,000 rare books and original manuscripts, and visitors of all ages can learn about life on a working estate.

The goal of the “Dancing with Darcy” ball, Lerner says, was to raise the profile of the Chawton House Library, and to celebrate Austen and her world. Guests enjoyed dinner dishes prepared from 18th-century recipes found in the library’s collection—including mock turtle soup, pickled ox tongue and fricasé of rabbit—served on the Austen family china. Months of careful research assured that decorations, clothing and hairstyles were painstakingly accurate.

Garvie and Rintoul, the actors from the BBC production, reprised their roles as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy at the event, remaining in character throughout. The ball succeeded magnificently in transporting its attendees to a different place and time, if only for a short while. “It [was] a delicious haze,” says Lerner. “Dancing with Mr. Darcy was everything you’d imagine it to be.”

JENNY PEGG is a doctoral student in the program in the history and philosophy of science and technology.

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