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Chawton House Library opened in 2003.
It was founded by American entrepreneur and philanthropist Sandy Lerner in 1993, with the aim of restoring the important but neglected heritage of women writers.
The house dates from the 1580s and in the early nineteenth-century was owned by Edward Austen, the brother of Jane, who was adopted by the Knight family.
The Library holds early editions of works by women, mostly in English, and mostly within the period 1600-1830. Many of these works are rare and in some cases unique.
To name a few of the many writers held in the collection, they include Penelope Aubin, Aphra Behn, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, Hannah More, Sydney Owenson, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Robinson, Mary Shelley, Frances Sheridan, Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft.The diversity of women’s writing during this period is clear from the holdings of novels, poetry, drama, published letters, memoirs, and writing on a whole range of subjects including history, travel, medicine, botany, cookery and much more. Women also played a vital part in debates about female education in this period and the collection contains educational works, advice manuals and children’s literature.
The house, built by the Knight family in the 1580s on the site of an earlier medieval building, had remained within the Knight family – passing laterally and by female descent on a number of occasions – until the twentieth century, when inheritance taxes and high running costs gradually compelled the sale of most of the outlying manor and the subdividing of the house into flats.
When Richard Knight inherited the house in 1987, he was forced to sell a 125-year lease to a property development company. The house was to be converted to a luxury hotel and golf course but the company went into liquidation, leaving the house – with some of its roof missing – to fall into extreme disrepair.
It was on learning of the fate of the ‘Great House’ mentioned in Jane Austen’s letters that Sandy stepped in to halt its decline and plan its restoration. An extensive restoration programme was carried out from 1996 to 2003. This included major work on the house, such as renovating the massive timbers of the roof and taking down a Victorian wing that was damaging the fabric of the Elizabethan building, and also restoration of the estate, including returning the land from arable use to parkland and planting several thousand trees.
Registered charity number 1026921