THE HEROINE of Jane Austen's Emma is paying her first visit to Donwell Abbey, the home of Mr Knightley, who will be - though she does not yet know it - her husband. But the certainties of Jane Austen's age are no longer. Chawton House, near Alton in Hampshire, believed to be the model for Donwell Abbey, is still rambling and irregular. But it is now empty, decaying, and the subject of a very ungenteel battle over its future.
The handsome rooms where the novelist imagined her characters dancing, gossiping and flirting are bare, the oak floors twisted by damp. Chawton's gardens, where she walked with her sister Cassandra - they lived a quarter of a mile away in Chawton Cottage - are overgrown, the statuary and walls crumbling.
The Knight family, direct descendants of Jane Austen's brother, Edward, who owned both cottage and house, may still be untainted but their finances are not what they were. Richard Knight, a Gloucestershire farmer, was forced to sell a 125-year lease on Chawton House four years ago. His forebears had already disposed of the contents and the estate. The building was bought for more than pounds 1m by developers headed by Robert Jarman, former publisher of Debrett's, who planned to turn it into a luxury hotel with two golf courses.
But Chawton Developments goes into liquidation this week. Barclays Bank and one of the company's shareholders put the property, and 275 acres of adjoining land, back on the market last September. Up to pounds 1m is needed merely to stabilise the shell of the listed building.
Enter Sandy Lerner. It is, of course, a truth universally acknowledged, that a single Californian, in possession of several hundred million dollars, must be in want of a Project. Ms Lerner, in her late 30s, is a farmer's daughter who in 1984 founded, with her husband, a computer company. They sold control of Cisco in 1990 for dollars 170m ( pounds 110m), and further shares in it for many more millions when it went public a year later. Ms Lerner is reclusive, an animal-rights activist, and claims to hold daily conversations with Disraeli. She has spent dollars 115m setting up a charitable foundation.
She is also a Janeite: a member of that most obsessive of literary fan clubs, the devotees of Jane Austen. There are many thousands of Janeites worldwide (the biggest growth area is in Japan); they produce magazines, journals, newsletters and, above all, feuds.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Ms Lerner's project, to buy the house, the Home Farm and the land and start a 'study centre' for work on Jane Austen and other women writers of her age - has not received the Janeites' universal acclaim.
Jane Austen lived at Chawton Cottage with her mother, sister, and sister-in-law from 1809 until shortly before her death in 1817. In the drawing room she completed Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.
The cottage, originally part of the estate, but now part of Chawton village, is a museum, run by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust. Jean Bowden, the curator and a member of the committee of the British Jane Austen Society rather liked the idea of a hotel and golf course up the road. 'The house would have been lived in and enjoyed,' she says.
She and the British Janeites are much keener to start a study centre in Bath, at 4 Sydney Place, where Jane Austen lived for four years. And they worry that a rival Austen heritage centre up the road will reduce the Memorial Trust's income.
The mysterious Ms Lerner is inspiring as much fevered rumour as any of Jane Austen's single men of means. Mr Jarman, the developer who has himself gone bankrupt with the collapse of his plans, has heard, as have others, that Ms Lerner made her money through 'virtual reality' systems. 'I think she'd like to turn Chawton into a Disneyland-style theme park,' he says.
Other Janeites have darker fears. 'We understand that Sandy Lerner isn't planning a study centre so much as a women's commune,' says one.
Feminism is one of the many points of friction between British and American Janeites, and is neatly illustrated by a book that does not sell well in the Chawton Cottage bookshop: Deborah Kaplan's Jane Austen Among Women. The cover blurb says: 'Austen's fictional representation of loyalties divided between the dominant direct patriarchal values of her community and the unconventional, even subversive values and expressions that circulated privately among women.'
Ms Bowden, with a gentle irony worthy of Austen herself, says: 'It's quite funny sometimes, but a little difficult to read.' She adds: 'We sympathise with the feminists but not with the crankier element who try to make out that Jane was the first feminist. . . . They insist on looking at her through 20th-century eyes.'
Actually, according to Paula Stepankowsky, editor of the Jane Austen Society of America's newsletter, Ms Lerner's plans are not so cranky. 'I believe she'd like to restore the house and assemble a collection of Jane Austen, Fanny Burney and Mrs Radcliffe material for study.
'She'd restore the land, and the Home Farm to what it was like in Jane's day.'
As Chawton House crumbles, Mr Jarman accuses the receivers of failing in their duty by not continuing the repair work on the roof that he started. He wants to challenge the repossession of the property.
How would Jane view this? 'She, I think,' says Ms Bowden, 'would be highly amused . . . and secretly flattered.'
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