Peter Sabor Interview

This interview was originally published in the JASA Chronicle, December 2018, reprinted here with permission.


In June’s Chronicle, Deb Barnum wrote about the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS). Now here is her exclusive interview with Peter Sabor, Professor of English, and Canada Research Chair at McGill University, Montreal, where he is also the Director of the Burney Centre. [Ruth Williamson, ed. Chronicle].

Interview with Peter Sabor:
Creating the Reading with Austen Website

Peter Sabor pic2Deb Barnum: How did you find yourself on this Godmersham Park Library journey?

Peter Sabor: The project began in August 2015, with an idyllic month as a visiting fellow at Chawton House Library. I was eager to study the books in the Knight Collection, on loan to Chawton House from their current owner, Richard Knight. Dr. Gillian Dow, Executive Director of Chawton House, and Dr. Darren Bevin, Librarian, gave me every possible assistance and encouragement throughout my stay; I am deeply grateful to them. Working with a catalogue compiled in 1818 for Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight, I was able to examine every book now at Chawton House that had originally been in the Godmersham Park Library: about 500 out of a total of 1250 – thus the idea of creating a digital library that would show each book in its proper position on the original shelves, as Jane Austen would have seen it. The website would indicate which Godmersham Park items were extant at Chawton House or elsewhere, encouraging users to search for those still-missing titles that might be found in institutions around the world, or for sale by booksellers and auction houses. The website took three years to build, from September 2015 to its 2018 launch at the JASNA AGM in Kansas City. Photographers, mostly volunteers, took images of all extant titles: spines, title pages, bookplates and marginalia. Jessica Joyce, a Canadian artist, created impressions of the library, with the site constructed by website designer Nguyen Dinh. Several research assistants at the Burney Centre at McGill undertook tasks of various kinds, with the energetic and resourceful project managers Catherine Nygren and Megan Taylor coordinating all this activity.

DB: What would you say is the main purpose / academic value of the Reading with Austen website?

PS: Reading with Austen aims to provide all possible bibliographical information about the books that Jane Austen would have found at Edward’s Godmersham Park estate during her six lengthy visits between 1798 and 1813. She writes of reading, writing, and browsing in the library. In addition, the site links to, where possible, online editions, along with photographs of the spines, title-pages, bookplates and any marginalia, all valuable information for book historians and students of reader reception, and for the numerous Austen enthusiasts who wish to know more about her reading and the books available to her.

DB: Do other such virtual libraries exist?

PS: I have not found another website presenting a library in this form. Our inspiration for the site was Janine Barchas’s superb What Jane Saw [], to which we are much indebted. An excellent ongoing digital project, The Library of William Morris [], reconstructs Morris’s collection digitally, but without showing the books on the shelves. The great advantage of representing the library in digital format is its inherent flexibility: Reading with Austen will change continually as more Godmersham Park volumes come to light.

DB: What has been the biggest challenge in creating this virtual library?

PS: For this and many other large-scale projects, funding is key. Thanks to generous support from the Canada Research Chairs program and McGill University, I have been able to hire the key personnel mentioned above. I do not, however, have funds to acquire the Godmersham Park volumes currently on sale, or those that will surely come on the market in the future. That is why GLOSS was founded: the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society, its aim to track down the many still-missing Godmersham Park books and return them to the fold.

DB: Any ideas on the identity of the two hand-writers of the 1818 catalogue?

PS: The catalogue is in two volumes, each written out in a distinct secretarial hand. The first lists items in shelf order: east, south, or west side of the library, columns from left to right, and shelves, from floor to ceiling. The second lists authors alphabetically, along with their corresponding works and shelf locations. Its compiler worked exclusively from the previous volume, not the books themselves, since all of the shelf catalogue’s errors are faithfully reproduced. There are also post-1818 additions and corrections by two different, informal hands in both volumes, up to the 1840s. Work remains to be done here: to start by examining extant Knight family letters in hopes of identifying the unknown hands. Gillian Dow contends in a recent article that three loose sheets inserted in volume one of the Catalogue are in the hand of Marianne Knight, and that perhaps she also made contributions to the catalogue itself. 

DB: About the Godmersham Library collection: tell us what it largely consists of…

PS: It contains standard works of English, French, and ancient Greek and Roman literature, including some in translation, as well as books in Italian and Spanish, and a few in German. Some published on the Continent were purchased by Edward Austen during his Grand Tour of 1786-90. There are biographical, historical, geographical, theological and travel writings, books about architecture and painting, science and medicine, farming, horsemanship, agriculture, gardening and landscape, and also works on leisure pursuits, such as whist and chess. Reference works include sets of periodicals, dictionaries, atlases, and parliamentary records. The range is typical of country-house collections of the time, although the number of novels, including ones by Jane Austen’s contemporaries and recent predecessors, is surprisingly high. Austen wrote that her family “were great Novel readers and not ashamed of being so,” and, as Gillian Dow notes, this taste for fiction, including many novels by women, is reflected in the 1818 Catalogue.

DB: Do you think that Jane Austen was more well-read than previously believed based on her access to this library?

PS: I hope that Reading with Austen will help to answer this fascinating question. Let’s take, as an example, Austen’s knowledge of the classics, the subject of a provocative 2017 book by Mary Margolies DeForest, Jane Austen: Closet Classicist. DeForest discusses dozens of works by ancient Greek and Roman authors with which she believes Austen was familiar – so a starting question of research: which of these works did Austen have access to at Godmersham Park?

DB: Of the 1250 books listed, and the 500 in the surviving Knight collection, what are your thoughts on the whereabouts of the remaining 750?

PS: About 50 of those 750 books have already been traced, either to institutional collections or to private owners. Some fifty more were sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 1935, and further items were sold piecemeal in the latter part of the twentieth century. I believe that over half the total number of books in the Catalogue is still extant, and that with determined searching, more waifs and strays will be discovered. The key to identifying them is the presence of one of three Knight bookplates—Thomas Knight Sr, Edward Knight, and Montagu George Knight. [For more information about these bookplates, see the essay in the June 2018 JASA Chronicle, as well as on the RWA website.]

DB: Of those titles found since you started this project, which title has been the most exciting find?

PS: Without question, the Godmersham copy of Poems by William Cowper, published in two volumes in 1782: it is on sale from Bernard Quaritch of London for £8,000, the steep price a reflection of its special importance. Cowper was singled out by Jane Austen’s brother Henry as her favourite “moral writer … in verse,” and she alludes to a Cowper poem in one of her letters from Godmersham Park. While she wrote that letter, she might well have had this very copy of Cowper before her in the Library. It would be wonderful if funds could be found to acquire this especially important book for Chawton House. I was also thrilled to discover, thanks to your sleuthing, Deb, that the only Godmersham Park volume in Canada located to date, The American Gazetteer (1762), was on the open shelves in McGill University’s Rare Books, directly below my office in the Burney Centre. Ever since I came to McGill in 2003, my desk has been a very short walk away from a volume that Jane Austen could have consulted at Godmersham Park during any of her visits.

DB: Anybody you want to give a special shout-out to?

PS: Special thanks to Richard Knight for making his invaluable collections available to researchers at Chawton House, for giving Reading with Austen his full support, and, most recently, for buying a Godmersham Park volume at auction in September 2018 to be added to the Chawton House collection. Stephen Bending and Stephen Bygrave, colleagues of Gillian Dow at the University of Southampton, generously made their spreadsheet of the Godmersham Library catalogue available to us. Shout-outs too to all the libraries, museums, auction houses and private owners who furnished us with photographs of the items in their possession: one of these is the University of Melbourne, which owns a 1787 book by Richard Cumberland, the only Godmersham Park volume in Australia located to date. And deepest gratitude to GLOSS members Janine Barchas, Linda Dennery, Kim Wilson and the Wisconsin Region of JASNA, and you, Deb, for purchasing a number of these “lost sheep” of Godmersham and donating them back to the library at Chawton House.

DB: Thank you Peter!


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