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Beyond the law: Austen power

Every Issue

Cite as: September 2014 88 (09) LIJ, p.100

Lawyer Mercia Chapman’s favourite author has inspired an impressive collection.

When young Mercia Chapman was given a copy of Pride and Prejudice by her mother, it marked the beginning of a lifelong enthusiasm for the works of the great English author.

One book led to another. Ms Chapman read Austen’s six novels about middle-class English life in the late 18th century and “got hooked”. Joining the Jane Austen Society spurred even greater enthusiasm.

Many years later, Ms Chapman, ANZ Trustees legal counsel since 2003, is still hooked. Not only has she collected about 200 books by and about Austen, she is president of the Jane Austen Society of Melbourne.

She is also on the board of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, a philanthropic organisation aimed at promoting literacy. It was launched earlier this year by Caroline Jane Knight, the last of the Austen family to be born and raised in the family home in Chawton, Hampshire.

“I enjoy her writing still,” Ms Chapman said. “She has fascinating characters that you can see in everyday life. They are just as relevant today as they were when she wrote.”

Ms Chapman, who gave a talk about her collection as part of Rare Book Week in July, has multiple annotated versions of Austen’s novels from different publishers. “I don’t read the different versions for the text, but for the commentary and annotations. They help your understanding of things that she does not explain because she was writing for a contemporary audience.”

But she has no hankering to accumulate the largest, the most valuable Austen collection. Her collection is to enjoy, not simply about ownership. “I read them and I do enjoy them. I don’t collect for collecting’s sake,” she said.

Ms Chapman said a first edition by Austen would fetch upwards of $300,000. “In some ways it would be nice to have a first edition just so I could hold it in my hands, but apart from that I am not sure what the point would be,” she said. “I would probably have to take it to the bank.”

Austen has spawned an industry – movies, memorabilia, tours. Ms Chapman has been “to all the spots”, including several times to the home in Chawton where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, publishing four of her novels while she lived there. It is now the Jane Austen Museum.

Ms Chapman’s favourite Austen is Persuasion, published posthumously by her brother. “The heroine is a bit older and it is a bit more sombre in its tone but still with lots of humorous characters,” she said.

She has also visited Lyme Regis, where Austen holidayed with her family and where Persuasion is partly set. “I have also been to some other English seaside towns where the family used to go, such as Weymouth and Dawlish. I have also been to Winchester where she is buried and Bath, where she lived after her father retired,” Ms Chapman said.

She watches the movies and television adaptations too, of course, and says that “like millions of others” Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr Darcy is her favourite. “Until the BBC 1995 version came along I had thought that Laurence Olivier was the perfect Darcy,” she said.



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