Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s power to console during times of trauma is an established trope by now: cue mention of how British authorities prescribed her to shellshocked soldiers during World War I.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Medicinal Austen should have a role to play in our current traumatic times, as something of an inspiration for a technologically updated version of that shellshock prescription.

According to the British news website, the three adult sons of coronavirus patient Geoff Woolf, a seventy-three-year-old lawyer, knew their father would need plenty of reading material to sustain him during a long, grueling hospital stay that has included two months on a ventilator, with no visitors allowed.

His sons bought Woolf a Kindle e-reader to keep him going and, as his condition worsened last month and they were finally allowed to see him, played the audiobook they knew would mean the most to him: Pride and Prejudice.

"This was the book Dad always read when he was ill and wanted to feel some comfort," twenty-eight-year-old Sam Woolf, an actor who has performed audiobooks, told the news site. "We hope he can hear it. There's evidence to suggest words can sometimes get through to unconscious patients. He had a little movement and has looked like he may have been reacting to it."

The staff at their father’s London hospital thought other virus-isolated patients would benefit from the same stimulation, and so the Woolf brothers have launched an effort to supply more recovering virus patients with audiobook-equipped Kindles. Partnering with the audiobook company Audible, they’ve obtained one hundred and fifty appropriately sanitized devices for four hospitals, along with single-use earphones donated by British Airways.

Now two of the Woolf sons hope to expand the effort to other British cities, with the help of a GoFundMe appeal that has already raised almost all of its £5,000 goal (about $6,200). They’re calling the project Books for Dad, in tribute to the man who read to them when they were children and taught them to love words.

Sadly, Geoff Woolf is unlikely to survive, but if Books for Dad succeeds in helping other patients, his children think, the loss of this Janeite won’t be in vain. "We wanted something positive to come from what's happened to Dad, a kind of legacy," Sam Woolf says.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 1 2020 01:00PM

These days, the internet is awash in posts purporting to explain why social distancing in the Time of Coronavirus is amusingly or instructively or refreshingly similar to the life of a Jane Austen heroine. Gloves! Family togetherness! No-touch dating!

Mostly, I think these pieces, at least when intended to be read as more than tongue-in-cheek, are rather silly: Temporary, forced quarantine in an age of perpetual technological connectedness bears only a superficial resemblance to socially internalized constraints on women’s lives in a largely pre-industrial age. Not to mention that the typical Jane Austen heroine spends half her time attending balls, visiting neighbors, or traveling to friends' houses for extended stays, activities that most of us now recall with nostalgic longing.

But whatever! Far be it from me to quibble at anything that helps a fellow freelance writer make a buck in our straitened times.

Meanwhile, however, Jane Austen herself has apparently weighed in on our current condition. The bronze statue of a casually strolling Austen erected three years ago in the center of Basingstoke, England, recently acquired a surgical mask, the local newspaper reported last week.

Who added the mask, and whether they did so as a prank, a show of solidarity, or a protest against the British government’s safety recommendations, is unclear – appropriately enough, given Austen’s penchant for slippery ironies. And perhaps that open-endedness is just as well. It gives us another topic to discuss around our newly cozy family dinner tables.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 28 2020 01:00PM

Fifty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

I recently finished reading my eighth biography of Jane Austen, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. By my count, which may well be incomplete, Austen has been the subject of at least two dozen book-length biographies aimed at adult readers, plus another five intended for children.

What’s especially odd about this rabbit-like multiplication of life studies is the slimness of the record on which they all must draw. Six completed novels, a few hundred pages more of shorter writings, about one hundred and sixty surviving letters, some short, affectionate family reminiscences—it’s not a lot to go on, really, and most of this material has been well-known and easily available to scholars for decades. No one is writing a new Jane Austen biography to take advantage of the expiration of a university library’s embargo on a huge cache of previously unmined letters and manuscripts.

Because the record is so slim, every item in it has value, even when it’s an item that comes to us in incomplete, even bowdlerized, condition. One such problematic item is the letter Jane Austen probably wrote exactly 203 years ago today [#161(C) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition] – out of all of Austen's voluminous correspondence, the last letter of hers that we have.

Or sort-of have. Unlike most of Austen’s letters, the original manuscript of this one has never been found; we know of its existence only because Austen’s brother Henry quotes from it in a postscript to the “Biographical Notice of the Author” that he wrote for inclusion in the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were published together five months after Austen’s death in July 1817.

Henry dates the letter only to “a few weeks before [Jane’s] death” and does not give the name of its recipient, but Le Faye’s plausible detective works narrows the date to May 28 or 29 and suggests the recipient was Frances Tilson, the wife of Henry’s one-time business partner James Tilson.

The letter offers a poignant portrait of Jane Austen’s life with her sister, Cassandra, in the rented quarters in Winchester to which they had repaired in search of medical help. Severely weakened by the illness that would kill her in just seven weeks, Austen nevertheless seems to have been clinging to hope.

“My attendant is encouraging, and talks of making me quite well,” she writes. “I live chiefly on the sofa, but am allowed to walk from one room to the other. I have been out once in a sedan-chair, and am to repeat it, and be promoted to a wheel-chair as the weather serves.”

In his rendition of the letter, Henry quotes extensively from his sister’s expressions of gratitude for family help and statements of religious faith—the kind of thing that, as a newly minted Church of England minister, he approved of and thought his audience would find congenial.

He stops quoting before reaching her “just and gentle animadversion on a subject of domestic disappointment” – presumably the then-simmering intrafamilial controversy over her uncle’s will – but resumes quoting in time to underline “her characteristic sweetness and resignation” and “the facility with which she could correct every impatient thought, and turn from complaint to cheerfulness.”

Reading this account by Henry of his sister’s personality, it’s hard not to be reminded of one of the best lines in an earlier letter of hers: “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” Jane Austen may well have been sweet, cheerful, and self-abnegating . . . some of the time . . . but it’s impossible to believe that the woman who wrote those novels had no edges sharper than that.

Henry’s eagerness to plane away those edges inevitably makes us wonder what else he’s omitted from his account of his dying sister’s letter. Maybe nothing: She was writing to a cordial but not close acquaintance, and so perhaps she stuck to the socially acceptable niceties; she was ill and dependent, and so perhaps she couldn’t summon the energy for snark.

But even if we harbor a sneaking suspicion of Henry’s veracity, we have no choice but to take what he’s given us. Beggars can’t be choosers.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 25 2020 01:00PM

Fresh off their successful Lockdown Literary Festival earlier this month, the indefatigable folks who run Chawton House, the stately home in Hampshire, England, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, have another treat in store for us.

This one, I must admit, sounds like an even greater challenge than the multiple-speakers-across-multiple-time-zones feat that was the online literary festival. This time, we won’t be hanging out in the library talking about books; we’ll be strolling through the gardens, talking about plants. Take that, coronavirus!

The extensive grounds of Chawton House feature two terraces, a lime avenue, a wilderness, a fernery, a walled garden, a shrubbery, an herb garden, and even a ha-ha—a veritable feast of fictional and historical associations for dedicated Austen readers, not to mention dedicated green thumbs.

Chawton’s Virtual Garden Festival, coming up on Saturday and Sunday, will include “gardening talks and tips from our Head Gardener Julia and her team of garden volunteers, botanical workshops, discussions with heritage gardeners, and a chance to take part in our virtual ‘best in show,’ ” the website promises. Everything is free, except for online creative writing workshops, which cost £5.

I’m not much of a gardener myself—scratch that; I’m no kind of gardener myself—so I doubt I’ll be able to do much with whatever tidbits of wisdom Head Gardener Julia imparts. Still, even here in New Jersey, this spring’s azaleas and irises are looking unusually vibrant after two months of accidental pollution-reduction. I can only imagine the beauty of the Chawton House gardens. Except now I won’t have to imagine.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2020 01:00PM

Nothing beats hearing a soothing, familiar voice read an engrossing story aloud. I loved the read-aloud experience when I was a child doing the listening, and I loved it again as a parent sharing books, and closeness, with my children.

Perhaps it’s the uncertainty of coronavirus quarantine that makes us yearn for the comforting rituals of childhood: baking bread, doing jigsaw puzzles, playing board games. And, for Janeites, listening to one of our favorite actors read to us from one of our favorite books.

Earlier this spring, the Anglo-American actor Jennifer Ehle, best known to Janeites for playing Elizabeth Bennet in the iconic 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, posted an Instagram video of herself in at-home mode – hair down, comfy-looking zippered fleece top, striped curtains visible in the background – reading aloud the first two chapters of -- you guessed it -- Pride and Prejudice.

Then she kept going – a couple of chapters at a time, sometimes for only six or seven minutes, sometimes for as long as forty-five; sometimes at home, sometimes in her car. Once in a while, she sipped from a mug, or accidentally dropped her phone, or adorably bobbled a long word. Sometimes she thanked her viewers for “sheltering with me” or took a moment to acknowledge those still working in essential jobs.

Eventually, she posted everything on a dedicated YouTube channel – a cumulative total of forty-four episodes, running to about fifteen hours of reading time, or some two or three hours more than most of Audible’s two-dozen-plus renditions of the book. The whole novel is now available: In Ehle's reading, Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters just last weekend.

Ehle reads beautifully, of course, but she isn’t offering a polished-to-a-high-gloss, professional recording; for that, you’re better off choosing an Audible. Instead, she’s giving us something closer to that childhood experience of cocooning at home, wrapped in your blankie, while a parent’s soothing murmur washes over you.

It’s warm and reassuring. Or, as Ehle herself says at the conclusion of Part 44, moments after reading the final lines of Austen’s novel: “That was time well-spent.”

With no end to quarantine in sight, we could use more warmth and reassurance. Luckily, Austen wrote five other books! Hey, Jennifer: May I suggest Persuasion next?

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