Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 18 2019 01:00PM

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is a controversial man. Depending on your point of view, he’s either a valiant freedom fighter dedicated to exposing injustice, or a perniciously irresponsible egomaniac who helped elect Donald Trump. (Or both!)


What we never knew until now was that he’s also a Janeite.


Or so we learned, more or less, from an interview published last week in the Daily Mail. In the story, Australian-British novelist Kathy Lette, perhaps best known as the co-author of Puberty Blues, revealed that before holing up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, Assange stayed in her attic.


“She described her frustration with his refusal to read women's literature,” the article reports, “adding, ‘When he was in Wandsworth Prison, I sent him in a big box of books by Jane Austen, the Brontes, all my favorite female authors, and said, "Now that you're a captive audience, read these books.” And of course he read them and he was completely converted to women writers.’ ”


OK, it’s true that Lette doesn’t explicitly tell us what Assange thought of Austen. Perhaps he is more a Tenant of Wildfell Hall kind of guy. But I like to imagine him curled up with Persuasion, weeping over The Letter. Kind of humanizing, don’t you think?


Regardless, however, this insight into Assangean reading habits clearly licenses a game of Which Austen Character Is Julian Assange. The secret-spilling Anne Steele? The my-way-or-the-highway Lady Catherine de Bourgh? The rude but principled Mr. Darcy? I await your suggestions.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 15 2019 01:00PM

As regular blog readers know, I have found it difficult to say anything positive about the recent spate of Jane Austen-inspired TV movies. The Hallmark channel has brought us four in the past few years, and they have all been pretty terrible.


But that changes right now! Because here’s one good thing you can say about those Austen-inspired TV movies: They get made really fast.


It’s been nine months since we learned about PBS’ upcoming Sanditon series, and five months since we heard of the new feature film based on Emma. Filming is underway for both projects, but no release dates have been announced. By contrast, we’ve recently been told that the Lifetime movie Pride & Prejudice: Atlanta will hit our TV screens on June 1, barely seven months after the project was announced. That’s efficiency!


This version of P&P, you may recall, features an all-African-American cast, with Mr. Bennet the pastor of a Southern Baptist church and Mrs. Bennet the author of a self-help marriage manual. How good will it be? The jury is out until June 1. But at least that’s soon.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 11 2019 01:00PM

Forty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


"It is a period, indeed!” Captain Wentworth exclaims to Anne Elliot, as their long estrangement begins to thaw in Chapter 22 of Persuasion. “Eight years and a half is a period!"


A similar spirit of mingled pain and nostalgia seems to have animated Jane Austen in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 214 years ago today (#43 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The preceding months had been difficult ones for the Austens. On Jane’s twenty-ninth birthday, in December 1804, her beloved friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, known as Madame Lefroy, was killed in a horseback riding accident at 55. Two weeks later, the Austen patriarch, the Rev. George Austen, died unexpectedly at 73. His death, with the loss of his clerical pension, inaugurated a financial slide that would eventually force the surviving Austen women to move repeatedly, as they sought ever-cheaper rented rooms in less and less desirable parts of Bath.


Some inkling of these troubles surely hangs over the letter Jane wrote to Cassandra, who was back in Hampshire, the county the Austen sisters had called home until four years earlier, when their parents uprooted them. While Cassandra helped nurse the dying Mrs. Lloyd, mother of their sister-in-law Mary Austen and their close friend Martha Lloyd, Jane reported the news from Bath.


“This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlayne look hot on horseback,” Jane wrote to Cassandra. “Seven years & four months ago we went to the same Ridinghouse to see Miss Lefroy’s performance!—What a different set are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind.”


By our standards, Jane Austen was still young in 1805, and it would be another decade before she began Persuasion. But already, in this letter, we can glimpse the emotional raw materials of the novel: a melancholy sense of the inexorable passage of time.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 8 2019 01:00PM

For Janeites, it’s salt rubbed in a wound: the news that scholars will soon be able to inspect a fascinating trove of letters from an interesting and important Georgian-era woman. . . who isn’t Jane Austen, because her letters are still burnt to a crisp.


No, the letters in question were written by Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough – many of them to her lover, Lord Granville, an important nineteenth-century diplomat who served as British ambassador to Russia and France. The letters – stored in two tin trunks, reports the website inews -- form a small part of a huge Granville family archive, recently acquired by the British Library for £860,000 (about $1.1 million).


Lady Bessborough, usually known as Harriet, has no end of interesting family connections. Her father was the 1st Earl Spencer, originator of the line that leads to Princess Diana. Her sister was the writer, political activist, and socialite Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Her daughter was the scandalous Lady Caroline Lamb, who unforgettably summed up her own sometime lover, Lord Byron, as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” And Lady Bessborough eventually contrived to marry off Lord Granville – yes, the man she’d been sleeping with -- to her own niece, Georgiana’s daughter, who, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, was also named Harriet.


But enough of this gossip about the incestuously small world of the British aristocracy. For our purposes, what’s interesting is a book recommendation Harriet sent to her big sister Georgiana in November 1811. “God bless you dearest G. have you read Sense & Sensibility?” Harriet wrote, just weeks after the book’s publication. “It is a clever novel [,] they were full of it at Althrop – tho’ it ends stupidly I was much amus’d by it.”


As inews notes, this remark “is thought to be the first contemporary comment on a work by Jane Austen,” not to mention the first recorded instance of reader dissatisfaction with the ending of an Austen novel. (Did Lady Bessborough think Elinor should have married Colonel Brandon?)


The letter is not a new discovery – Lady Bessborough’s comments are mentioned in Brian Southam’s 1968 compilation of early responses to Austen’s works, and I don’t know if he was the first to find them. What’s new, apparently, is the chance for scholarly cataloging of – and, sometime next year, scholarly access to -- the full collection of letters.


Now if only Cassandra Austen had kept one of those tin trunks.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 4 2019 01:00PM

Remember back in elementary school, when one kid would get an awesome new toy or a cool pair of shoes, and then everybody had to have their own? Today’s equivalent of Beanie Babies, rainbow looms, and sneakers that light up seems to be Jane Austen statues.


In 2017, you’ll recall, Basingstoke commemorated the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, who never lived there, by erecting a life-size bronze in the town center. Then, a year later, nearby Chawton, where Austen actually did live, followed suit with its own smaller version of the same statue.


And now comes word that Bath, where Austen spent the years 1801 to 1806, plans to join the club. The local Jane Austen Centre is apparently talking with city officials about the best location for another life-size bronze, to be based on a waxwork image of Austen “said to be the closest-ever likeness to the author,” according to a report on local-news website SomersetLive.


Bath’s right to an Austen statue is equivocal: On the one hand, she lived there for a substantial period of time, and she set portions of two of her novels there. On the other hand, most biographers think she disliked the place, and her writing output slowed to a trickle during her years there.


As for that waxwork, a 2014 image created by forensic artist Melissa Dring, it owes its reputation for extreme accuracy entirely to the Jane Austen Centre, which commissioned it. Not everyone is equally convinced, and, as I’ve often noted, every claim about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of an Austen image is entirely theoretical, because no one knows what Jane Austen actually looked like.


It’s hard to shake the feeling that the push for a statue in Bath is less about honoring Austen than about publicizing the Jane Austen Centre, which is, depending on your point of view, either a charming introduction to Austen’s life and times, or a kitschy tourist trap.


Still, the centre is putting a feminist gloss on its efforts. "Not only will it be good to honor Austen the author, it will also be good to go a little way to redress the fact that less than 3 per cent of all statues in the UK are of historical, non-royal women,” says managing director Paul Crossey. (At the current rate, 3 percent of all statues in the UK will soon be statues of Jane Austen.)


The enthusiasm for a Bath statue comes barely a month after Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, scotched its plans for yet another Austen statue, in the face of public criticism. I guess that makes the Winchester public the equivalent of the mom who insists that your regular sneakers still have a lot of wear in them and she’s not going to shell out $50 for the ones with the flashing lights. There’s a mom like that in every class.


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