Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 13 2020 02:00PM

I was born with a completist gene. I like to finish things up – books, TV series, leftovers. I like to own full sets of things. I abhor the imperfect, the partially completed, the abandoned-halfway-through.

I know Freud has a word for this, but I don’t want to discuss it.

Instead, I will note that a rare book sale taking place next week seems made for the likes of me. On February 20, Swann Galleries, a New York auction house, will auction first editions of all Jane Austen’s novels – three-volume sets of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility, plus the combined four-volume edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Estimated prices range from a mere $3,000-$4,000 for the Northanger Abbey/Persuasion combo up to a heftier $30,000-$40,000 for Sense and Sensibility, which had the smallest initial print run among Austen’s novels and therefore remains the rarest of her first editions.

If you aim to buy a complete set of all six first editions – and if you’re looking for an early birthday gift for me, that’s what you’ll want to get – it’s estimated that it will run you between $76,000 and $106,000. I never said perfection came cheap.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 10 2020 02:00PM

Another day, another Jane Austen event I wish I could attend.

Tomorrow, Gill Hornby, whose new novel Miss Austen explores the relationship between Jane Austen and her older sister, Cassandra, will discuss the book with Helena Kelly, the author of 2016’s controversial Jane Austen, the Secret Radical.

The event will take place in Hungerford, a town in the south-central English county of Berkshire. Hornby -- who is also the author of an Austen biography aimed at tweens, Jane Austen: The Girl with the Golden Pen -- lives in Kintbury, a nearby village the Austen sisters visited. The Kintbury vicarage was the childhood home of Tom Fowle, who was engaged to Cassandra before his tragic death.

Miss Austen sends Cassandra on a visit to the Fowles’ vicarage decades after Jane’s death to hunt down – and possibly destroy -- a trove of her sister’s revealing lost letters. (Don’t we already know how that turned out? Well, I’ll have to read the book to be sure, I guess.)

Perhaps Kelly, whose own book suggests that Austen was a closet subversive who smuggled her incendiary political beliefs into her novels, imagines that the letters Cassandra consigned to the flames contained irrefutable proof of her own thesis.

Personally, I’ve always suspected that there was less to Jane Austen’s burned letters than we’d like to think. Much as we enjoy imagining hidden romances, explosive family scandals, or problematic political opinions, it’s likely that all they contained were some uncharitable remarks that Cassandra feared would hurt the feelings of surviving friends and relatives.

Since we’ll never know for sure, though, it’s fun to conjure up a more exciting explanation, and I’m looking forward to reading Hornby’s book when it’s published here in April.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 6 2020 02:00PM

Making a mistake in print, and being forced to acknowledge it publicly in the corrections column: It’s every journalist’s nightmare. And it’s happened to all of us. In my time, I have misspelled names, mixed up business deals, miscalculated sums, misstated a legal ruling. . . (Ugh. Do I have to keep going? Just thinking about it puts knots in my stomach.)

So I empathized late last month when the New York Times was forced to acknowledge a truly embarrassing mistake: “In an earlier version of this article, . . . the author of ‘Dracula’ was incorrect. He is Bram Stoker, not Jane Austen.”

OK, it’s also pretty funny.

The article in question was one of the Times’ much-loved Vows features, which describe the love story and wedding of a newly married couple. This time, the happy pair were actress/playwright Kate Hamill, whose madcap theatrical adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have been widely produced; and actor Jason O’Connell, who played Mr. Darcy to her Elizabeth Bennet in the New York premiere of her P&P.

Hamill’s newest project is an adaptation of Dracula, but given her success with Austen, it’s perhaps not surprising that a reporter, working quickly, might have experienced a momentary brain freeze. (In the olden days, before the Times shrank its copyediting staff, this kind of thing would likely have been caught before it made it into print, or – as in this case – onto the web. But we NYT aficionados have been complaining about the detectable increase in sloppiness for awhile now.)

Still, the error does encourage us to reflect upon the ways in which Dracula already resembles an Austen novel. It begins with a naïve visitor journeying to a house that holds unsuspected horrors: here, Jonathan Harker; in Austen, Catherine Morland. It continues with an unpleasant extended house party involving encounters with blood-sucking harpies and a strangely aloof host: Jonathan Harker at the Count’s castle, or Elizabeth Bennet at Netherfield.

Later on there’s a young woman ruined by a predatory male (Lucy Westenra, the Elizas in Sense and Sensibility); a virtuous woman torn between a safe, dull suitor and a dangerous, exciting demon lover (Mina Harker, Fanny Price); a desperate struggle over real estate (the Count’s acquisition of safehouses in England, the Dashwoods’ search for a new place to live) and a hapless patient with an attachment to his doctor and odd tastes in food (Renfield and his bugs, Mr. Woodhouse and his gruel).

I won’t get into how the climactic stake through the heart can be equated to the marriages that end Austen’s novels. We’ll leave that one to Dr. Freud’s Vows column.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 3 2020 02:00PM

The reimagining of Chawton House, the Austen-connected stately home and research library in Hampshire, England, continues apace – which is good news for Janeites.

In the latest dispatch from the trenches, Emma Yandle, Chawton’s new curator and collections manager, stars in a video aimed at North American donors that highlights the ongoing effort to rehang Chawton’s collection of portraits of female writers, artists, and actors. The new arrangements wlll make the best work more accessible to visitors and emphasize connections among the women who made the paintings and those depicted in them, Yandle explains.

The seven-minute video is an amateur effort, complete with shaky camera movements and inconvenient lights reflected off painted surfaces, but Yandle, barely a month into her job, communicates an infectious enthusiasm for Chawton’s potential.

As blog readers will recall, Chawton House, a library for the study of early English writing by women, which is housed in an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s older brother Edward Knight, has weathered a tough few years since its founder and chief patron, Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, withdrew her financial support. Fingers crossed that brighter times lie ahead.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 30 2020 02:00PM

In September, we suspected. We hoped. We crossed our fingers. And now it’s confirmed. In perhaps the least likely household on Planet Earth, a nest of Jane Austen fans has apparently hatched.

Yes, it’s true. The Kardashians are Janeites.

Four months ago, blog readers will recall, Kourtney Kardashian, the eldest of the K-named tribe, posted an Instagram shot of herself draped across an empty bathtub reading a handsome hardback of Emma. Admittedly, it was all in the service of selling an essential-oil diffuser, but still.

Then, last week, Khloe Kardashian, third of that line, posted snapshots on Instagram of her daughter True’s bookshelves. And there, strewn oh-so-casually amid a set of pink-flowered teacups, were copies of Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. No word on whether these are gifts from Aunt Kourtney, but there’s no essential-oil diffuser in sight, so perhaps not.

With little True Thompson apparently a newly minted member of the family book club, we now face the possibility of not one but two generations of Kardashian Janeites. Given that True won't celebrate her second birthday until April, however, we may have to wait awhile before we can be certain she shares her foremothers’ excellent taste in literature.

I realize that the more cynical among you may argue that the Kardashians’ conspicuous Austen-love is all for appearances’ sake, a calculated brand-management effort designed to convey Girly Yet Smart. You may be ungenerously tempted to bring up Miss Bingley’s efforts to read the second volume of Mr. Darcy’s book, or Mrs. Elton and her Italian endearments.

But no! I refuse! I prefer to think that the Kardashian women have developed an appetite for lucid prose and biting social satire, to go along with the bikinis and bling.

Really, though, the only thing that will settle this dispute is for Kim Kardashian West to add her vote. Perhaps an Instagram shot of her beach basket, with a copy of Mansfield Park nestled amid the high-thread-count towels and organic sunscreen? A selfie with a Sense and Sensibility paperback tucked into a plunging neckline? An arty photo of a pensive Kim, captioned “You pierce my soul”? The possibilities are endless.

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