Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2021 02:00PM

Sixtieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

The record of Jane Austen’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions is so slender that it’s always tempting to invest even her throwaway comments with weighty significance. Such is arguably the trap that awaits the unwary reader of the letter that Jane Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 225 years ago today (#2 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

For a change, I’m not referring to the gossipy bits – the four sentences in which the twenty-year-old Austen talks about her flirtation with visitor Tom Lefroy, whose brief romance with Austen has given rise to a tsunami of speculation, not to mention one very bad biopic.

No, I’m talking instead about a remark that Austen inserts in the midst of the tidbits of news concerning relatives and family friends that she is relaying to Cassandra, who was away from home visiting the family of her fiancé, Tom Fowle.

“I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter,” Austen tells Cassandra, “for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.”

In context, it seems clear that this line is a joke. No one expects payment for even the cleverest of letters, and praise from a doting sister hardly constitutes fame, so surely Austen intended to mock high literary pretensions. But this sentence is not infrequently (for example, here, here and here) cited as evidence that even the very young Austen understood her own genius and craved the world’s notice.

Maybe she did: A psychologist might argue that her remark to Cassandra, though couched as a joke, reveals a deeply held (if possibly unconscious) wish. Perhaps Austen was protecting herself from the sting of rejection by turning her ambitions into a joke. As usual, Austenian irony defeats our attempts to impose a single interpretation. Still, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh must surely have overstated the case when he wrote in his 1870 memoir, “I do not think that she was herself much mortified by the want of early success. She wrote for her own amusement.” If that were true, she would never have published.

Still, for the non-Freudians among us, the temptation to read dramatic literary self-assertion into a private joke between sisters probably says more about us than it does about Jane Austen. We crave a definitive statement of her hopes, fears, and desires. Lacking that, we’ll read all we can between her lines.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 11 2021 02:00PM

It’s cold outside, and the pandemic still rages. You may not feel like singing a happy tune. But if you’re a Janeite, someone else is currently doing it for you:

--Back when live performances were a thing, the opera company in the city of Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, hosted a weekend-long JaneCon whose centerpiece was an orchestrated production of British composer Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park opera.

Exactly a year later, the opera company is making that performance available for online viewing, as the first offering in an eight-month series of pre-recorded concerts and operas. For the price of a ticket -- $35 is suggested, but there’s a pay-what-you-can option – you can watch the video any time for the rest of this month.

--If you can’t spare the time for a full-length opera, perhaps you’d prefer “Jane Austen’s Mamma Mia,” a minute-long TikTok video (watch here or here) that is the brainchild of Madelaine Turner, a twenty-six-year-old screenwriter and “content creator” from Southern California.

The breezy mashup, following in the great tradition of “Jane Austen’s Fight Club,” features Turner, in Regency costume, as Sophie, a bride-to-be seeking the identity of her unknown father. As an appropriately orchestral version of ABBA’s hit plays in the background and Sophie stamps fresh sealing wax onto a folded paper, her voiceover reads the enclosed letter to her cousin. . . and if you saw the stage show or the movie, you know the premise: reticent mom, revealing diary, dueling wedding invitations.

We even glimpse a framed portrait of the mother (Meryl Streep, natch) and images of the three candidates for paternal honors -- all familiar faces to fans of the Mamma Mia! movie: Colin Firth, in the Darcy portrait from the Pemberley section of the BBC’s iconic Pride and Prejudice adaptation; a bearded Pierce Brosnan, here with Regency cravat; and Stellan Skarsgard, under a headline reading, “Fitzwilliam Anderson, Traveller Extraordinaire.”*

Is it silly? Exceedingly so. But it sure beats reality.

* Intriguingly, Fitzwilliam Anderson appears to be the for-real name of a Los Angeles-area PR officer who is roughly Turner’s age. Coincidence? Boyfriend? Inside joke? Named by Janeite parents? Enquiring minds want to know.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 7 2021 02:00PM

It’s been more than three years since a trio of passionate Janeites formed the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), an organization dedicated to recovering the scattered contents of the library owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight and housed at Godmersham, his estate in Kent, England.

And now comes word that a key item in that missing collection – “the Holy Grail in these endeavors,” according to GLOSS co-founder Peter Sabor, an English professor at McGill University in Toronto – has been found and purchased for public display.

The Holy Grail in question is a first edition of William Cowper’s Poems, originally published in 1782. Cowper was reportedly Jane Austen’s favorite poet; she mentions him in her letters and novels, with Fanny Price quoting a line of his in Mansfield Park and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, deploring Edward Ferrars’ “tame” and “spiritless” reading of his poetry. It is likely that Austen perused this very volume during at least one of her extended visits to Edward’s family.

Only about 500 of the 1,250 books listed in an 1818 catalogue of the Knight family’s holdings are currently in the possession of Chawton House, the research library situated in the Elizabethan mansion that was Edward’s second home in Hampshire. Recovering the remaining volumes – identifiable through their bookplates – is GLOSS’ goal. (You can view a reconstruction of the Godmersham library on the clever and entertaining Reading with Austen website.)

How this particular acquisition came about remains somewhat obscure: Although Chawton House’s press release refers to funding from both GLOSS and Friends of the National Libraries, a UK non-profit that supports British libraries considered to be of national importance, it does not say how much those entities had to pay for the Cowper, or who sold it.

Still, such details of provenance won’t interfere with our enjoyment – in person or online – of that most tantalizing of literary relics: a beloved book that Jane Austen may once have held in her hands.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 4 2021 02:00PM

In her too-short life, Jane Austen traveled very little, barely venturing beyond a few counties in southern and midlands England and never making it even as far as Scotland, let alone the European continent.

So perhaps it was inevitable that a recent episode of The Grand Tour, a British reality show featuring comic yet rugged automotive undertakings, should have deployed her name as tiresome shorthand for decorous, unadventurous Englishness.

I do not watch The Grand Tour, but my husband and daughter have been fans for years. They loved it in its classic BBC incarnation as Top Gear and stuck with it when it changed its name and moved to Amazon four years ago, after the BBC fired its star, Jeremy Clarkson, for an array of offenses that culminated in his punching a co-worker.

Thus it was that in the waning days of the old year, these amoral members of my immediate family convened in our TV room* to catch the latest episode, wherein Clarkson and his two sidekicks travel to Madagascar to search for a priceless treasure supposedly buried by the eighteenth-century French pirate Olivier Levasseur, known as La Buse (“The Buzzard”).

Because one of the gang, James May, warns that his friend Mary told him years before that Madagascar had the world’s worst roads, the three men modify their vehicles for rough terrain before heading out. But at first, the roads seem fine, and Richard Hammond laments that he has wrecked his high-performance hatchback by adding a set of tractor treads.

“I prepared my car for Armageddon, and you brought me to a tea party!” Hammond tells May. “What were we thinking? We took off-roading advice from Jane Austen!”

Hammond riffs further on his vision of the offending Mary (“some girl in a floaty skirt”) who, he is sure, exaggerated the risks. “The worst thing that happened was a daffodil fell out of her bicycle basket and she panicked,” he opines. Switching to a falsetto, he imitates the supposedly overwrought, Austen-like Mary: “Oh, this is terribly rough! It’s absolutely awful!”

So far, so misogynistic (Girls! Such prissy whiners!) until, of course, the punchline: The roads quickly turn not just bad, but epically bad, with mud puddles as deep as moon craters and ruts that resemble small hills. “My friend Mary was right,” May concludes.

Mary may get her revenge, but no apology is offered to Jane Austen, caricatured here – and not, alas, for the first time -- as the epitome of safe, spinsterish tedium, in marked contrast to Real Men leading exciting, physically taxing lives. Austen’s vindication will just have to wait for the episode in which the Grand Tour guys try to navigate genuinely treacherous terrain: life as a woman in nineteenth-century England.

* OK, yes: I skimmed through the episode once I heard about the Austen mention. Still not a fan, though.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2020 02:00PM

A year ago, I confidently predicted a 2020 filled with the usual array of Austen events: “Teas, balls, fairs, festivals, conferences, discussions, lectures, and walking tours celebrating Austen and the Regency.”

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the universe does not smile upon confident predictions.

As it happens, 2020 marked the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, which inaugurated institutionalized Janeite fandom, and in many ways, the Austen fan community rose to the occasion presented by this awful year, striving to create virtual community with an outpouring of creativity and enthusiasm.

While in-person events were scuttled, online alternatives proliferated: the Louisville Austen festival migrated to YouTube, the Jane Austen Society of North America convened on the web, and events that might ordinarily have been local – like an Australian AustenCon and an Arizona conference on fandom – suddenly went international.

While the major Austen pilgrimage sites were shuttered for much of the year, sustaining serious financial damage along the way, they found opportunities to bring their programming to a worldwide virtual audience, with Chawton House sponsoring online conferences and a newly rebranded Jane Austen’s House creating a panoramic online tour and a special Christmas treat.

While live theater went dark, you could stream any number of Austen adaptations, from a much-praised play based on The Watsons to a Zoom-enabled update of Pride and Prejudice to the new Emma from playwright Kate Hamill.

And the cinematic Austen universe only expanded, from the pre-pandemic U.S. broadcast of the Sanditon miniseries, to the theatrical and (post-pandemic) streaming release of Autumn de Wilde’s new Emma, to the debut of Modern Persuasion.

Best of all, those six great novels sat on our shelves, always available for a reread. They were our constant reminder that even during the worst of years, art endures, bringing us escape, perspective, and consolation amid loneliness and grief.

In that spirit, as this year finally ends -- and not a minute too soon! -- let's give Jane Austen the last word, from chapter 19 of Sense and Sensibility.

"Remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by everybody at times, whatever be their education or state," Mrs. Dashwood tells the mysteriously melancholy Edward Ferrars. "Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope."

Here’s hoping for a better 2021.

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