Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 23 2020 02:00PM

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

It’s an occupational hazard of the writing life that once you’re known to be an author, everyone in your life will want you to read their stuff. This works great if you are, say, the historian and author Timothy Garton-Ash, and the friend who wants you to read his new novel is Ian McEwan.

If you are Jane Austen, however, the people who want you to read their stuff will be your unevenly talented nieces and nephews.

And so it was that in January 1817, one of the world’s greatest novelists spent her evening listening to her eighteen-year-old nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen -- who was known to his family as Edward and would later take the name Austen-Leigh -- as he read aloud from his novel in progress.

“He read his two Chapters to us the first Evening;--both good—but especially the last in our opinion,” Austen wrote to Edward's little sister, 11-year-old Caroline, exactly 203 years ago today (#149 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “We think it has more of the Spirit & Entertainment of the early part of his Work, the first 3 or 4 Chapters, than some of the subsequent.--Mr Reeves is charming--& Mr Mountain--& Mr Fairfax--& all their day’s sport.—And the introduction of Emma Gordon is very amusing.—I certainly do altogether like this set of People better than those at Culver Court.”

This wasn’t the first time Austen had mentioned Edward’s novel: six weeks earlier, in a letter to Edward himself, Austen had commiserated on the apparent disappearance of two and a half chapters of his manuscript – and, in perhaps the most famous passage in all her letters, described her own work as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”

Could those missing two and a half chapters, luckily rediscovered, have been the very two chapters that Edward read to his aunts at Steventon weeks later? Impossible to know: Austen-Leigh became a clergyman and apparently never finished his novel, with its familiar-sounding character names. (Le Faye reports that some pages survive in the Hampshire Record Office.) What is clear, however, is how generously Jane Austen nurtured her young relative’s literary aspirations.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 20 2020 02:00PM

“I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.”

“. . . . So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. . . . I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.”

--Northanger Abbey, ch. 22

January is a dreary month here in New Jersey, so I’ve sought a new source of enjoyment by sprouting a hyacinth bulb (pictured above) on my windowsill. It will be months before it’s warm enough to plant the result outside, so I suppose in the meantime I’ll have to make do with this slightly creepy alternative:

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 16 2020 02:00PM

Just when you thought it was safe to put some cookies in the oven, toss a few snowballs, and top your hot chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream . . .

. . . it looks like another Jane Austen-themed Christmas movie will be coming to the Hallmark Channel later this year.

Yes, the folks who brought us the remarkably mediocre Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe in 2018 and the equally tedious Sense, Sensibility and Snowmen less than two months ago have noticed that Jane Austen wrote other books. (I don’t think there was any way we could have kept that a secret, but perhaps we should have tried harder.)

And thus it is that Deadline reported earlier this week that Melissa de la Cruz, who was involved with both previous films, will be writing and producing Christmas at Mansfield Park, slated to air in 2020.

The details are barebones, but those of us who have already seen two of Austen’s masterworks transformed into identical – dare I say cookie-cutter? – Hallmark Christmas cliché-fests bearing little relationship to their supposed prototypes know more or less what to expect.

Probably Christmas at Mansfield Park will be about a free-spirited young woman named Frances with a do-gooder job (social worker? Pediatrician?) who has grown up with rich relatives – mom and stepfather, maybe? -- but returns to her quaint New England hometown at Christmastime to care for her ailing father.

There she meets a hunky local minister named Ed who needs help throwing a holiday party for cute but underprivileged children, not to mention extricating himself from a problematic relationship with a materialistic fiancée named Mary who wants him to get a job with a more prestigious church in The Big City.

Ed will walk in on Mary’s brother Henry kissing Frances under the mistletoe but will turn away right before Frances pushes Henry away and slaps his face. Snowballs will be thrown. A tree will be decorated. Small children will sing “Silent Night” while doting adults sip hot chocolate. And I will watch, because I am a Jane Austen completist with a masochistic streak.

It’s too bad, actually, because Mansfield Park fanfic is in short supply, and were the project in better hands, we might hope for something clever and witty. Alas, I think the odds are poor.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 13 2020 02:00PM

Search engine optimization and web analytics are topics about which I know very little. (OK: nothing.) So when Google sends me its periodic report on the performance of my web site – yes, this very site – I mostly ignore it. (Go ahead. Tell me I should grit my teeth and learn this marketing stuff even though it bores me. I deserve the lecture.)

December’s Google report, however, included one tidbit hilarious enough to catch even my negligent eye. Apparently, the search query that most often brought viewers to my site that month was this: “you have bewitched me body and soul book page number.”

As blog readers know, I regularly fulfill my Janeite community service obligations by pointing out the Jane Austen movie quotes masquerading online as Jane Austen book quotes. Among their number is the line “You have bewitched me body and soul,” uttered by Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth during the romantic climax of the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice.

In my opinion, this line is a cheesy cliché, but if you find it swooningly romantic, wallow away: I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours. Whatever its merits, however, it is inarguable that this line does not appear anywhere in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. You will search in vain for its page number. It's just not there. Wasn't written by Jane Austen. Sorry.

I have noted this fact from time to time, most recently in July, so presumably my site pops up when those with a thirst for accuracy – a quality that is becoming sadly rare in our era – try to nail down the provenance of the quote.

This is excellent news. Thanks, Google! But I still can't be bothered to learn about search engine optimization.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2020 02:00PM

Like all American girls, I loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and when I shared it with my daughter many years after my first reading, I was delighted to see that it held up beautifully – not just a good book for children but a great American Victorian novel. But it wasn’t until I saw Greta Gerwig’s new movie adaptation – which is one of the year’s best films, in my not-so-humble opinion – that I noticed the Jane Austen reference.

I had completely forgotten that the newspaper publisher to whom the fledgling writer Jo March takes her sensational stories is named Mr. Dashwood. Indeed, I had forgotten that detail so completely that when it turned up in Gerwig’s movie, I assumed it was a gentle Austen homage by Gerwig herself.

But no! It’s right there in Alcott’s chapter 34: Jo “told no one, but concocted a ‘thrilling tale,’ and boldly carried it herself to Mr. Dashwood, editor of the ‘Weekly Volcano.’ ”

As far as I know (and please correct me if I'm wrong, Alcott scholars), we have no direct evidence that Alcott read Austen – nothing like the documented Austen-hatred of Charlotte Bronte, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain or the loud Austen-appreciation of E.M. Forster, William Dean Howells, and Virginia Woolf. Alcott certainly could have read Austen, however: Little Women was written in 1868-9, more than fifty years after Austen’s death. And Austen’s themes – family life, women’s choices, the impact of money and class – are Alcott’s too, although where Austen is cool and ironic, Alcott tends to the moralizing and sentimental, in the Victorian mode.

But I think it’s Alcott’s choice of “Dashwood,” specifically, as the name for her minor character that seals the Austenian deal. Sure, she might have been thinking of the notorious eighteenth-century rake Sir Francis Dashwood, whose Hellfire Club was known for its sensationally immoral activities, when she created a character named Dashwood whose Volcano – figurative spewer of hellfire and brimstone -- is known for publishing stories with sensationally immoral plots.

But surely it’s no accident that Alcott chose this last name, indelibly associated with a story about sisters who take divergent approaches to romantic love and social obligations, for her own story of the relationships among a group of very different sisters. With the deliberate echo, she’s inviting us to remember Elinor and Marianne, and perhaps to ask ourselves which March sisters embody sense and which sensibility.

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