Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 24 2019 01:00PM

Six years ago, the singer Kelly Clarkson was forced to part with a charming little piece of jewelry she had just picked up at auction in England: a turquoise ring that had once belonged to Jane Austen.

Upon hearing that a precious bit of the nation’s cultural heritage was about to depart for America – oh, the horror! – the UK government slapped an export ban on Clarkson’s ring. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, launched a public appeal that collected the $250,000 necessary to buy the ring back and put it on permanent display.

Apparently, it’s time again for public-spirited Janeites to dig into their wallets and help the museum preserve a treasured piece of Austeniana. A fragment of an 1814 Austen letter is for sale, and although the museum has already raised most of the £35,000 (about $44,500) purchase price, it must come up with the remaining £10,000 ($12,700) by July 31.

If the fundraising succeeds, the letter-fragment will go on display this year at the museum, which also owns another dozen Austen letters. But if the appeal fails, the fragment will likely disappear into a private collection.

The letter in question -- #112 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence – is dated November 29, 1814. While staying in London with her brother Henry, Austen wrote to her niece Anna Lefroy, discussing some family comings and goings and describing her underwhelmed reaction to a theatrical production of an eighteenth-century tragedy (“I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either”). As Austen letters go, it’s fairly routine: interesting because we are interested in everything about Our Author, but not all that exciting in itself.

The text of the letter has been known from family and scholarly sources since the nineteenth century, but sometime after the 1869 publication of the Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Anna Lefroy’s half-brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, the physical letter was cut up into at least five pieces.

One of these five pieces is in the British Library, and one is in private hands. Two are apparently lost, and as recently as eight years ago, when Le Faye published the fourth edition of her collection of Austen correspondence, the fifth section, which comprises about three-quarters of the text, was also believed lost.

But sometime since then, this lost section apparently resurfaced, and the museum is eager to get it. Signs look pretty good, I’d say: As of this morning, an online appeal had raised £2,871, nearly 29 percent of the required total.

But just in case things still look dodgy a month from now, the museum is hosting a July 23 benefit party featuring a talk by Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland at an antiquarian bookstore in London. Tickets are going for £48 (about $61), with proceeds supporting the fundraising appeal.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 20 2019 01:00PM

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

It’s hardly news to dedicated Janeites that the Jane Austen we encounter in her letters – personal correspondence never intended for strangers’ eyes -- wasn’t always nice, at least in the sweet, simpering, derided-by-Henry-Tilney sense of the word. (See under: dead baby joke.)

So it shouldn’t be a shock to encounter Austen cold-bloodedly discussing the recent sad fate of a Southampton acquaintance.

“Mr Waller is dead, I see,” the thirty-two-year-old Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter begun exactly 211 years ago today (#53 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I cannot greive about it, nor perhaps can his Widow very much.”

Ouch! Not for Austen those conventional pieties in which every departed relative is a beloved husband and revered father. Not for her the dictum to speak no ill of the dead. She didn't like the man, and she won't pretend otherwise just because he's recently deceased.

And what a novelist! Just eighteen words, and yet we know there’s a story in there somewhere: Was Mr. Waller abusive? Was Mrs. Waller unfaithful? Were they a Bennet-style mismatch, or a coldly pragmatic financial alliance, or a May-December love story gone sour? We’ll never know, but in a not-very-nice throwaway line, Jane Austen makes us wish we could.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 17 2019 01:00PM

Although Jane Austen is a quintessentially British writer, her admirers in North America are legion. Indeed, the Jane Austen Society of North America, with more than five thousand members, is considerably larger than the original Jane Austen Society in the UK.

So it’s good news that the North American Friends of Chawton House, which raises money for the research library housed in a Hampshire mansion once owned by Austen’s brother Edward, has upgraded to a spiffy new website.

Regular blog readers will recall the saga of Chawton House, which was restored to its former glory by Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, whose rare-book collection anchors the library’s holdings in early English writing by women. Lerner’s money supported the library for years, and in 2016, when she decided to withdraw that support, a scramble to replace her sizeable contribution began. (Review the details here and here.)

Among those trying to help are the North American Friends, who have raised $160,000 in the past two years, according to board president Janine Barchas, an Austen scholar who is an English professor at the University of Texas-Austin.

“Many friends are needed to help this worthy charity and historic property establish a bright future of financial independence,” Barchas writes on the new website. “After all, Chawton House and the rich literary history it now safeguards should never have been one person’s financial responsibility to shoulder.”

Donations are tax-deductible. As for that feeling of helping to preserve Jane Austen’s literary context: priceless.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 13 2019 01:00PM

Two years ago, Dutch journalist Karin Quint ran an admirably efficient Kickstarter campaign that ultimately raised more than $17,000 to fund an English translation of her illustrated Dutch-language guidebook to Jane Austen’s England. (Read about it here and here.)

I contributed my small mite and received a copy of Quint’s beautiful and well-organized book during the summer of 2017, when we were all busy commemorating the bicentenary of Austen’s untimely death. Alas, I have not been back to England since, so thus far I’ve used the book for armchair travels only. But perhaps one day I too will be clutching my copy as I follow Quint’s directions to the pond on the Lyme Park estate where Colin Firth shot his famed wet-shirt scene.

Now comes welcome word that the English version of Quint’s book will soon be available worldwide to all those Janeites who missed out on the Kickstarter appeal. A British company, ACC Art Books, plans to publish Jane Austen’s England: A Travel Guide by summer’s end and retail it in all the usual places for £15 (about $19).

Quint’s guidebook includes background on Austen’s life and times and covers places throughout England that are important in Austen’s life and work, as well as locations used in filmed adaptations of her novels. I’m not aware of a more comprehensive guide to Austen sites, so it’s great news that the book will soon be widely distributed.

“I am convinced we would not have found a publisher without this Kickstarter campaign,” Quint wrote last fall in a message to her backers. “Your support has been invaluable.”

That’s the thing about social media: It fosters the construction of fake personae, facilitates invasions of privacy, turns regular folks into drooling zombie phone-addicts, and sucks up every spare morsel of our time. But it also helps small-ish communities of kindred spirits organize for collective action. And now we Janeites have a guidebook to prove it.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 10 2019 01:00PM

“Can a book change the course of your life?” asks the cover headline on the latest issue of my college alumni magazine. Inside, seventeen professors supply an answer – yes, of course – and name the books that shaped them (more or less: a couple of people cheat and just name books they happen to like a lot).

Some of the choices are charming — apparently The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles set the curator of Yale’s natural history museum on his career path — but one in particular caught my eye.

“The book that had more impact on me than any other is Pride and Prejudice, which I read when I was sixteen because my English teacher told me to,” writes Traugott Lawler, a retired Yale English professor whose academic specialty is the Middle Ages. “It blew me away! I had never imagined a novel could be so intelligent, so witty, so compelling. It made me a reader of nineteenth-century English fiction, as I still am, and it set me on a path to my career teaching English.”

Lawler is 82, so his epiphany occurred c. 1953, an era -- pre-Colin Firth, pre-Keira Knightley, pre-Jane Austen Action Figure -- when Austen’s popular profile was far lower.

In that more innocent time, without so many swoony movie versions to compete with the books’ more astringent reality, Austen appreciation was far less often gendered female. A sixteen-year-old boy could come to her novels without encountering the regrettable “those-are-girl-books” baggage that seems to weigh them down today. These days, I would guess, it’s harder for a sixteen-year-old boy to tune out the noise and get blown away by P&P. Which is yet another sad commentary on our times.

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