Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, May 22 2017 01:00PM

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

By May 1817, Jane Austen was gravely ill, just surfacing from an attack that had kept her mostly bedridden for more than a month. But in the letter she wrote exactly two centuries ago today – the last surviving letter she sent from her beloved home in Chawton -- she speaks more of her gratitude than of her suffering.

“How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!—Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious!—And as for my Sister!—Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me,” Austen writes to her friend Anne Sharp, in letter #159 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection.”

Lest we worry that on her deathbed, our adored, acerbic Jane Austen morphed into one of those Pollyannaish “pictures of perfection” that, as she had told her niece Fanny two months earlier, made her “sick and wicked,” the ailing Austen still manages a waspish remark or two.

Her less-than-adored sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd Austen, the wife of the oldest Austen brother, James, was lending the family carriage to transport Jane and her sister, Cassandra, to Winchester for medical treatment, and Austen appreciates the favor – up to a point.

“Now, that’s a sort of thing which Mrs J. Austen does in the kindest manner!” Austen writes. “But still she is in the main not a liberal-minded Woman.” Nor does Austen expect Mary’s recent good fortune – the news that James would inherit the property of his wealthy, lately deceased uncle upon the death of his widowed aunt – to improve her character.

“Expect it not my dear Anne;--too late, too late in the day,” Austen writes. “--& besides, the Property may not be theirs these ten years. My Aunt is very stout.” (Indeed, James did not live to inherit – he survived only two more years, while his aunt lived for another nineteen; the property passed to his son. People always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them, as Fanny Dashwood noted.)

Two days after sending her letter to Anne Sharp, Jane Austen left Chawton for the last time. Eight weeks later, she died in Winchester.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 18 2017 01:00PM

Forty-one is a tragic number for Janeites – the all-too-young age at which Jane Austen left this world exactly two centuries ago, at the height of her artistic powers. So it seems a tad ghoulish for Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton to have selected that number as the theme of its nine-month-long bicentenary exhibition, “Jane Austen in 41 Objects.”

Still, this is merely a quibble, since the exhibition itself – at least as far as I can tell from its online presence – seems endearing and delightful. Each week, the museum’s website features one object, accompanied by a blog post explaining its significance in Austen’s life and/or the museum’s collection. Some of the objects will be on display all year – the exhibition, which began in March, ends on December 15, the day before Austen’s 242nd birthday – and others only for a portion of that time.

Doled out at the rate of one per week, the objects featured so far have ranged from the familiar (Austen’s writing desk, the topaz crosses her sailor brother Charles sent his sisters) to the more obscure (a muslin shawl Austen may have embroidered, a needle case she gave to one of her nieces). Bloggers have included university scholars and museum staff.

All in all, it’s yet another entry on the growing list of enviable Austen bicentenary events occurring in sadly distant locales. Pretty soon, I suspect, the items on that list will number more than forty-one.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 15 2017 01:00PM

“To put it bluntly, he was screwing her.”

It’s not every day that my Jane Austen Google alert yields a line like that. Especially when the screw-ee in question is alleged to be the thirteen-year-old Jane Austen.

Read it and weep: An Australian writer claims that Our Jane was the barely pubescent lover of a dashing, possibly criminal Irish-born surgeon nearly fourteen years her senior who emigrated to Australia and became an important public figure in the young colony. The surgeon’s name? D’Arcy Wentworth.

The author of the newly released, apparently self-published Jane and D’Arcy: Folly is Not Always Folly, the first of a projected two volumes, is Wal Walker, himself a Wentworth descendant. Unsurprisingly, he’s certain that his new discovery – based on “research into both their lives and a detailed reading of Austen’s writing” -- will blow the fusty world of Jane Austen scholarship wide open.

“Jane Austen ‘people’ are in fear of recognizing it,” Walker told the Weekend Australian. “This will change the whole way Jane Austen is viewed.’’

Austen first crossed paths with the oh-so-fascinating Wentworth when she was a ten-year-old schoolgirl in Reading, Walker says. “There was no romance, but he kissed her hand,’’ Walker explains. Things hotted up a couple of years later, when Wentworth landed in the employ of an apothecary in Alton, a town in Austen’s home county of Hampshire.

From there, Walker suggests, the romance proceeded apace, culminating in a secret wedding, undertaken before Wentworth, pursued by charges of highway robbery, decamped for Botany Bay aboard a ship that left port right around Austen’s fourteenth birthday. But they kept in touch via letter, and Austen was so deeply attached that she named the hero of Pride and Prejudice after her exiled love, just so she could hear his name read aloud.

At this point, those of us who’ve read Jane Austen’s letters, her family’s reminiscences of her life, and perhaps a biography or two may be wondering how this passionate episode slipped our minds. Not to worry: Walker acknowledges that he doesn’t have any of what the reporter calls “explicit evidence” – aka evidence – of the connection; he’s just figured out “where and when they might have met, and what brought them together,” a (surprisingly sympathetic) reviewer writes.

I will not bother pointing out how utterly ludicrous this tale is, in every particular; the estimable Susannah Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, has done so elegantly. (“There is no factual basis for it, so you have to say it’s not true,” Fullerton notes, tactfully but firmly.)

No, I’d prefer to focus on what seems to be Walker’s bedrock rationale for pursuing this silly fantasia. To wit: “She couldn’t have written those books without experiencing a love affair.”

Taken at face value, this claim is bizarre. It’s not as if Jane Austen’s novels contain detailed sex scenes, or even lengthy passages of lovey-dovey talk; they’re about virginal young women feeling their first serious attractions to respectable men who never attempt to steal so much as a pre-engagement kiss. How extensive does the writer’s personal romantic experience have to be before she can plausibly tell such stories?

But (Walker might argue): The emotion! The passion! The psychological depth! How could Austen possibly have portrayed all of that so compellingly if she hadn’t, say, screwed a surgeon in her early teen years?

Sigh. Haven’t we been down this road before? (See – or, preferably, don’t see – Becoming Jane.) The explanation is quite simple -- or, from another perspective, quite profound. It’s called imagination. Perceptiveness. Acuity in observation. You know – novelistic genius. Why do so many people find it easier to believe in a phantom love affair that left no trace in the historical record than in brilliant artistry that flowered into six great masterpieces?

By Deborah Yaffe, May 11 2017 01:00PM

In Austen studies, originality is hard to come by. The primary sources – novels, letters, family reminiscences, unfinished work – are relatively sparse, and everyone from amateur enthusiasts to dedicated scholars has pored over them for a century or more. Austen criticism crams the shelves of every academic library, and some two dozen biographers have done their best to recreate Austen’s life and times. Read a few of these Lives of Jane Austen and you’ll soon feel a creeping sense of familiarity.

In that context, it’s hard to know quite what to make of a plagiarism kerfuffle that the British press has ginned up this week.

In one corner: Paula Byrne, author of the well-regarded 2013 biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. In the opposite corner: Lucy Worsley, author of the new biography Jane Austen At Home, due out next week in the UK and this summer in the US.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 8 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen and sex: By now, you’ve heard all the arguments.

1. She’s a sex-free zone, where female modesty and male decorum are prized and celebrated. (And thank goodness for that.)

2. She’s a simmering cauldron of veiled sexual references, from Lydia Bennet’s ripped petticoat to Mary Crawford’s accomplished horseback riding. (The Regency was earthy; it’s the Victorians who were repressed prudes.)

3. She’s the ur-romance novelist, whose Elizabeth and Darcy would certainly have had a super-hot married life. (See under: seventy percent of Jane Austen fanfic.)

4. She’s the anti-romance novelist, who keeps pairing her heroines off with condescending father figures. (Sleep with Edmund Bertram? Ick! No, thank you!)

Clearly, what’s been missing from this discussion is a truly delightful piece of merchandise whose existence I learned of only recently: the Austen-themed condom. Turns out that for this year’s fourth annual Independent Bookstore Day, an April event celebrating places that are not Amazon or Barnes & Noble, participating retailers could lay in a stock of “literary condoms” – perfect for the reader in your bed.

Judging from the order form (scroll down for condom reference), only two designs were available this year: the Dickensian “Great Expectations” (no pressure!); and the Austen-themed “Give Me That Darcy,” in a package adorned with a cartoon of a pants-less Regency gentleman using his top hat in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. But Instagram evidence suggests that the line created last year by the San Francisco store The Booksmith also included two other designs: the Alice-inspired “Eat Me”; and “Dive Deep,” illustrated with a picture of a lasciviously grinning Great White Whale, clearly based on Moby Dick. (Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.)

The romantic possibilities here are obvious. We all have tests for our prospective partners – movies or books or songs that s/he must like, or it’s a dealbreaker. Now we can move that conversation to an even more intimate stage: can’t sleep with someone who fails to identify the literary reference on the condom package.

Alas, it doesn’t look like these adorably naughty items are available for purchase by the general public, except through indie booksellers stocking them for the celebration. Just for the record, though, the wholesale price was $47.88 for a package of twelve, or $3.99 per prophylactic. As a boring married person, I haven’t bought condoms in so long that I have no idea if this is a bargain or not. And whatever your views on Jane Austen and sex, I doubt she would have known, either.

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