Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen has been used and abused in so many different ways by now, pressed into service to sell everything from perfume to romance novels to white supremacy, that you’d think nothing could surprise us Janeites.


And yet I did find it a bit of a shock to learn about a recent Australian sexual harassment suit in which Austen was invoked – to defend the harasser.


Back in 2015-16, a solicitor named Owen Hughes, the principal of a small law firm in the Australian state of New South Wales, subjected a paralegal named Catherine Hill to an onslaught of unwanted advances.


He sent her frequent emails – some of them in “poor French,” according to a legal ruling -- professing his love and suggesting romance. In the office, he stood in her doorway, refusing to move until she supplied him with hugs. And on a business trip, he twice entered her bedroom – once surprising her as she returned from a shower wrapped only in a towel, and once waiting on her mattress, clad in an undershirt and boxer shorts. (On that occasion, he declined to leave until she gave him – yes – a hug.) To top it all off, he threatened to undermine her professional training if she reported his bad behavior.


Eventually, the poor woman quit and sued, winning $170,000 in damages last year. Her sleazeball boss appealed, losing his case late last month in a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel.


His defense? His behavior couldn’t be sexual harassment because it wasn’t sexual; it consisted merely of honorable requests for love and affection, just like Mr. Darcy’s advances to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. (Yes, the harasser literally compared himself to Mr. Darcy.)


The judges in the case were, understandably, incredulous at this argument. “I reject the submission of Senior Counsel for the Appellant that these were the actions of a Mr. Darcy,” appeals court Justice Nye Perram wrote in rejecting Hughes’ appeal. “The facts of this case are about as far from a Jane Austen novel as it is possible to be.”


Although I’m delighted to see a wronged woman winning her day in court, I have to quibble slightly with Justice Perram’s formulation, which betrays a narrow understanding of the works of Our Author.


It’s certainly true that Hughes is no Mr. Darcy, but what about Mr. Collins, who initially refuses to accept that Elizabeth’s no means no? Or Mr. Elton with Emma: “her hand seized -- her attention demanded”? Or Henry Crawford, intent on making “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart,” regardless of Fanny's preferences in the matter?


Jane Austen knew this type of man. The facts of Hughes’ creepy coerciveness aren’t actually all that far from an Austen novel. Hughes' mistake came in identifying himself with the hero.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 3 2020 09:00AM

The proliferation of face masks in every conceivable style, color, fabric, and design is either an encouraging sign of inexhaustible human creativity and entrepreneurship, or a really depressing indicator of how long the coronavirus is likely to be with us.


By now, it’s possible to buy luxury face masks in pastel-colored silk, or Disney Princess-themed face masks for small children, or slightly creepy face masks featuring your favorite breed of dog. So it should come as no surprise that if you’re looking for a Jane Austen-themed face mask, your choices are practically infinite.


A small sampling:


* Jane Austen quotes: The first line of Pride and Prejudice, the first line of Wentworth’s letter, the best line from Love and Freindship . . . But how will anyone read all this from six feet away?


Or perhaps you would prefer a quote that’s been ripped out of context? Step right up!


Or a misattributed movie quote? Yes, indeed! And again!


* Book cover: The famous 1894 peacock edition of Pride and Prejudice? Right here, on your face, in purple. Or in blue!


* Images of Austen: No, of course it probably doesn’t look like her, but whatever!


* Sanditon fan? They’ve got you covered. Plus a backup.


* Janeite pride: “Jane Austen Rocks”? Well, duh!


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 30 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen lived a very long time ago, in a world whose gender roles, social conditions, and technological context are largely alien to us. It’s likely that our world would seem equally incomprehensible to her.


But that hasn’t prevented any number of writers from regaling us with accounts of What Jane Would Say about. . . modern dating, or wellness regimens, or job-hunting. Of course, all these people were just putting words in her mouth, since poor Jane couldn’t speak for herself.


Until now.


Yes, at last Jane Austen is talking back. And not just Jane Austen! Get ready for conversations with a host of famous artists and scientists, from Isaac Newton and Marie Curie to Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock.


The project, created by a novelist and magician named Andrew Mayne, relies on artificial intelligence software from the research lab OpenAI “to create simulated conversations with virtual historical figures,” according to an online account at the technology news site The Next Web. “The system first works out the purpose of the message and the intended recipient by searching for patterns in the text. It then uses the [software’s] internal knowledge of that person to guess how they would respond in their written voice.”


Every Janeite has a mental list of the questions she would ask Jane Austen, if presented with the opportunity: questions about her writing process, say, or her opinions on the political controversies of her day, or that thing with Tom Lefroy.


Mayne didn’t ask Artificial Intelligence Jane Austen about any of that, alas. He asked how her characters would use social media.


“I’d have Emma promote her self-published book on Facebook,” AIJA replied. “I’d have Emma update her status with a lament about the deplorable state of the publishing industry in a desperate attempt to get her Facebook friends to buy her book.”


From an AI point of view, I guess it’s impressive that AIJA writes reasonably idiomatic English prose. And it’s reassuring to discover that Jane Austen is just as clueless about book marketing as any other struggling author.


But really: Emma wrote a book? As if! She can’t even muster the discipline to read one!


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 27 2020 01:00PM

Tom Lefroy’s house is crumbling away.


To Janeites, this may seem poetic justice for the young Irishman who danced and flirted with the twenty-year-old Jane Austen in the winter of 1795-6. If, as some believe, he broke her heart by bowing to family pressure to cut short his budding love affair with a not-rich girl, then presumably we must hate him: How dare anyone hurt Our Jane?


So perhaps it’s karma that Carrigglas, the nineteenth-century mansion in County Longford where Lefroy and, later, his descendants lived from early in the 1800s until 2005, is now one of the ten most at-risk historic buildings in Ireland. Carrigglas made the annual list issued recently by An Taisce, the non-profit organization that oversees Ireland’s historic preservation efforts, just as the National Trust does in most of the United Kingdom.


Carrigglas’ architecture is classed as Tudor revival, with an older stableyard and entrance gates designed by well-known English architect James Gandon. Judging from the pictures, the house’s turreted gray façade is striking, if a bit forbidding, in a Mr.-Rochester’s-wife-in-the-attic kind of way.


The last Lefroys to own the estate sold to developers, who had planned to convert the property to luxury housing. Instead, the end of Ireland’s economic boom ushered in fifteen years (and counting) of vacancy and neglect; the depressing results are chronicled in this short film and this blog post. The whole saga is a reminder of what might have happened to Chawton House, the Hampshire mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, had Sandy Lerner and her Silicon Valley fortune not come to the rescue.


In retrospect, of course, the Lefroy family may have bet on the wrong horse: If they had owned a crystal ball, Jane Austen might have looked like a better marital prospect, what with the book sales and the movie rights, the licensing deals on fridge magnets and tote bags, the tourism possibilities and the pop-culture ubiquity. Surely a clever lawyer such as Tom Lefroy would have found a way to get around the pesky expiration of copyright?


But perhaps we Janeites should consider Tom Lefroy’s decision in a different, more charitable light. If he had married Jane Austen and taken her off to Ireland, she might have ended up the exhausted and preoccupied mother of many children – Lefroy and the woman he actually married raised seven sons and daughters – rather than the author of six great novels. Personally, I’d rather have the incomparable Emma Woodhouse than a passel of obscure little Emma Lefroys.



By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 23 2020 01:00PM

The havoc that pandemic lockdown has wreaked on an array of arts and cultural organizations is old news by now. Janeites have seen a number of beloved annual events canceled, postponed, or moved online, and last month, the premier Austen site – Jane Austen’s House, aka Chawton Cottage, the home in Hampshire, England, where the author spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – made a desperate crowdfunding appeal to stave off closure.


Perhaps it was the success of that campaign, which to date has raised more than £20,000 (about $25,000) above its initial goal of £75,000 (nearly $95,000), that inspired the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, to launch its own fundraising effort. The Centre’s appeal has a more modest goal of £15,000 (nearly $19,000) and, with a few more days to go, it’s still short of its target. Donate enough, and you can get a year of free admission to the Centre, plus goodies like cream teas and champagne in the Centre's tea room.


The Centre’s woes are all too familiar: It relies on the income generated by its 150,000 yearly visitors, and with lockdown, that income has vanished. Without an infusion of cash, the director told a local news outlet, the Centre may have to lay off staff, potentially including Martin Salter, the Regency-costumed greeter who has become known as “the most photographed man in Britain.”


I’m of two minds about this fundraiser. The Jane Austen Centre, which opened in 1999, is a small and, to my taste, rather touristy museum that contains not a single genuine Austen artifact and is located in a building that Jane Austen never lived in. Its demise would not represent a significant loss to literary history.


On the other hand, as the comments of donors to the appeal attest, many Janeites love the place, its gift shop, and the annual Jane Austen Festival that it sponsors each fall, which draws an international crowd of fans, many in Regency costume. (The twentieth iteration of the festival, originally scheduled for September, was canceled two months ago.)


On the third hand, no one wants to see a thriving small business fall victim to the coronavirus: We’re seeing too much of that already. So go ahead: There’s no harm in donating, especially if you have a hankering for cream tea.


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