Deborah Yaffe

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Missing pieces

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 15 2018 02:00PM

From time to time, you happen across a story that makes clear how entirely some people miss the point of Jane Austen.


For instance, when you learn that an effort to commemorate her ethically rigorous work with a dozen brass paving-stone plaques has been temporarily thwarted because a thief walked off with two of the plaques, literally before the glue had dried.


Such was last weekend’s sad (but, let’s face it, also kind of hilarious -- at least that part is Austenian) story from Basingstoke, England. Last month, it seems, local officials and heritage organizations set out to install a Jane Austen trail in Basingstoke, the big town nearest to the Hampshire village of Chawton, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life.


The trail is meant to include twelve plaques, each containing a few words from one of two Austen quotes. To reconstruct the quotes in their entirety, you must follow the trail, which ends at the Austen statue erected last year in the town center.


Somewhat oddly, this particular Austen commemoration was apparently inspired by a far sadder and more serious piece of public art: the Stolperstein (stumbling stone) project, originated in Germany in 1992, in which commemorative paving stones mark the last homes in which Holocaust victims lived before they emigrated, died, or were deported to concentration camps.


The launch of the more light-hearted Austen project was planned for October 28, but as local tour operator Phil Howe was installing the plaques, an enterprising thief apparently moved in right behind him. “Whoever stole them must have acted pretty quickly,” Howe told the local paper, “as the product I used to put them in place is pretty stern stuff once it sets.”


I'm still trying to figure out what value two brass plaques etched with a few random words could possibly have. Can you melt them down for scrap? Search me.


Just to add an extra touch of irony, however, one of the quotes rendered less than comprehensible by the plundering expressed the twenty-four-year-old Jane Austen’s unflattering evaluation of the available pickings at a local ball: “There was a scarcity of men in general, and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much” (Letter #24 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The other quote – the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice – is so familiar to Janeites that we could recite it even if a thief stole all its plaques.


Nevertheless, the local Austen boosters plan to replace the stolen items -- assuming the thief fails to behave as Jane Austen would certainly require, and return them at once.


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