Deborah Yaffe

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Radical dish-drying, Austen style

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 14 2020 02:00PM

How radical was Jane Austen? It's a topic of continuing debate: She’s been embraced as an icon of both traditional family values and subversive feminism, and it’s anyone’s guess what she would have called herself if she’d had access to our political vocabulary.


Apparently, however, she’s radical enough for the Radical Tea Towel company.


Until a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the existence of the Radical Tea Towel company, a family-owned business launched nearly a decade ago in Wales. As you’d expect, they sell tea towels – that’s dish towels, to us Americans – printed with snippets of left-wing history: a facsimile of a women’s suffrage poster, say, or a picture of Maya Angelou or Charlotte Bronte or George Orwell, paired with an appropriate quotation from the author’s works.


The available-for-shipment-to-the-U.S. collection leans to American thinkers and activists – John Brown, Benjamin Franklin, Frances Perkins – whereas the British version is heavier on Clement Attlee, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and the Chartists. But there’s plenty of overlap, and luckily for the Anglophone Jane-o-sphere, Austen can be found on both sites.


The radical Austen tea towel features a wonderful line spoken by Anne Elliot during her conversation with Captain Harville at the White Hart, in chapter 23 of Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.”


There are several things I find refreshing about this particular piece of merchandise. First of all, it features a Jane Austen quote that was actually written by Jane Austen. Second, it’s a quote that hasn’t been ripped out of its ironizing context to mean something quite other than Jane Austen intended. And third, it’s not a swoonily romantic line that seems designed to be written in pink gel pen with a little purple heart dotting the i.


I have nothing against love and romance, not even love and romance in the works of Jane Austen. Indeed, that same chapter of Persuasion includes one of the most beautiful love letters in all of English literature. But Austen’s works are not primarily romances, and most of her best lines – including this one -- have little to do with love.


Not that you’d know it from the available merchandise. The line on the radical tea towel, for example, is hard to find inscribed on other portable property: My Google search turned up only a single example, a lowly fridge magnet. By contrast, search Etsy or Red Bubble for “You have bewitched me body and soul,” a not-in-Austen line from the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and you’ll have dozens of choices: T-shirts, jewelry, mugs, tote bags, wall decorations, decals, pillows, baby clothes, face masks – even a pocket knife.


Was Jane Austen a radical? Views differ. But everyone can use a tea towel.


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