Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 1 2018 02:00PM

Do Jane Austen’s characters keep bars of soap handy for washing? This is one of the many details of Regency life that Austen does not discuss. My electronic search found not a single mention of the word “soap” in any of the finished novels.

Presumably, contemporary readers knew what hygiene habits were typical for the gentry class that populates her novels. Modern readers must rely on historical research, such as the account in this helpful blog post, which suggests that, in Austen’s era, bar soap was an expensive item, more accessible to the upper classes than to the poor.

Or we can just throw history to the winds and patronize our preferred purveyor of “Jane Austen soap” – i.e., attractively colored, scented and packaged bars labeled with Austen-inspired names. Think Jane Austen candles, and you’ll get the idea.

Judging from Google and Etsy, this niche market has practically spawned a cottage industry. There’s lavender-scented Jane Austen Bath Soap – “Suds and Sensibility,” the label reads. Don’t like lavender? Perhaps you would prefer Earl Grey, green tea, or sweet honeysuckle.

Tired of buying your Jane Austen soap from establishments that promiscuously mingle Austen-themed products with those based on the works of other writers, from Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelley to J.K. Rowling and Diana Gabaldon? Then there’s Northanger Soapworks (“handmade soap for the Jane Austen addict”), whose offerings include a tobacco-and-black-tea-scented soap called Captain Wentworth’s Constancy and an orange-scented soap named after Mary Bennet and decorated with a lace pattern.

Some of these soaps look good enough to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re that desperate for Austen-themed hygiene, stick with the Jane Austen toothpaste.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 26 2018 02:00PM

The Winter Olympics are over, but not without a fleeting Jane Austen moment.

Last week, as my daughter and I were sitting glued to the livestream of the ice dancing competition, I perked up when the announcers informed us that the German team of Kavita Lorenz and Joti Polizoakis would be setting their four-minute free skate to – and I quote -- “Pride and Prejudice.”

Since the Germans were probably not going to be skating to an Audible-style reading of Jane Austen’s immortal masterpiece, we were clearly about to hear a short excerpt from the soundtrack to one of the filmed adaptations of the novel. But which adaptation? NBC’s announcement provided no clue.

And then the swoonily romantic opening bars played, and all became clear. Although both Lorenz and Polizoakis were born in 1995, the year the BBC released its iconic Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt P&P, they skated to music from the 2005 film – aka the Keira Knightley version.

Maybe they should have gone with the music from the earlier, better adaptation. As it was, Lorenz and Polizoakis finished in sixteenth place.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 22 2018 02:00PM

Sometimes the English are just so. . . English that you can’t help giggling. And so it was earlier this month, when I happened across the story of a teapot tempest involving a Jane Austen-connected Cotswold village, a restored medieval church, a wealthy businessman, and a local historian with a distaste for nouveau riche pretensions.

Our scene is set in the Gloucestershire village of Adlestrop, population 80, which – along with the stately Warwickshire mansion Stoneleigh Abbey, which sits on 690 acres some twenty miles farther north -- was the ancestral home of the Leighs, the clan to which Jane Austen’s mother belonged. The family tree boasts a Lord Mayor of London, a duke’s sister, and a master of Balliol College, Oxford, but Mrs. Austen’s particular twig was less star-studded.

Still, Mrs. Austen was proud of her illustrious relatives, and Jane Austen certainly kept abreast of family news. In 1806, she even stayed at Stoneleigh Abbey with an elderly cousin who had just inherited the estate. Plausible speculation holds that Austen might have had the family chapel at Stoneleigh in mind when she imagined the family chapel at Sotherton, site of an important scene in Mansfield Park.

Back in Adlestrop, another branch of the Leighs lived for centuries at the less palatial (about 100 acres) but still plenty nice Adlestrop Park. By 1999, however, this property had passed to the family of a high-powered businessman with the appropriately Austenesque name of Collins. (That would be Dominic Collins, chair of international insurance broker Hyperion Insurance Group.) The Collinses restored the house and donated to renovation projects at the local church, St. Mary Magdalene.

So when Collins asked if he could put up a hatchment – a diamond-shaped plaque bearing a coat of arms – in the church to honor the memory of his late wife, the church agreed.

Enter the disgruntled historian: thirty-year Adlestrop resident Victoria Huxley, author of the 2013 book Jane Austen and Adlestrop: Her Other Family, which explores Austen’s links to the village. Huxley, it appears, didn’t think those upstart Collinses, no matter how much money they had given to fix up the church bells, had deep enough roots in the village to deserve a plaque.

Huxley, reports the Telegraph, told a church court that she was “very surprised that someone with a relatively short link to the village (compared to the age of the church) should seek to place their coat of arms in the church. . . . I feel that only a family which has strong ties over several generations should have such a display.”

(It’s not clear from the reporting whether the matter went to the church court, formally known as consistory court, because of Huxley’s objections, or whether the court had to approve any hatchment request regardless.)

If hearing about this rich stew of ecclesiastical politics, small-town class resentment, and officious meddling makes you feel that you have mistakenly wandered into a Trollope novel – well, you’re not alone. Personally, I can’t tell whether I’m more entertained by the pretentiousness of the whole coat-of-arms-on-a-plaque idea, or by the spectacle of the thirty-year village resident policing the Johnny-come-lately aspirations of the twenty-year village resident. It’s all quite delicious.

Alas, the final chapter of this saga may already have been written: Huxley lost the argument. "The Jane Austen connection does not preserve in aspic this Church,” the court wrote, clearing the way for the Collins hatchment.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 19 2018 02:00PM

Although it’s been a quiet few weeks on the Austen beat, at least compared with last year’s bicentenary frenzy, a few bits of Janeite news have come in over the transom. Herewith, a roundup:

* Garden seat: Bicentenary commemorations live on, as Jane Austen’s House Museum -- aka Chawton cottage, the Hampshire home where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – inaugurated its spring season this month by unveiling a Garden Memorial to Austen.

The memorial consists of two stone benches carved with a delightful quote from Austen’s 1816 letter to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, who had advised her to make her next book a “Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg.”

Deftly deploying self-deprecation to deflect this asinine suggestion, Austen replied, "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter."

The benches sit in view of the cottage, in a corner of the small garden – another landmark for Janeite visitors to check out when they’re next in Chawton.

* Quiz fail: Alas, British twenty-something Madeline Grant – familiar to readers of an earlier blog post -- lost in the semifinals of the beloved BBC quiz show Mastermind, despite correctly answering eleven questions on her specialty subject, Jane Austen’s life and works. (Apparently, she did less well on the test of general knowledge.)

The episode aired on February 9, but rights issues prevent viewing it on this side of the pond. Thus, I can’t tell you anything about the Austen questions, unless one of my intrepid readers knows of an – ahem! – less orthodox viewing method. Here’s hoping for a future Janeite Mastermind champ.

* Football and faux-Austen: One or two times in the past – OK, make that one or two hundred times – I have expressed, sometimes rather forcefully, my displeasure at the Internet’s habit of mistaking quotes from movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels for genuine Jane Austen quotes. (For one such post, click here.)

Sadly, my Sisyphean labor has yet to bear fruit, and the Internet is at it again. On Valentine’s Day last week, Linda Holliday, longtime girlfriend of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, posted to Instagram a photo of the happy couple relaxing on a beach vacation.

Underneath the photo, she wrote, “ ‘You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love ... I love ... I love you!’ ~ Pride and Prejudice” (A heart emoji was also involved, but I can't replicate it here.)

There is nothing wrong with Holliday's caption, since the sentence she quotes – swoonily romantic or irredeemably cheesy, depending on your taste – does, indeed, come from Pride and Prejudice. Not, however, from the Jane Austen novel of that name, but from the 2005 Joe Wright film adaptation of said novel.

The Internet does not understand this distinction.

“Holliday quoted Jane Austen from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ” the Boston Globe happily – and inaccurately – reported. Yes, agreed the gossip site The Smoke Room: Holliday was “quoting Jane Austen’s 19th century book ‘Pride And Prejudice.’ ”

Inevitably, the next person searching for the origins of the “body and soul” sentence will happen across the Globe’s attribution and, lulled into a false sense of security by the newspaper’s reputation for good journalism, will perpetuate the error.

What is to be done? A friend to whom I ranted about this latest idiocy reminded me of a famous line in the Jewish ethical teachings known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." The work of eradicating faux Austen quotes goes on.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 15 2018 02:00PM

They crop up regularly, those Janeite dream jobs. We read the announcements, and we think how lovely it would be to spend hours cataloguing artifacts at Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen wrote or revised all her completed novels, or dishing up tea and scones across the street at Cassandra’s Cup.

The latest such announcement, however, tops them all, because this Janeite dream job requires you to live at Chawton House, the restored Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. Yes, that’s right: Get the job of Deputy House Manager and you will live in a stately home where Jane Austen herself was a frequent visitor.

The job runs until December, pays a modest £25,000 (about $34,600) per year, and sounds (click through to the job description) as if it would require quite a lot of work: organizing group tours, running the gift shop, helping out in the tea room, assisting with special events and social media, and taking charge on the weekends. Depending how busy Chawton House gets – and, as blog readers will recall, it’s really, really hoping to get a lot busier – the job could be kind of a grind, for not much money.

And yet, ever since I read an interview with Caroline Knight, a member of the last generation of Austen descendants to live in Chawton House before American gazillionaire Sandy Lerner turned it into a library for the study of early English writing by women, I’ve thought of the house with a certain romantic nostalgia.

Living in a genuine Austen site: What an opportunity for a writer! Just breathing the air could probably ensure, if not literary immortality, then at least a couple of really good sentences. Alas, job applications were due on Saturday, so I guess I’ve missed my chance. I’ll have to look for my good sentences elsewhere.

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