Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 28 2020 02:00PM

Fifty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

When Jane Austen sat down to write a letter to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 222 years ago today, she wasted no time on preliminaries before communicating a momentous bit of family news.

“Frank is made,” Jane began her letter (#16 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “He was yesterday raised to the Rank of Commander, & appointed to the Petterel Sloop, now at Gibraltar.—A Letter from [George] Daysh [a clerk in the Navy Office] has just announced this, & as it is confirmed by a very friendly one from Mr Mathew to the same effect transcribing one from Admiral Gambier to the General, We have no reason to suspect the truth of it.”

A world of Austen family social history is contained in these brief lines.

Twenty-four-year-old Frank Austen, the brother who fell between Cassandra and Jane in age, had joined the Royal Navy at barely twelve years old. His promotion to commander – a commissioned officer rank one step below captain -- was a promising sign for his future naval career. Indeed, after distinguishing himself in the naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars, the middle-aged Frank would eventually win promotion to admiral, although his doting sister Jane would not live long enough to enjoy that milestone.

Frank was by all accounts an able officer, but his promotion was not due to merit alone, as Austen’s letter makes clear. “Mr Mathew,” “Admiral Gambier,” and “the General” were all relations of Anne Mathew, the by-then-deceased first wife of the oldest Austen brother, James: Her father was General Edward Mathew, his brother was Mr. Daniel Mathew, and Daniel Mathew’s daughter Louisa was married to Admiral James Gambier, later to be made a baron. By the time Jane informed Cassandra of Frank’s promotion, the Austen family had been expecting the news for weeks, because this in-law patronage network had assured them that wheels were turning on his behalf.

For a genteel but not-rich clan like the Austens, cultivating and deploying such useful bonds of kinship played a necessary part in ensuring each family member’s future – a strategy so completely expected that Jane felt no need to comment on it to Cassandra, let alone to deplore the way this second-hand nepotism tarnished the Navy’s supposed meritocracy. No wonder Lady Russell, in Persuasion, disapproves of Captain Wentworth, a man with no private fortune who is seeking advancement in a dangerous profession while possessing “no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession.”

Cassandra Austen undoubtedly shared her sister’s joy in Frank’s good news. Why wasn’t Cassandra home to join in the celebrations? Because she was in Kent, on one of her frequent visits to the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, at the stately home he had inherited from the childless cousins who adopted him. In Jane Austen’s era, for women and men alike, cultivating kinship networks was a never-ending job – but a potentially profitable one.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2020 02:00PM

On March 2, I reported the happy news that a theatrical adaptation of Emma – written by Kate Hamill, the actor/playwright whose madcap versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have been widely produced – would premiere in April at Minneapolis’ venerable Guthrie Theater.

Well, you can guess how that turned out.

But all is not lost for fans of Hamill’s Austen: A costumed reading of this new Emma – online, of course -- will take place over the next two weekends. The show is sponsored by Shakespeare & Company, which usually produces summer theater in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts.

Emma will be performed – live, apparently – at 7 pm (Eastern time) on December 26-27 and January 2-3. Although all four performances are free, you have to register ahead of time to get the link; it’s not clear to me whether the performances will be available for time-shifted viewing or must be watched as they occur, although I assume the latter.

Either way, an early peek at Hamill’s latest literary adaptation is an unexpected and tasty New Year’s treat.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 21 2020 02:00PM

The opening credits of Modern Persuasion, which began streaming Friday on a small screen near you, scroll through a litany of actors, producers, screenwriters, directors. . . and yet one name is strangely absent. That would be the name of Jane Austen, on whose last completed novel this pallid, charm-free update is based.

And yet Modern Persuasion actually hews closer to Austen’s plot and characters than do many other alleged Austen spinoffs. (I’m looking at you, Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe.) Wren is a fortyish singleton who, years earlier, took her aunt’s advice and dumped her college boyfriend, Owen. Now he’s the CEO who hires her struggling PR company to launch his new social networking site – meanwhile flirting energetically with her hot young colleague, while Wren bonds with his melancholy, age-appropriate deputy.

Along the way to the foregone conclusion, there are Jane Austen Easter eggs aplenty. Wren works for a struggling family business called Keller Keller Lynch, whose straitened finances have forced a relocation from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Owen runs a flourishing Silicon Valley-based enterprise called Laconia. Her glum cat is named Wentworth. His glum colleague is named Benson. There’s a vain, profligate older man and a smarmy, insinuating younger one, a scheming sycophant and a worrisome head injury.

Alas, our heroine, Wren (Alicia Witt), is a mildly annoying cliché, the workaholic spinster whose life revolves around her cat. Our hero, Owen (Shane McRae), is a bland cipher with zero charisma. Together, the two give off fewer sparks than a string of faulty Christmas lights. Meanwhile, the script’s idea of witty banter is to have a character remark that Brooklyn’s air “smells like hipster.” OK, I’ll admit that I did giggle when Wren and the heartbroken Benson discover a shared love of Joy Division and the Smiths, in place of their prototypes’ bonding over the saddest bits of Byron and Scott. But for the most part, this is a romcom lacking both rom and com.

Although Modern Persuasion was apparently intended for theatrical release until COVID came along and bid goodbye to all that, the production values are not much better than standard-issue Hallmark Channel. A fancy gala in the Hamptons looks about as chic as a middle-school dance, and Wren, the successful New York PR professional, seems to wear only baby-girl ruffled shirt-fronts and garish old-lady flower prints. Even a newborn infant is represented by an unconvincing swaddle of blankets. Apparently, the budget didn’t stretch to an actual baby.

But the most serious shortcoming is the one that bedevils so many Persuasion updates: As I’ve noted before, it’s difficult to make sense of Austen’s central conflict – love vs. duty, passion vs. prudence, all that jazz – in a modern world with such different social, economic, and gender expectations.

This time around, we’re asked to believe that Wren’s aunt discouraged her from giving up a post-college internship and moving to San Francisco with Owen because “no man should ask you to put his career ahead of yours.” Fair enough, but – no one floated a compromise? A West Coast internship? A long-distance relationship? A move in six months? Keeping in touch over email? None of it makes much sense, and Wren’s palpable unhappiness undermines the supposedly feminist message. You think you can have it all, girlfriend? Ha! It’s work or love, baby, not both! Nor is it clear why, after those long years of separation, the still-lovelorn Owen decides to get closer to his ex by flying across the country and hiring her company. Why doesn’t he just stalk her on social media, like a normal person?

At least one mystery gets cleared up by the end: Stick around for the final credits, in which cartoon Instagram posts fill in the cozy aftermath of Wren and Owen’s reconciliation, and you’ll glimpse one that reads, “Based on Jane Austen’s #Persuasion.” Given what’s on screen here, however, maybe Austen was better off as a silent partner.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 17 2020 02:00PM

Despite the strangeness of this year, some eternal verities remain. Snowflakes. Evergreens. Misquoting of Jane Austen.

A few highlights of the season:

* “Here’s 15 percent off to celebrate our new friendship,” the bookstore chain Books-A-Million exulted in the subject line -- punctuated with a party-popper emoji! – of an email it sent me following a recent order.

“Chapter 1: A Brand New Friendship,” the message continued. (Get it? Bookstore chain? Chapter 1?) And then the kicker: “ ‘There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.’ – Jane Austen.”

As I’ve noted before, this oft-quoted line from Northanger Abbey – while genuinely the work of the author Jane Austen and thus not, in one sense, a misquote -- is, in context, hardly the full-throated tribute to friendship that Books-A-Million clearly intends it to be. Instead, it is the insincere self-representation of manipulative Isabella Thorpe, who sees all relationships in purely transactional terms.

Come to think of it, then, maybe it’s not a misquote at all; perhaps it’s actually the perfect quote for a retail promotion. Isabella Thorpe is just the kind of person who would consider a fifteen percent discount to be a true mark of friendship.

* Getting married over Zoom doesn’t permit you to dispense with every wedding chore, notes Elite Daily, an online news platform for millennial women.

“Even if everyone's not together dancing at a reception venue, you'll still need some Instagram captions for virtual wedding pics you take,” writer Rachel Chapman reminded her readers last month, in a listicle offering “40 Instagram Captions For Virtual Wedding Pics & Celebrating The Love At Home.”

Thirty-nine of the forty captions -- alternately saccharine (“True love couldn’t wait to say ‘I do’ ”) and would-be-witty (“A wedding that even my cat could attend”) -- appear to be Chapman’s own work. Number fourteen, however, is this: “My heart is, and will always be, yours. – Jane Austen.”

I suppose it is pointless to note that Jane Austen never wrote these words, which come from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I suppose it is even less pointful to note that this rendition slightly garbles Thompson’s original --“My heart is, and always will be, yours” -- thereby ruining the rhythm of the line.

You might wonder why Chapman, content to leave thirty-nine of her forty Instagrammable sentiments unsigned, felt compelled to attribute the last one to someone who didn’t even write it. The answer, as usual, is AustenBranding: sprinkle a bit of Jane on top, and voilà -- Classy Romance. Perfect for the Instagram version of your life.

* “You bewitch me body and soul,” proclaims the “Jane Austen drawstring bag” retailing on Red Bubble for $30.30. “I love, I love, I love you.”

To her credit, bag designer Rachel Vass is not entirely guilty of false advertising, since the bag itself – unlike the online listing for it – attributes the line to “Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice.” Strictly speaking, this is an accurate attribution, if we are talking about the Mr. Darcy in the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and not, as the listing asserts, “Pride and prejudice novel book quote.”

On the other hand, devotees of the movie will surely notice that Vass has garbled her quote, which should read, “You have bewitched me body and soul.” (Suitable for Instagram, maybe?)

If you’re still in the market for a drawstring bag but prefer your Austen quotes to be from Austen, Vass has another possibility for you, however: a bag reading, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. – Jane Austen.”

“One of my favourite quotes by Mr Darcy in pride and prejudice by Jane Austen,” Vass explains. Except, of course, that the line is spoken by Mr. Knightley, in Emma.

Before you ask: Yes, I do realize that, this year especially, we have more important things than online Austen sloppiness to worry about. But isn't it nice to worry about some of the less important things for awhile?

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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