Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 27 2018 01:00PM

When you’re off to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual conference, and the theme of that conference is Persuasion, it’s irresistible to quote the following exchange from the novel, the last one Austen finished before her death:


"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

"You are mistaken," said he gently; "that is not good company; that is the best.” (ch. 16)


And the best company is what I’m expecting over the next four days. JASNA’s annual general meeting, or AGM, is invariably a great time, with thought-provoking lectures, beautiful period costumes, energetic Regency dancing, excellent Austen-themed shopping, and quirky special sessions. (I’ve been looking forward to the “Cheese Tour of Jane Austen’s England” for two years.) But the highlight is the chance to talk Austen with fellow devotees.


Although Kansas City, where the conference is being held, is reputedly a pleasant locale, it’s quite possible that I will never leave the hotel, except for the occasional lunch. The cheese, and the conversation, will tide me over nicely.



By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen never lived alone. From her earliest days, she was surrounded by parents and siblings; on visits away from home, she stayed with friends and extended family. Her writing time was snatched in shared living spaces rendered temporarily quiet enough to facilitate mental concentration. Surely she must sometimes have been frustrated by the enforced companionship.


Perhaps that’s why I like to imagine her as she describes herself in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#89 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen was on a long visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s stately home in Kent, and most of the letter recounts the doings of Edward’s family, friends, and visitors. “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Even[in]g,” Austen wote.


By the time she finished the letter, however, the others had apparently scattered: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” Austen wrote, “—at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody.”


The poem in question is Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk,” published in 1782, which famously begins, “I am monarch of all I survey.” Selkirk was the marooned sailor whose story helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Cowper imagines him lonely and despairing, pining for human contact.


Austen’s ironic self-description – as she well knew, she was mistress of nothing, least of all Edward’s many expensive books -- suggests more satisfaction than despair: a moment of breathing-room snatched amid the doings of a busy household.


But not for long: by the time Austen finished the letter, a few paragraphs later, she had a message for the people back home in Chawton, courtesy of her eight-year-old niece: “Louisa’s best Love & a Hundred Thousand Million Kisses.”


Louisa was the ninth of Edward’s eleven children. She sounds adorable, and probably also exhausting. No wonder Austen found her moment of solitude in the library worth memorializing in print


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 20 2018 01:00PM

Last year, I blogged about Alejandra Carles-Tolra, a young Spanish photographer, based in London, who had won a competitive grant to photograph Jane Austen fans.


Carles-Tolra’s photo essay, “Where We Belong,” is now finished. Twenty-one photos are available on her website, and a selection accompanied a recent article in the Guardian about her subject: the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society, a smallish band of British Janeites, most of them female, who met a few years ago at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, and now get together regularly to dress in Regency clothing and do Austen-y things.


The JAPAS – I still don’t get the whole pineapple thing, but perhaps a commenter can enlighten me – was founded by Sophie Andrews, a Janeite who blogs at Laughing with Lizzie and is also a featured “ambassador” for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. *


Carles-Tolra’s photos -- which show JAPAS members strolling, napping, and leaping, Lizzy Bennet-like, over a gate in a verdant field -- aim to explore “themes of belonging, femininity and escapism” in this “community of like-minded people,” she writes.


I’ll leave it to the photography critics to decide how expertly Carles-Tolra presents those themes. For the rest of us, it’s fun to catch the allusions – check out her Regency-costumed version of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” – and ogle the beautiful gowns.



* The literacy foundation was established by collateral Austen descendant Caroline Jane Knight, a member of the last generation to grow up at Chawton House, down the road from the Hampshire cottage where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 17 2018 01:00PM

Dissing the members of the British royal family -- at least the popular ones -- is not for the faint of heart.


Jane Austen confined her criticism of the royals of her day to her private correspondence, where she revealed her dislike of the Prince Regent (later George IV) and her not-unmixed support for his slandered and abused wife, Princess Caroline.


Sandi Toksvig, the current co-host of TV’s Great British Bake Off – known to American audiences as The Great British Baking Show – was unwise enough to do her dissing in public.


Back in 2013, Toksvig, then known as a radio personality, told the Guardian that she wasn’t excessively impressed with Prince William’s willowy wife, the former Kate Middleton.


“Kate Middleton is not enough for me. We used to admire women who got their place in life through marriage and having children, but I like to think we've grown up a bit,” Toksvig said back then. “I can't think of a single opinion she holds – it's very Jane Austen.”


(The first quarter of 2013, not long after the announcement of the royal couple’s first pregnancy, was rife with Kontroversial Kate Kommentary: Just a few weeks before the Toksvig interview, novelist Hilary Mantel had caused a minor kerfuffle by comparing Princess Kate’s* public image to that of a “shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.”)


A few days ago, Toksvig took the opportunity to apologize for her 2013 remarks, insisting she had meant no offense and hoped that Kate had taken none. I, however, have a different view of the matter. It seems to me that the person who deserves Toksvig's apology isn’t Kate Middleton but Jane Austen.


Because whether you’re referring to the novelist herself or to her fictional heroines, there is nothing “very Jane Austen” about holding no opinions of anything. Elizabeth Bennet has no ideas of her own? Emma Woodhouse is a shrinking violet? Marianne Dashwood keeps her mouth shut and defers to the views of others? And don’t even get me started on the strong-minded woman who created these mouthy, opinionated characters.


As so often happens, "Jane Austen" in this context doesn't actually mean "the novelist Jane Austen," or "Jane Austen's books," or "Jane Austen's characters." Austen's name is used as shorthand, signifying a cluster of ideas, attitudes and social arrangements that she herself did not create and did not necessarily endorse.


Probably Toksvig meant to say that it is “very Jane Austen” for women to earn their social positions through marriage and childbearing. Fair enough: Austen does write about a world in which that’s the case. But that’s not “very Jane Austen”; it’s “very nineteenth-century patriarchy.”



* Oh, OK: the Duchess of Cambridge. But we all call her Princess Kate, don’t we?


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 13 2018 01:00PM

One of the occupational hazards of Janeite life is a heightened sensitivity to every mention of Jane Austen, no matter the context. Whatever you’re reading – a cookbook, a computer manual, an obituary column – if you stumble across an Austen sighting, that’s what will stick in your memory later.


Thus it was that my last few days’ perusal of the New York Times turned into a veritable festival of Janeite delight, as I ran across no fewer than three Austen mentions in three different sections of the paper.


* Saturday: As a subscriber, I get my physical copy of the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review a day early, and as usual I turned to the “By the Book” column, in which a famous or semi-famous author answers assorted questions about her/his reading life. This week’s participant, the excellent novelist Kate Atkinson, cited Pride and Prejudice as the last great book she’d read and Elizabeth Bennet as one of her favorite literary heroes. No quarrel there. *


* Sunday: I usually skip the business section – this may explain why I am not richer – but the headline on the day’s top story pulled me in: Young law student’s theory of anti-trust law could help bring Amazon to heel. (OK, yes, probably the book connection helped.)


Deep in the story came this cute anecdote, describing the recent marriage of the law student, Lina Khan, to cardiologist Shah Ali. “The honeymoon was in Hawaii,” the story explained. “Dr. Ali took Jane Austen’s Persuasion, because he hadn’t reread it in a while. Ms. Khan brought a book on corporations and American democracy.”


To which a Janeite can only say: Lina, honey, you’ve married the perfect man – a man who not only reads Austen but rereads her.


* Monday: I love the quirky, obscure stories in the obituary section, and this day featured the poignant tale of crime writer Amanda Kyle Williams and her untimely death at sixty-one. Although I’ve never read any of Williams’ books, I was pulled in by the headline, which mentioned her dyslexia. And my reward came right there in the sixth paragraph, after an account of Williams’ miserably illiterate childhood and eventual dyslexia diagnosis, at twenty-two.


“With the psychologist’s help, she learned to read, and at twenty-three she did something that had once filled her with dread: She walked into a library,” the obituary said. “There she finished her first book, Pride and Prejudice.“


Talk about starting at the top! And yet, unintimidated, Williams went on to write seven novels of her own. It’s quite a story.


Three days, three Austen sightings: Such is the life of a Janeite. OK, I admit that none came in a cookbook or a computer manual. But there’s always next week.



* Blog readers will recall that five years ago, I calculated that seventeen percent of the first fifty-eight “By the Book” subjects had mentioned Austen, one way or another. I haven’t kept track since then, but perhaps I should.


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