Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 3 2020 02:00PM

The reimagining of Chawton House, the Austen-connected stately home and research library in Hampshire, England, continues apace – which is good news for Janeites.

In the latest dispatch from the trenches, Emma Yandle, Chawton’s new curator and collections manager, stars in a video aimed at North American donors that highlights the ongoing effort to rehang Chawton’s collection of portraits of female writers, artists, and actors. The new arrangements wlll make the best work more accessible to visitors and emphasize connections among the women who made the paintings and those depicted in them, Yandle explains.

The seven-minute video is an amateur effort, complete with shaky camera movements and inconvenient lights reflected off painted surfaces, but Yandle, barely a month into her job, communicates an infectious enthusiasm for Chawton’s potential.

As blog readers will recall, Chawton House, a library for the study of early English writing by women, which is housed in an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s older brother Edward Knight, has weathered a tough few years since its founder and chief patron, Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, withdrew her financial support. Fingers crossed that brighter times lie ahead.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 30 2020 02:00PM

In September, we suspected. We hoped. We crossed our fingers. And now it’s confirmed. In perhaps the least likely household on Planet Earth, a nest of Jane Austen fans has apparently hatched.

Yes, it’s true. The Kardashians are Janeites.

Four months ago, blog readers will recall, Kourtney Kardashian, the eldest of the K-named tribe, posted an Instagram shot of herself draped across an empty bathtub reading a handsome hardback of Emma. Admittedly, it was all in the service of selling an essential-oil diffuser, but still.

Then, last week, Khloe Kardashian, third of that line, posted snapshots on Instagram of her daughter True’s bookshelves. And there, strewn oh-so-casually amid a set of pink-flowered teacups, were copies of Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. No word on whether these are gifts from Aunt Kourtney, but there’s no essential-oil diffuser in sight, so perhaps not.

With little True Thompson apparently a newly minted member of the family book club, we now face the possibility of not one but two generations of Kardashian Janeites. Given that True won't celebrate her second birthday until April, however, we may have to wait awhile before we can be certain she shares her foremothers’ excellent taste in literature.

I realize that the more cynical among you may argue that the Kardashians’ conspicuous Austen-love is all for appearances’ sake, a calculated brand-management effort designed to convey Girly Yet Smart. You may be ungenerously tempted to bring up Miss Bingley’s efforts to read the second volume of Mr. Darcy’s book, or Mrs. Elton and her Italian endearments.

But no! I refuse! I prefer to think that the Kardashian women have developed an appetite for lucid prose and biting social satire, to go along with the bikinis and bling.

Really, though, the only thing that will settle this dispute is for Kim Kardashian West to add her vote. Perhaps an Instagram shot of her beach basket, with a copy of Mansfield Park nestled amid the high-thread-count towels and organic sunscreen? A selfie with a Sense and Sensibility paperback tucked into a plunging neckline? An arty photo of a pensive Kim, captioned “You pierce my soul”? The possibilities are endless.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 27 2020 02:00PM

Last December, the owner of a very trendy new car got into a minor accident on an English roadway.

And thus we learned some exciting news: Jane Austen drives a Tesla.

Earlier this month, a person going by a rather famous name posted a twenty-five-second video clip on YouTube showing how a Tesla on autopilot failed to compensate adequately for a narrowing lane, side-swiped a parked car, and sheared off a mirror.

Oh, fine. I admit that “Jane Austen” is probably a pseudonym chosen by a Janeite with an excessive faith in self-driving technology.

Still, I prefer to imagine a twenty-first century Austen who has adopted a full slate of liberal environmental views and finds herself in a position to collect on her copyrights. She’s woke enough to opt for an electric car and, although wealthy enough – all those TV residuals! -- to afford Tesla’s most expensive models, she retains the frugality acquired during her years of struggle.

Therefore, she opts for the more affordable Model 3 (starting price $36,000, as compared to at least double that for the top of the line). She shifts into autopilot, leaving her hands free to jot down some ideas for Novel #7, and – thwack! No more mirror. But totally worth it for that new novel.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 23 2020 02:00PM

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

It’s an occupational hazard of the writing life that once you’re known to be an author, everyone in your life will want you to read their stuff. This works great if you are, say, the historian and author Timothy Garton-Ash, and the friend who wants you to read his new novel is Ian McEwan.

If you are Jane Austen, however, the people who want you to read their stuff will be your unevenly talented nieces and nephews.

And so it was that in January 1817, one of the world’s greatest novelists spent her evening listening to her eighteen-year-old nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen -- who was known to his family as Edward and would later take the name Austen-Leigh -- as he read aloud from his novel in progress.

“He read his two Chapters to us the first Evening;--both good—but especially the last in our opinion,” Austen wrote to Edward's little sister, 11-year-old Caroline, exactly 203 years ago today (#149 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “We think it has more of the Spirit & Entertainment of the early part of his Work, the first 3 or 4 Chapters, than some of the subsequent.--Mr Reeves is charming--& Mr Mountain--& Mr Fairfax--& all their day’s sport.—And the introduction of Emma Gordon is very amusing.—I certainly do altogether like this set of People better than those at Culver Court.”

This wasn’t the first time Austen had mentioned Edward’s novel: six weeks earlier, in a letter to Edward himself, Austen had commiserated on the apparent disappearance of two and a half chapters of his manuscript – and, in perhaps the most famous passage in all her letters, described her own work as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”

Could those missing two and a half chapters, luckily rediscovered, have been the very two chapters that Edward read to his aunts at Steventon weeks later? Impossible to know: Austen-Leigh became a clergyman and apparently never finished his novel, with its familiar-sounding character names. (Le Faye reports that some pages survive in the Hampshire Record Office.) What is clear, however, is how generously Jane Austen nurtured her young relative’s literary aspirations.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 20 2020 02:00PM

“I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.”

“. . . . So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. . . . I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.”

--Northanger Abbey, ch. 22

January is a dreary month here in New Jersey, so I’ve sought a new source of enjoyment by sprouting a hyacinth bulb (pictured above) on my windowsill. It will be months before it’s warm enough to plant the result outside, so I suppose in the meantime I’ll have to make do with this slightly creepy alternative:

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