Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 2 2017 01:00PM

Keeping track of the many Jane Austen celebrations, conferences, festivals, and exhibits taking place around the world – especially during this bicentennial year – has been a full-time job. (Or would have been, had I been making any attempt at completeness.)


But imagine if we Janeites were actually trying to attend all these events, like rock fans following the band in hopes of racking up maximum concert coverage. (We could call ourselves Janeheads! Or Austen Nation! Or. . . prizes given for better suggestions. . .)


If such a Janeite pastime existed, this weekend we’d all be heading for Seattle, where the University of Washington is hosting what sounds like a totally fun one-day JaneFest, featuring booths, workshops and presentations on such topics as Regency dress, food, dance and letter-writing, along with discussions of Austen’s work. The day concludes with a Regency ball, which was, predictably, sold out a very, very long time ago.


This week, the university was also planning three lead-up events: an Austen game night last Thursday, a Regency dance workshop yesterday, and tonight a Regency clothing workshop (also sold out) led by fashion historian and JASNA Regional Coordinator Agnes Gawne, who graciously hosted me two years ago, when I spoke to JASNA’s Puget Sound chapter.


Sadly, I won’t make it to Seattle this weekend, and heaven only knows what’s coming up the rest of the year. (I don’t, because, like I said, I haven’t really tried to keep up.) What a long strange trip it’s been. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 30 2017 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen’s books contain few young children, and those few are often disagreeable. While Isabella Knightley’s family in Emma and Charles Blake in The Watsons are rather endearing, only a mother could love the spoiled little Middletons in Sense and Sensibility, the excessively rambunctious junior Musgroves in Persuasion, or the noisy and quarrelsome Price siblings in Mansfield Park.


What all these portraits of children have in common is their unsentimental realism: Although Jane Austen was childless, she knew how children look and sound when they are demanding attention, insisting on staying up late, or asking for a favorite story. And she came by this knowledge honestly, via her relationships with the twenty-five nieces and nephews born in her lifetime.


Her rapport with those real-life children comes through vividly in the few surviving letters that she wrote to them, including the letter she wrote exactly 202 years ago today to her 10-year-old niece, Caroline Austen, the youngest child of Austen’s oldest brother, James.


Jane was in London to correct the proofs of Emma (and, soon after, to nurse her brother Henry through a sudden dangerous illness), and the family were celebrating the recent arrival of the first baby born to Caroline’s older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy.


“Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever You do,” Austen wrote the little girl with mock solemnity. “I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.” She keeps the joke going as she signs off, “Beleive me my dear Sister-Aunt, Yours affect[tionate]ly, J. Austen.”


The letter is charming because of the way that Austen simultaneously honors and gently mocks the self-centeredness of childhood – for Caroline, the most important thing about Anna’s baby is naturally the aunt-ly status its existence confers – while companionably implicating herself in the same self-centeredness. In the voice of that all-important aunt, it’s not hard to hear an echo of the wry, ironic outlook on human folly that we know so well from Austen’s novels.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 26 2017 01:00PM

Somewhere out there, lost lambs are baa-ing to return to the fold, and a group of scholarly Bo Peeps is ready to shepherd them home.


The little lambs in question are hundreds of books formerly owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight, whose estates at Godmersham and Chawton once housed libraries fine enough to satisfy even the exacting tastes of a Mr. Darcy.


In the two centuries since a catalog of the Godmersham library identified some 1,250 books, the Knight family fortunes have declined, and many volumes have scattered to the wind. (The remaining volumes belong to Chawton House Library, the library for the study of early English writing by women that is now housed in the Knights’ restored Chawton House.)


Earlier this month, three Austen scholars – Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Deborah Barnum, a board member of the North American Friends of Chawton House Library who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont; and Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Canada – announced the formation of a group whimsically entitled the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society, or GLOSS. (Barnum in fact began posting about the group months ago.)


GLOSS’ goal is to track down the scattered Knight family volumes, whose inner covers bear one of the three bookplates of Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Edward Knight. (See the three bookplate designs here.) Locating the lost volumes will help to reconstruct the literary context that influenced Jane Austen, since she visited Edward’s family and had access to both his libraries.


Last February, while inspecting the Austen collection of a Texas Janeite, Barchas stumbled across an incredible find: Chawton’s copies of all six Austen novels, in the 1833 Bentley edition that brought Austen back into print for the first time after her death. The owner of the volumes, Sandra Clark, donated the books to Chawton House Library, and clearly GLOSS hopes other collectors who happen across one of Montagu George Knight’s bookplates will do the same: As regular blog readers will recall, cash-strapped Chawton is in no position to buy anything right now.


Failing that level of generosity, however, GLOSS is willing to settle for digital images of the books’ bindings, title pages and Knight bookplate. Anything to rescue those poor little lambs who have lost their way – baa, baa, baa.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 23 2017 01:00PM

Last month, it seemed that Jane Austen had truly arrived in the world economy when the new £10 note bearing her portrait went into circulation in Britain.


How wrong we were. It’s only now that we have real proof that Jane Austen has arrived in the world economy: She features in the newly released Winchester Edition of Monopoly.


Although from time to time I’ve spotted the occasional special Monopoly edition – for years, my son livened up vacation visits to his British grandparents by playing the Manchester United version – I was unaware of just how crowded this market is. According to a list compiled in an online fan community, there are literally hundreds of Monopoly variants, keyed to movies, books, TV shows, sports teams, universities, commercial brands—you name it. Many are officially licensed; others (anyone for RipperOpoly, the Jack the Ripper version?) seem likely to be unauthorized spinoffs or short-lived amateur efforts.


The throng includes scores, if not hundreds, of geography-themed Monopolies: By my count, UK cities, counties, or regions have spawned nearly four dozen, with locations in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, and Nigeria adding many more. US versions span the continent, from Maine to California and Seattle to Miami.


So perhaps it’s not surprising, in this Austen bicentennial year, that a version featuring the landmarks of the city where Austen is buried should make its appearance.


Number 8 College Street, the Winchester house where Austen breathed her last, appears on the board in the spot occupied by North Carolina Avenue in the classic American edition of Monopoly. As devotees of the iconic game of cutthroat capitalism will realize, this situates Austen, who spent a good portion of her adult life strapped for cash, on one of the board’s prime pieces of real estate—although not as prime as her actual burial spot, Winchester Cathedral, which stands in for Boardwalk.


Apparently, the game has at least one more Austen reference – according to coverage in the Hampshire Chronicle, which itself occupies Indiana Avenue’s spot on the board, one of the Chance/Community Chest cards “rewards players for winning ‘a Jane Austen writing contest,’ ” whatever that is.


Alas, as far as I can tell from minute inspection of the online pictures, the game tokens appear to be the ordinary, non-Austen kind: the top hat might pass muster, but the little dog is no Pug, and there’s nary a quill pen or mini-Pemberley in sight. And early rumors that the game’s money supply might feature banknotes bearing an Austen stamp seem to have been unfounded. For that, we’ll have to make do with the real stuff.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 19 2017 01:00PM

Fifty-three years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, while he could not fully define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”


Apparently, so do the wardens of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. And for them, the category includes Jane Austen fanfic.


In a case now pending in federal appeals court, a convicted murderer serving a life-without-parole sentence argues that the prison’s no-porn policy, under which his jailers refused to give him a number of items mailed to him by his mother, is unconstitutionally broad and vague. Among the rejected items were Renaissance art images, a book on Picasso and Matisse, a collection of erotic fantasy tales called Thrones of Desire – and Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition. *


I take no position on the merits of the case, but based on my skim of the excerpt available online, Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition has no merits of its own, even if it was written by a sometime bestselling author. (Although the book is credited to “Jane Austen and Annabella Bloom,” the “Note from One of the Authors” – guess which one? -- is signed by a writer with the comically appropriate name of Michelle Pillow.)


Taking a leaf from the eighty-percent-Austen playbook of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book seems to consist largely of Austen’s prose, studded with occasional not-very-good edits (Mr. Bennet’s “quick parts” become “a fast mind”) and saccharine interpolations (Jane Bennet, mooning over Mr. Bingley after the Meryton Assembly, “danced around the room, twirling in her long nightgown till it billowed about her legs.”) And lest we be in any doubt about where we’re headed, Elizabeth has barely glimpsed Darcy before she’s daydreaming about the “unmistakably mesmerizing shift of his hips beneath his jacket.”


What’s that? You want to know more about the sex scenes? I’m shocked – shocked! We’re discussing literature here!


Oh, all right. I can confirm that they exist. Lydia sneaks away from the Meryton Assembly for an assignation with a married man’s “turgid shaft,” and as Chapter 3 closes, Darcy is – ahem! – “t[aking] himself in hand” to thoughts of that distracting Bennet girl. (Not handsome enough to tempt him, indeed!)


I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether the book’s presence in the case might stem from one of those mistakes that your mom sometimes makes when confronted with the puzzling intricacies of Amazon. Turns out that the editor of Thrones of Desire, Mitzi Szereto, is the author of yet another sexed-up P&P -- Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts. Could it be that the prisoner-son is a Szereto fan who never even wanted the Wild and Wanton Edition?


Tell it to the judge, I guess.



* Thanks to Devoney Looser for posting this tidbit on Facebook.


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