Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 16 2018 01:00PM

The death last week of Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul prompted the customary chorus of praise for his writing, as well as the rather less customary chorus of agreement that, all told, he was a pretty awful human being—abusive to women, unkind to colleagues, arrogant about his own achievements, and sometimes racist in his views.

For Janeites, it was all rather familiar: Seven years ago, Naipaul—who was born into an Indian family in Trinidad but spent his adult life in Britain--made headlines worldwide by dissing female writers in general and Jane Austen in particular.

Asked during a 2011 interview at the Royal Geographical Society if he considered any female writer to be his equal, he replied, “I don’t think so.” Jane Austen? Nope: He "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world."

"I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,” he claimed, because of female authors' "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world. . . . And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

It’s hard to know where to begin in critiquing this farrago of stereotypical generalizations and egregious misreading. Like the Writers Guild of Great Britain, which at the time declined to “waste its breath” on a reply, one is tempted to borrow a phrase from that rank sentimentalist Jane Austen and say that Naipaul’s views on the writing of half the human race didn’t deserve the compliment of rational opposition.

Of course, plenty of people voiced such opposition anyway (for instance, here and here): Naipaul was either attacked as an exemplar of the sexism that still prevented women from getting their work published and reviewed, or dismissed as a grumpy old man whose own achievements were long in the past.

I can’t weigh in on Naipaul’s writerly virtues: He represents one of the many gaps in my reading education, though the recent spate of obituaries has convinced me to add him to my list. But if he found the clear-eyed and ironic Jane Austen sentimental, then I guess he wasn’t much of a critic.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 13 2018 01:00PM

Name the ten most important vegetables! Quick now! Does broccoli outrank kale? How about carrots vs. turnips? Yes, yes, I know they’re all terribly good for your health and all that, but which is the most important?

This ridiculous exercise came to mind last week as I perused the BBC History Magazine’s mystifying list of “100 Women Who Changed the World” – a list on which Jane Austen comes in at #13, well behind Marie Curie (#1) and Margaret Thatcher (#6) but ahead of Princess Diana (#15), someone with whomJane Austen could hardly have less in common.

The rankings were decided by magazine readers working with a field of one hundred nominees selected by ten expert panelists -- journalists, writers and academics, all of them British by citizenship or residence. So you can blame the experts for some of the crazy, although, to be fair, everyone involved probably knew this enterprise was going to be, at best, the spur to some entertaining dinner-table arguments and, at worst, pretty silly all around.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the sheer weirdness of trying to weigh the relative importance of groundbreaking scientific discoveries, pioneering artistic endeavors and fearless political leadership. Rutabaga vs. grapefruit, anyone?

Although the list aims at inclusivity by featuring a smattering of the non-white and non-Western, its bias is still endearingly overt: Apparently, at least thirty-two of the one hundred most world-changing women in all of human history – and at least seventeen of the top twenty-five! – were British. (“We’ve been punching above our weight for centuries,” insists my British husband, tongue firmly planted in cheek.)

The most fascinating thing about Austen’s appearance on the list, though, only becomes apparent when you drill down on the magazine’s web site to the work of the original nominators, each charged with selecting leaders in a single field, such as sports, politics or science.

Turns out that the literature panelist – journalist Andrew Dickson, author of a book on Shakespeare’s reception history – didn’t actually choose Austen for his list. George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Mary Shelley, yes; Austen, no.

Our Jane made it into the running via a different route, chosen by “media & culture” panelist Jenni Murray, a journalist and broadcaster. Murray’s list also includes two of Austen’s literary predecessors, Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney, as well as three painters, three musicians and fashion designer Coco Chanel.

Nothing could make clearer Austen’s peculiar status today. She’s not just a towering literary figure, like Eliot, or the embodiment of a major artistic movement, like Woolf; she’s a cultural personality, someone who is not simply a creator of particular works but the symbol of a particular set of ideas or attitudes.

I take it back: She’s got more in common with Princess Diana than I thought.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 9 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s paternal aunt Philadelphia Austen Hancock (1730-92) is one of the most fascinating and understudied characters in the extended Austen clan.

Like her younger brother, the Rev. George Austen, father of our beloved novelist, Philadelphia was orphaned in early childhood; unlike him, she had no male patron interested in sponsoring her education and smoothing her path to respectable middle-class status.

Instead, she was apprenticed to a milliner at fifteen, and seven years later, she set sail for India, where a young Englishwoman with no fortune beyond her pretty face had a chance of finding a husband among the expatriate employees of the East India Company. Her gamble succeeded: five months after arriving, she married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a company surgeon seven years her senior.

It was nearly nine years into their marriage that the Hancocks welcomed their first and only child, Elizabeth – known as Betsy in childhood and, to generations of Janeites, as Jane Austen’s glamorous older cousin (and eventual sister-in-law) Eliza de Feuillide. Even before Eliza’s birth, spiteful rumors circulated that her biological father was not Philadelphia’s husband but the powerful, charismatic and recently widowed Warren Hastings, a top official of the East India Company.

Was it true? Who knows? As my mother likes to say, I wasn’t under the bed. What we do know is that all three Hancocks remained on good terms with Hastings, who became Eliza’s godfather and the namesake of her only child.* Eventually, the Hancocks sailed back to London, where Philadelphia and Eliza remained even after Tysoe Saul returned to India three years later.

Sometime during their London sojourn, however, it appears that the Hancocks engaged the illustrious Joshua Reynolds to paint a portrait of their little family, along with their much-loved nanny, Clarinda, whom they had brought with them from India.

Or so argue English literature scholar Charlotte Mitchell and her collaborator, Gwendolen Mitchell, in a compelling Times Literary Supplement article published last year but only now coming to my attention. Sleuthing through East India company archives, Austen family letters and Reynolds papers, the Mitchells convincingly deduce that the subjects depicted in a 1760s-vintage painting now hanging in a Berlin museum have been misidentified as “George Clive and his family.” In fact, they claim, the painting really shows the Hancock household.

We still don’t have a definitive portrait of Jane Austen herself. But this discovery helps us put new life in the story of her resourceful and complicated family.

* Hastings de Feuillide -- Eliza’s son by her first husband, a French count who was guillotined during the Revolution – died at the age of fifteen, after a lifetime shadowed by illness and, possibly, by mental or physical disability.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2018 01:00PM

Thanks to her four reproductively prolific brothers – James, Edward, Frank and Charles produced an impressive total of thirty-three sons and daughters, all but five of whom lived into adulthood – the never-married Jane Austen has many, many collateral descendants.

Some of these nieces, nephews and many-times-great iterations thereof have capitalized on their Austen connections. Frank’s daughter Catherine Hubback was the first person to publish Jane Austen fanfic – a completion of the unfinished Watsons manuscript; James’ son, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote the first biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.

Later generations published the first collection of Jane Austen’s letters (Edward’s grandson Lord Brabourne); wrote chronicles of the family’s history (Frank’s grandson John Hubback and great-granddaughter Edith Hubback Brown, and James’ grandson and great-grandson William and Richard Austen-Leigh); and helped found the Jane Austen Society of North America (James’ great-great-granddaughter Joan Austen-Leigh).

Last week brought news of the death of another such Austen descendant: ninety-nine-year-old Diana Shervington, a great-great-granddaughter of Edward, who spent the last third of her long life in Lyme Regis, one of England’s most Austen-evocative places. Shervington, a homemaker and potter whose two Austen-descended grandmothers were sisters (yes, that means her parents were first cousins), led an interesting life, judging from the obituaries (see here and here). Check out the tale of her wartime romance with the man who became her husband. Talk about a meet-cute!

Although Shervington’s sister-grandmothers had never known Jane Austen, they knew older relatives who had, and they shared these second-hand memories. And during Shervington’s childhood, her parents spent years at Chawton House, Edward’s former home, caring for an elderly relation who in turn left Shervington some of her Austen relics.

When the late-nineties Austen craze hit, Shervington gained Janeite semi-fame by donating some of those heirlooms to Lyme’s museum and showing others off during talks she gave to visiting Austen fans. Whether her particular brand of reminiscence was to your taste or not – I confess to being in the “not” camp, but nil nisi bonum and all that – it’s sad to see the snapping of another tenuous link to the real Jane Austen.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 2 2018 01:00PM

With their film adaptations and their fanfics and their Austen societies, residents of the Indian subcontinent seem to love Jane Austen just as much as do those of us in the Anglo-American-Australian axis.

So perhaps it is unsurprising that their websites should end up misquoting her just as much as ours do.

Yes, children, it is time once again for our favorite sport, Spot the Spurious Austen Quote -- now in a new international edition!

Last month, not one but two Indian news sites decided to mark the anniversary of Austen’s death by giving her another reason to spin in her grave. At the Indian Express, an English-language daily newspaper published in Mumbai, the tribute consisted of “10 quotes by the author on love and life,” interspersed with biographical tidbits. At iDiva, a gossip-beauty-fashion-relationships website, we were treated to “18 Jane Austen Quotes That Are Mantras For The Millennial Girl.”

Apparently, fact-checking the original text is a lost art in India, just as it seems to be here in the United States.

How else to explain why the Indian Express list manages to include two spurious Austen quotes and one kinda-right-kinda-wrong quote among its ten, for a less-than-impressive score of seventy-five percent?

The mistakes aren’t even original: There’s the ever-popular “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do,” which -- as I have tried in vain to impress upon the Internet -- is not an Austen quote but a garbled version of a line from the 2008 TV mini-series of Sense and Sensibility. There’s the only slightly less hoary “We are all fools in love,” which comes from the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice. And there’s the garbled “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings,” which, as I’ve noted before, is not exactly what Austen wrote in Mansfield Park. (I still gave half-credit for it, because I’m an easy grader.)

Not to worry, though: iDiva has worked hard to get us the very best of Austen, offering “18 handpicked quotes that are totally going to get a nod from that millennial soul in you.” Handpicked! What could be better?

Well, maybe if the hand doing the picking actually knew what it was up to.

Alas, yes: iDiva’s carefully curated selection also includes two spurious Austen quotes. (Lo and behold, they are exactly the same as the two spurious quotes that Indian Express gave us!) But iDiva does better: It also provides us two genuine Austen quotes that it attributes to the wrong book; two slightly incorrect versions of genuine Austen quotes; and two more seriously garbled genuine quotes, one of which – in an impressive twofer – is also attributed to the wrong book.*

On the other hand, iDiva does manage ten certifiably correct Austen quotes attributed to the correct book (three of them overlapping with Indian Express selections). I’m in a generous mood, so I’m giving iDiva credit for its two only-slightly-incorrect quotes, for a total score of sixty-seven percent. Passing – but only just.

What is to be done? How can this international plague of Austen misquotation be rolled back? Is there no cure? No antidote? No vaccine?

Google, you say? No, Google is actually part of the problem: Search for any of those spurious or garbled quotes, and you’ll find a dozen websites assuring you that they are genuine Jane Austen.

Millennial girls, I’m afraid it can’t be helped: If you want to make sure your current mantra is a genuine quote from the novelist Jane Austen, you’re going to have to acquaint yourself with, at the very least, a searchable electronic text of her novels. The horror.

* For the nerdy among us: #1 omits a word; #4 is seriously garbled, probably because it’s a version of a movie line that is based on a book line; #5 has one incorrect word; #7 is a garbled line from Persuasion misattributed to Pride and Prejudice; #8 is spurious; #14 is a Pride and Prejudice line misattributed to Northanger Abbey; #15 is spurious; #17 is a Mansfield Park line misattributed to Pride and Prejudice.

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