Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 28 2017 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s name and image have been appropriated for so many ancillary items – fridge magnets, tote bags, coffee mugs, temporary tattoos, air freshener, knitting patterns, scented candles – that’s it’s almost a surprise to find her associated with, of all things, books.

How refreshing, then, to hear of a new bookstore in the small city of Albertville, in northeastern Alabama, named Shades of Pemberley -- as in “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s cri de coeur at Elizabeth Bennet’s presumption.

Pride and Prejudice is one of owner Brandi Atchison’s favorite books, according to a report in the local paper, the Sand Mountain Reporter.

Atchison plans to stock all genres in her store and eventually to add that now-de rigueur bookstore element, the coffee shop, explaining, “I just want it to be a relaxing environment for everyone needing a book.”

Which is – or should be – all of us.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 25 2017 02:00PM

For those of us with school-age children, Christmas week provides a delightful break from the rhythms of the academic calendar: No rising before dawn to meet the school bus, no rushing to squeeze homework in before bedtime, no anxious balancing of multiple extracurricular commitments. Heaven!

But of course, not everyone welcomes peaceful leisure-time – as Jane Austen reminds us in one of the few Christmastime sequences in her novels.

At Mansfield Park, the feverish excitement and romantic maneuvering surrounding the December 22 ball dissipates the next day, as William and Edmund leave on business (seafaring for William, ordination for Edmund). After some Christmas Eve chitchat about the festivities with Mrs. Grant and Mary Crawford, Fanny Price settles contentedly into her usual routines. Mary? Not so much.

“The week which passed so quietly and peaceably at the great house in Mansfield had a very different character at the Parsonage,” Austen tells us in chapter 29. “To the young lady, at least, in each family, it brought very different feelings. What was tranquility and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary.”

Indeed, by New Year’s Day, Mary can no longer stand the company of her own thoughts, and the regrets, worries, and jealousies about Edmund that they bring. She’s off to Mansfield Park to grill Fanny about why her cousin has extended his visit with his friend Mr. Owen.

“Was his letter a long one? Does he give you much account of what he is doing? Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for? . . . How many Miss Owens are there? . . . Are they musical?” she babbles. “. . . . But it is very foolish to ask questions about any young ladies—about any three sisters just grown up; for one knows, without being told, exactly what they are: all very accomplished and pleasing, and one very pretty. There is a beauty in every family; it is a regular thing. Two play on the pianoforte, and one on the harp; and all sing, or would sing if they were taught, or sing all the better for not being taught; or something like it.”

Mary just can’t stop herself; she seems helpless to stem the characteristic flow of witty banter – made suddenly brittle by the sincere emotion that she’s half-ashamed of and can barely acknowledge even to herself. And how does Fanny respond to all this accidentally self-revealing blather?

“ 'I know nothing of the Miss Owens,' said Fanny calmly."

To quote my kids – “Burn!” And they call this woman a doormat! I don't think so. But here’s wishing you a Christmas week full of tranquility and comfort.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 21 2017 02:00PM

People who do not write fiction often have trouble believing that novelists just, you know, make stuff up. These readers seize upon every real or apparent parallel between events in the author’s life and events in her stories and use these supposed connections to “explain” the work, or the life, or both.

As blog readers will recall, I’ve always found this approach to literary criticism a condescending diminishment of the creative process -- and, when it comes to a genius of Jane Austen’s caliber, downright insulting. But it’s a tendency that has persisted for centuries. Why, it was just last week that I was remarking upon how adeptly Austen handled the delicate problem of an overenthusiastic fan volunteering to give her real-life material for her stories, as if she needed the help.

And now the Twitterverse agrees with me.

Last week, the Washington Post had the misfortune to mark Jane Austen’s birthday with an article that was, to put it charitably, a tired retread of well-worn tales about Jane Austen’s limited romantic history. “Husband-hunting butterfly”? Check. Tom Lefroy? Check. Harris Bigg-Withers? Check.

Then the WaPo headlined the story “Jane Austen was the master of the marriage plot. But she remained single.” Then they tweeted out the headline. Then the Twitterverse ridiculed them (see accounts of the brouhaha, along with some diverting comments, here, here, here, here and here) for suggesting a) that writers can only write out of personal experience; b) that Austen should be thought of primarily as a writer about romance; and c) that marriage is the ultimate goal for women and anything else – say, enduring worldwide literary fame -- is a mere consolation prize.

As these tweetstorms so often are, this one was a little bit unfair -- the WaPo story was pointless and dull, but it didn’t really make the silly claims Twitter attributed to it. (Instead, it made other silly claims. I direct your Janeite attention to the extraordinarily misleading sentence, “Austen’s six novels burnish the institution of marriage.”)

Nonetheless, the exchange was a bracing and entertaining reminder that We Do Not Like It when you mess with Jane Austen. Altogether delightful. Call it an early Christmas present.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 18 2017 02:00PM

It’s not every day that you get to put Jane Austen and Freddie Mercury in the same sentence. But thanks to Norwegian Airlines, a budget carrier with a penchant for decorating its planes with portraits of famous people, today is such a day.

Norwegian announced last week that Austen’s portrait will appear on the tail of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner next summer, as she joins the company’s illustrious cast of “Tail Fin Heroes,” chosen because they "symbolize the spirit of Norwegian by pushing boundaries, challenging the norm and inspiring others.”

The list of past Tail Fin Heroes is eclectic and, not surprisingly, mostly Scandinavian, including such luminaries as Greta Garbo, Hans Christian Andersen, and Søren Kierkegaard. But a number of Brits have made the cut, including Bobby Moore, the captain of the English soccer team that won the World Cup in 1966; beloved children’s writer Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; and, yes, Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen.

These days, we get so little in return for the money we spend on plane tickets -- no food, no luggage checking, no legroom -- that it's hard not to be pathetically grateful for even the tiniest gesture toward restoring civility to air travel. Pictures of movie stars and writers on the tail fin? Yes, please! Why, maybe they'll restore the free peanuts next!

Honoring another British writer is a commercial move, since Norwegian is expanding its services in Britain. And as blog readers will recall, it's not the first transportation company to latch onto the Austen name: Remember the luxury rivership MS Jane Austen?

I’m not clear, though, on why the airline didn’t coordinate its honor with this year’s commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Perhaps Norwegian's staff are fans of Persuasion.*

* Which, you'll recall from last week's blog, gets to celebrate its bicentenary in 2018.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 14 2017 02:00PM

The year marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death is almost over, but one more major Austen anniversary lies ahead of us: 2018 is the two hundredth year since the posthumous joint publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.*

Writer, critic, and blogger Sarah Emsley, who has already curated eclectic and insightful blog series for the bicentenaries of Mansfield Park and Emma, will launch a new one on Saturday, Austen’s 242nd birthday. Running over the next six months, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” will include posts from dozens of Austen readers, some academic and some not, analyzing different aspects of these two very different novels.

My contribution is running at the very end, in June, since I’m writing about Captain Wentworth’s letter, perhaps my single favorite passage in all of Jane Austen. Don’t ask me how I snagged this prize; Sarah didn’t even make me arm-wrestle for it.

Emsley has a star-studded Janeite Rolodex; the contributors to her past series have exposed me to new information and ideas about everything from Austen’s religious beliefs to Regency cooking. I’m looking forward to learning more about the novels that bookended Austen’s writing career.

* “What? I’m confused! I thought those books were published in December of 1817!”

Yes, Virginia, they were, but the title page says 1818, so we’re allowed to keep celebrating all next year.

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