Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2018 01:00PM

One of the most useful sentences Jane Austen ever wrote is surely this one: “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” (It’s from a March 1817 letter to her niece Fanny Knight -- #155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.)


I think of this line when I come across portrayals of Austen as a purveyor of upbeat, light-hearted escapism, rather than what I take to be her more nuanced and shadowed, albeit still comic, version of reality. So my heart sank a couple of weeks ago when the newsletter of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, turned its attention to a newly popular literary genre that publishers have christened “Up Lit,” because it features “uplifting stories about kindness and community.”


“As we were finding out about this new genre,” the newsletter chirped, “we couldn’t help but feel that a good number of its defining aspects – kindness, compassion, unlikely friendships, broken people who become fixed – are all features of Jane’s novels that we particularly enjoy.”


I’ve got nothing against kindness and compassion – some of my favorite books, not to mention people, endorse these qualities -- but my entire being revolts against the suggestion that Austen’s novels feature a set of saccharine thematics invented by a marketing department. You might even say that this characterization makes me sick. Also wicked.


At the very least, it sets me combing my memory for all the aspects of Austen’s novels that don’t amount to easy uplift. Like, for example, the way that scheming Lucy Ferrars ends up with more money than steadfast Elinor Dashwood. Or the way that misbehaving men from George Wickham to General Tilney to Mr. Elliot face essentially no repercussions for their misbehavior. Or the way that sexually transgressive women (the two Elizas, Maria Rushworth) are tossed aside like worn-out socks.


Of course it’s true that the central characters in Austen’s novels grow morally and emotionally and end up with the people they love (or, like Marianne Dashwood, learn to love the people they end up with). But these wish-fulfilling denouements occur against a social backdrop that is, when you think about it, kind of awful: socially and economically stratified, rife with sexual double standards, and unforgiving to those who go astray. Not, in other words, all that uplifting.


To be fair, the newsletter points out that Up Lit is “not all sweetness and light,” quoting an author saying, of her own bestselling novel, “It’s about facing devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness and then saying: ‘But there is still this.’ ”


Perhaps, then, it’s all a matter of emphasis: Looked at one way, Austen’s novels – or, more accurately, the movie versions of Austen’s novels -- could perhaps be crammed into the Up Lit template. But these pictures of perfection don’t resemble the Austen I love.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 29 2018 01:00PM

New this week: The latest entry in the annals of Jane Austen Bizarro World (or, to be honest, Jane Austen-Adjacent Bizarro World).


Three years ago, it seems, a high-powered literary couple – prominent Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, provost of Oxford University’s Worcester College; and his wife, Paula Byrne, author of the well-regarded 2013 biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – received the first of an eventual seventeen very nasty anonymous letters.


The missives, reminiscent of the poison-pen letters in Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers’ wonderful Oxford mystery novel, were addressed to Bate. But they mostly concerned Byrne, whom the letter-writer described as fat, ugly, vain, semi-literate, poorly educated, self-promoting, widely hated, a bad mother and – oh, unkindest cut! – a vulgar Tweeter. Ouch! (See the story here and here.)


(Inevitably, the over-the-top nature of these insults invites giggles. But I don’t mean to scoff at Byrne’s hurt feelings; nothing can sap your confidence more than wondering who out there secretly hates you.)


The couple reported the matter to the police, who say the letters could constitute harassment. No arrests, apparently, though Bate and Byrne – no doubt deploying their well-practiced powers of literary exegesis – are persuaded the writer is a woman. (They suspect “a former colleague of his,” according to the account in the London Sunday Times. Ah, academia!)


Meanwhile, as befits a story with literary overtones, the Sunday Times’ online comments seem evenly divided between speculation over the identity of the letter-writer and discussion of whether his/her use of the locution “bored of” is a grammatical crime or not. (I say yes. But I’m a pedant.)


Why are we hearing of this kerfuffle only now, more than three years after the first letter arrived, you may wonder? Perhaps it is not coincidental that Byrne is about to publish a novel, Look To Your Wife, wherein the second wife of a famous man receives nasty anonymous letters after she begins letting her hair down on Twitter. Self-promoting? Well, yes – but aren’t we all?


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 26 2018 01:00PM

The delightful Jane Austen Quilt project culminated earlier this month with the unveiling at Jane Austen’s House Museum of two beautiful quilts made from blocks contributed by Janeites across the globe.


As blog readers will recall, the museum – aka Chawton Cottage, the house where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – launched the quilt project last year to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death. The design was inspired by one of the treasures of the museum’s collection, the Austen family coverlet stitched by Jane, Cassandra, and their mother.


Combining creativity and traditionally female needlecraft, the quilt project strikes me as a charming and appropriate way of paying homage to Austen, a creative artist embedded in a female-run household. (Plus she was an excellent needlewoman, at least according to her nephew's 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.)


The main quilt, known as the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt, measures more than eight feet by five feet and consists of fifty-seven blocks, most of which illustrate some aspect of Austen’s life or work. The second, smaller quilt, known as the Admirals’ Quilt, is composed of abstract geometrical blocks left over from the making of the main quilt.


Unfortunately, the museum blog doesn’t include closeups of every block in the Story Quilt, but from what I can see via blurry on-line zooms, among the designs are blocks featuring the Steventon church where Austen’s father was the minister, the turquoise ring she wore, and the spines of the novels she wrote. A large central panel, created by students from the local elementary school, highlights the community of Chawton, complete with houses, trees, and a friendly horse. (You can get a better look at portions of the quilt here, on the blog of quilter Katrina Hadjimichael, who created one of the blocks.)


Both quilts will be on display at the museum for the rest of this year, and the project has been memorialized in a book, Stories in Stitches: Reimagining Jane Austen’s Quilt.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 22 2018 01:00PM

For generations of teenagers, including me, reading the young-adult novels of S.E. Hinton – classics like The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now – has been a beloved rite of passage. Hinton published her first book in 1967, while still a teenager herself, and her raw honesty about the intense emotions of adolescence has never lost its freshness.


Didn’t know she was a Janeite, though, until earlier this week, when the coordinator of my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America pointed out a recent Hinton tweet on the subject of Austen-inspired fanfic. (Not a complimentary tweet, either – but more of that in a moment.)


A quick Google search brought me a number of interviews (including this one, from 2005) in which Hinton cops to rereading Austen annually and especially admiring how she uses dialogue to reveal character. Apparently, Emma is Hinton’s favorite.


Hinton has expressed mixed feelings about fanfic based on her own books – she doesn’t read it, usually doesn’t mind it, but can’t help wincing at some of the premises -- but apparently she’s less forgiving about JAFF.


The conversation began on March 4, when Hinton noted, via tweet, that the keepers of Margaret Mitchell’s estate were planning to hire a writer to craft a sequel to Gone with the Wind, in hopes of keeping the copyright alive.


“The concept of public domain is that, after a reasonable period of time to allow a creator to profit from a work, that works [sic] ultimately belongs to everyone,” replied a tweeter called HeatherN. “I think that’s beautiful.”


Hinton begged to differ. “I think it's a crime,” she tweeted back. “The first time (many years ago) I realized people could rip off Jane Austen I was physically ill.”


I’ve read some really, really bad JAFF in my time – don’t get me started! -- so I can sympathize. It’s hard for fans to accept Darcys and Annes and Elizabeths behaving in ways violently at odds with their Austen-created personalities, since these people barely seem fictional to us. It’s like hearing someone insult your sister; you bristle instinctively. Jane Austen's characters seem to belong to each of us alone; it's hard to share.


Still, I’m puzzled by this notion that JAFF writers “rip off” Jane Austen. Hinton doesn’t seem to be talking about a financial ripoff here, although we can all regret that Austen never got to share in the riches her work has helped generate for others.


No, Hinton is talking about a deeper kind of violation. Partly, I think, she sees a violation of Austen's rights of property in her own imaginative creations, and of course I can understand why a living author would find it painful to see the characters she's created and loved appropriated by others. Indeed, we have copyright laws to deal with the profit-making aspect of this situation. But a dead author? She's beyond feeling this pain.


Partly, also, Hinton seems to be suggesting that the existence of JAFF hurts Austen's readers, somehow tainting their experience of her books. And here's where I really don't get it. Austen’s six masterpieces remain forever accessible and unsullied, no matter how many wannabes rewrite, update or sequelize her stories. These books are interpretations, responses, homages – sometimes delightful, sometimes inept – but they can’t touch Austen. She’s still there – and thank goodness for that.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 19 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen, writing instructor.


Intimidated much? I wouid be. Although Austen gave kind and useful novel-writing advice to her scribbling niece Anna Austen Lefroy, it’s hard to imagine what she would have made of a classroom full of first-year American college students raised on a diet of five-paragraph essays, text-speak abbreviations, and emoji-studded Snapchats.


And, indeed, learning to write from Jane Austen is “challenging,” reports Dartmouth College first-year student Alexandra Rossillo. “You feel like you have to do her justice in your papers.”


OK, I admit that Jane Austen isn’t actually in the room with Rossillo and her fellow students in the first-year writing seminar currently underway at Dartmouth. (Now that would be news.) Instead, the course is an intensive look at Austen’s work, coupled with a demanding schedule of essay-writing and -revising.


It’s often noted that great writers tend to be omnivorous readers of others’ work; transplanted to the classroom, the operative pedagogical theory seems to be that intensive focus on one great stylist will permit the extraction of generalizable writing pointers.


As a rule, I hate the reductive and nuance-flattening self-help approach to Austen – all those on-line lists of “Ten Lessons Jane Austen Teaches Us About Love/Life/Friendship/Self-Realization/[Insert Desired Noun Here]” make me sick and wicked. But I’d make an exception for the use of Austen as a template for aspiring writers. She’s a great stylist (duh) -- but try nailing down exactly what she does that makes her great and you can’t help learning something about how good writing works.


So what can writing students learn from reading Austen carefully? My list is long, but at the top is the importance of economy. When it comes to words, compression equals power. (N.B.: that doesn’t mean that all great writers necessarily write short; it means that every one of their words counts.)


Consider one of my favorite Austenian sentences (or, actually, half-sentences), from chapter 34 of Sense and Sensibility: “She [Mrs. Ferrars] was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.” Come for the biting description of one vapid individual, stay for the whiplash sting of the insult to the rest of us – all in a mere twenty-two words, each one deployed with the precision of a sniper’s bullet, and the whole proving that, unlike people in general, Austen has ideas enough to outnumber her words.


Yep. It’s a master class.


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