Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 25 2018 01:00PM

Back in high school, I did reasonably well in math. I may have trouble balancing my checkbook these days, but I promise I’m not one of those math-o-phobes who thinks numbers are the work of the devil.

Still, at the risk of sounding like a STEM Philistine, I can’t help but scratch my head at what seems to me to be the sheer pointlessness of a math-enhanced literary analysis spotlighted last month by the BBC.

Many years ago, apparently, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut concocted an anthropological theory that he summed up thusly: “Stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper.” More recently, math-y folk have used a statistical text-mining technique called “sentiment analysis” – basically, a way of coding the emotional content and associations of vocabulary words – to identify six archetypal story arcs characterized by the rising and falling patterns of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Summarizing academic work that’s been around for several years, the BBC provides us with the story-arc map that sentiment analysis creates for six famous works of literature -- including Pride and Prejudice, used to illustrate the “Cinderella” plot type (rise, fall, rise). “While not a perfect tool – it looks at words in isolation, ignoring context – [sentiment analysis] can be surprisingly insightful when applied to larger chunks of text,” the BBC opines, citing as an example of such insight a 2016 blog post on P&P by Janeite data scientist Julia Silge.

Sentiment analysis, as far as I can glean from Google, is a tool whose main purpose is commercial: It allows businesses to quickly sift online reviews, comments, and social media posts in order to pick up trends in consumer reactions and resolve problems before they metastasize. In other words, it’s designed for people who want to know the essence of what’s being written without actually having to read anything.

By contrast, literature – pace SparkNotes – is not about skimming to get the gist. It’s about reading carefully to get the nuance. From an anthropological point of view, it may be interesting and worthwhile to categorize the pattern in our storytelling – or the six patterns. But whatever sentiment analysis may have to teach us about the broad outlines of stories, it doesn’t have much to say about individual works of art, or about the subtleties that make great writers worth reading.

Can Austen’s novel be slotted into a plot archetype? I wouldn’t be surprised – human storytelling is an ancient art, after all – but filing P&P under Plot Type #5 doesn’t tell us much of anything about what makes it better than, say, all the P&P fanfic that mimics its structure.

Indeed, looking at Silge’s P&P plot graph suggests the shortcomings of the sentiment-analysis approach as applied to a specific book. For instance, Silge finds that the Netherfield Ball is the high point of positive sentiment in the novel, and it’s true that much excitement and anticipation attend that scene. But it’s also the locus of much disappointment and mortification for Elizabeth Bennet: Wickham mysteriously absents himself, Darcy surprises her into an unwanted dance and a tense conversation, and her mother, sister, and cousin commit public faux pas.

How does placing the ball at the top end of a sentiment scale help us unpack the complicated spectrum of feeling across which the scene in the novel actually ranges? Not at all, as far as I can tell. Arguably, Silge's graph, at least if it's used to analyze a specific book rather than to identify broad patterns across books, is not just pointless but actively misleading. And at the points where the graph matches any casual reader's impression of the book -- for example, in identifying Lydia's elopement as the story's emotional low point -- it's superfluous.

So file me under Unconvinced. But, then, I was a humanities major.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 21 2018 01:00PM

The Hampshire village of Chawton is the mecca of the Janeite faith: the community where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, the secure home where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, the place from which “all her works were sent into the world,” to quote the plaque outside her cottage.

So it’s understandable that at least one villager found himself a tad miffed when the world’s first statue of Austen was unveiled last summer in . . . the nearby market town of Basingstoke, where Austen probably shopped, danced and walked, but where she indubitably did not live.

“Basingstoke has the statue, and Winchester has the grave and features on the Austen £10 note, but Chawton has been left out,” Michael Sanders, retiring chairman of the Friends of Chawton Church, told a local newspaper. “And it was here she did all the work on her books.”

So Sanders and his committee raised the money necessary to get Chawton a consolation prize of sorts: not the life-size bronze of Austen on permanent display in Basingstoke, but a smaller version, known as a maquette, which sculptor Adam Roud made as a preliminary template.

The Basingstoke Austen statue was installed in the central marketplace at street level, as if Bronze Jane were just another passerby on her way to the shops. By contrast, the smaller Chawton version stands atop a pedestal in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, not far from the graves of Austen’s mother and sister and a short distance from Chawton House, the home of Austen’s brother Edward Knight. The statue gazes across the meadows toward the cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen lived from 1809 to 1817.

Among the participants in last Friday’s unveiling ceremony were Richard Knight, one of Edward’s descendants; the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire; the Bishop of Basingstoke; and the novelist Joanna Trollope, a patron of Chawton House and the author of a deeply mediocre Sense and Sensibility update, as well as children from the local school and the chair of Chawton House’s board.

As blog readers will recall, Chawton House itself has had a rocky year or two as it tries to raise enough money to replace the contribution of Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who renovated the property and turned it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. Most recently, the organization dropped "Library" from Chawton House's name, in the hopes of encouraging non-scholarly tourists to make themselves welcome.

With luck, the statue will provide yet another reason for Janeites to make their very own pilgrimage to Hampshire.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 18 2018 01:00PM

A couple of months ago, when Jane Austen’s House Museum unveiled the results of the collaborative quilting project it organized to commemorate the 2017 bicentennial of Austen’s death, I bemoaned the lack of close-up photos for those of us who couldn’t journey to England to view the quilt squares in person.

I’m happy to say that omission has now been rectified: All fifty-three panels in the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt are now viewable in three online galleries, along with information about the theme and creator of each panel.

The panels, which cover aspects of Austen’s life and work, vary widely: Some are abstract, some are representational; some are specific, some more suggestive. Panels portray the church in Steventon, where Austen spent her first twenty-five years; Winchester Cathedral, where she is buried; and the museum itself, aka Chawton cottage, where she wrote or revised all six of her finished novels. Each novel gets a panel of its own, as do the Juvenilia and the unfinished Sanditon. Some panels also tackle themes in Austen’s work, such as elopement, self-control, and women’s precarious legal status.

Of course, a two-dimensional representation of needlework can’t substitute for an in-person viewing – texture and materials come across only imperfectly on screen – but for those of us whose international travel budgets are not what we might wish, this is a serviceable way to experience one of the most delightful Austen bicentenary projects.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 14 2018 01:00PM

In the annals of news-that-isn’t-exactly-new, the year 1975 holds a special place.

That fall, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lapsed into a coma. For nearly three weeks, the evening newscasts featured stories about Franco’s lingering, along the lines of “Francisco Franco is still clinging to life,” before he finally died on November 20 at the age of eighty-two.

Then Saturday Night Live got into the act: For weeks afterwards -- months? Years? -- its parody newscast would often include an anchor reporting, “In other news, Francisco Franco is still dead.”

In that spirit, I note that earlier this month, a newspaper in Leicestershire, England, helpfully pointed out that the last Jane Austen Golden Fiver has still not been found.

You remember the Golden Fivers. Back in December 2016, a famous micro-engraver named Graham Short decorated four UK £5 notes with a teeny-tiny portrait of Jane Austen encircled by a teeny-tiny quote from one of her novels. Then he secretly spent the notes in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and waited for them to turn up in the pockets of unsuspecting consumers.

Newspapers breathlessly reported that, based on pricing of other works by Short, who is known for mind-blowing feats like engraving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, each fiver could be worth as much as £50,000 (about $67,000).

In the following year, these things happened: People found the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish notes. Two of the finders decided to keep their notes as souvenirs, but the third returned hers to the art gallery that had planned this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type stunt, asking that it be sold and the proceeds used to help children. When the note was auctioned to benefit BBC Children in Need, the charitable arm of the venerable broadcaster, it fetched £5,000 (about $6,700) -- which is either a heck of a lot for a piece of currency with a face value of under $7, or a bitter disappointment, depending on how credulously you swallowed that £50,000 estimate.

But as the Leicester Mercury notes, here’s what didn’t happen: No one found the English note, which Short says he spent at Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray. By now, the last Golden Fiver could be anywhere, from Melton Mowbray to Edinburgh, from the piggy bank of a child in Cornwall to the saved-for-my-next-UK-trip stash of a tourist in Hong Kong. It could turn up tomorrow! Next Christmas! Or never!

And Francisco Franco is still dead.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.

“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”

And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”

Welcome to the club, Martha.

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