Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2018 01:00PM

The transformation of Chawton House from purely academic destination into full-service Janeite tourist draw continues: The stately home where Jane Austen’s brother once lived, and which now houses a library of early English writing by women, is bidding farewell to its English-professor executive director and looking for a new CEO.


Chawton’s board hopes to find someone with “a strong track record in commercial delivery and fundraising” and “experience in positive stakeholder management,” according to a job description posted online late last month. Strikingly absent from the listing is any reference to scholarly chops – PhD, background in Austen studies, that kind of thing.


As regular blog readers will recall, Chawton has been in decorous turmoil for two years, since Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, whom I profiled in Among the Janeites, announced she would end her financial support. In the 1990s, Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Edward Austen Knight’s dilapidated Elizabethan manor house and for years afterwards continued to spend six-figure annual sums on its upkeep.


Since Lerner’s departure, the board and the outgoing executive director, University of Southampton professor Gillian Dow, have cut costs, sought grants, launched a fundraising appeal, and changed the institution’s name from “Chawton House Library” to just plain “Chawton House,” in hopes of rebranding sober scholarship as fun-filled Austen tourism. (See details of the saga here and here.)


It’s a tricky balancing act: Keeping Chawton, with its extraordinary collection of rare books, alive as a site for serious scholarship, while simultaneously attracting the tourist dollars of the folks who trek down the road to Jane Austen’s House Museum to buy Colin Firth tea towels and snap selfies with Austen’s desk. In a sense, Chawton House is a microcosm of the struggle within the Janeite world between devotees of Classic Author Austen and fans of Pop Culture Jane.


Yes, it's a challenge to walk this line between the academic and the pop, but it's not impossible: the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. does it with great success, simultaneously hosting scholarly conferences and hawking Shakespeare magnetic poetry.


Here’s hoping that Chawton House, a true Janeite gem, can find its footing too. A quick Google search suggests that the announced salary for the new CEO -- £55,000 (about $72,000) -- is no better than average for the heads of smaller charities outside London, so perhaps this will be a job for someone young and ambitious. Applications are due by Friday, so start polishing that resume.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 11 2018 01:00PM

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


Some writers fill their letters with detailed responses to the works they read, providing a fascinating record of their literary tastes and influences.


Alas, Jane Austen was not such a writer. Her surviving letters offer only occasional tidbits about the books she has read, allowing us to deduce her love of, say, Richardson, Crabbe, and the anti-slavery activist Thomas Clarkson, but offering few details about what she found compelling in their work.


That makes the letter Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#91 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) an especially valuable artifact. Austen is on an extended visit with their brother Edward’s family at Godmersham Park in Kent while Cassandra remains home in Chawton; amid news of the comings and goings of relatives and visitors, Austen reports that she has been rereading a well-known contemporary novel, Mary Brunton’s 1811 Self-Control.


I must confess that I have never read Self-Control. For details of its plot -- which features sustained sexual harassment, adultery, a duel, an international kidnapping, and the heroine’s desperate flight from a would-be rapist via Indian canoe – I turned to Wikipedia, ever the lazy student’s friend.


Though little-known today, in its time the novel made a big enough splash that two years earlier Austen had confessed to some trepidation about reading it: “am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled,” she told Cassandra (Letter #72).


By 1813, however, those fears were past. “I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it,” Austen writes. “I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.”


It’s not that Austen entirely eschews the melodramatic elements of Brunton’s plot. Adultery, sexual harassment, and dueling do make their way into Austen’s novels, but she is at pains to confine them within the bounds of the everyday -- because, as she makes clear here, her bottom-line commitment is to the realistic and the natural, which she privileges above the artistically pleasing (“elegantly-written”) and the morally praiseworthy (“excellently-meant”).


It’s not much, I admit, but for those of us starved for any sense of Austen’s literary-critical outlook, it’s something.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 8 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s books – usually Pride and Prejudice, sometimes Emma, occasionally one of the others -- perennially land on those ubiquitous, completely meaningless “best novel” lists (for instance, see here, here, here and here). Currently, P&P is duking it out with the dubious likes of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code for the top spot in PBS’s Great American Read series.


A bit of a shock, then, to see Austen’s entry in the PBS sweepstakes coming in at #5 on someone’s semi-scientific list of Books People Most Often Start and Don’t Finish.


Over at Gizmodo, writer James O’Malley has combed through the Currently Reading logs of some 24,000 Goodreads users to find the books they’ve parked there for more than a year and therefore, he argues, aren’t likely to finish. His top-ten list is half fiction, half non-fiction, and Pride and Prejudice is there in the middle, sandwiched between The New Oxford American Dictionary and Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.


Before you get up a good head of Janeite outrage, it’s worth pointing out some oddities about O’Malley’s list. Even his top-ranked unfinished book, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, has apparently been sitting untouched on the nightstands or in the Kindle queues of only thirty-one Goodreads members. By the time you get down to P&P, only twenty copies are gathering real or virtual dust – not exactly a tsunami of Austen-haters.


Meanwhile, two of the books on O’Malley’s list – the aforementioned dictionary, and Marie Kondo’s organizing manual, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up -- aren’t the kinds of books that people typically read cover to cover. They’re dip-in-and-out-as-needed books. There’s no shame in not finishing the dictionary! (Indeed, if you did finish it, it might be time to, you know, Get A Life.)


It’s not hard to imagine how books like Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (long, not as peppy as the musical) or Martin’s GoT (long, not as much skin as the TV series) or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (insanely long, kinda weird) end up marinating at the bottom of TBR piles.


To me, P&P, which is peppy and funny and not particularly long, seems out of place in this company, but of course pep, humor, and even length are subjective qualities. I suppose if you open the book expecting to find Matthew Macfadyen murmuring, “You have bewitched me body and soul,” the real thing could seem. . . different. Of course, if you don’t finish it, you won’t learn that Mr. Darcy never says, “You have bewitched me body and soul.” But perhaps you prefer to keep it that way.


In fact, the oddest thing about O’Malley’s list is that three of his five Most Unfinished novels – P&P, GoT, and George Orwell’s 1984 – are also among the Great American Read’s one hundred contenders for America’s Best-Loved Novel. Go figure. Or at least go back and finish what you’ve started.




By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 4 2018 01:00PM

Musical theater is an expensive art form, and fans on a budget – or those who live far from the major cities where original productions flourish and touring companies visit – may get few opportunities to experience their passion.


Enter Streaming Musicals, a new experiment in making live musical theater affordable and accessible for audiences, and remunerative for the artists involved. Professional productions are staged and filmed live, but without an audience, in a theater or on a soundstage; then the show is made available via the internet for rental or purchase. Everyone involved shares in the profits from this hybrid of the live and the recorded, with the income stream continuing as long as internet viewers are willing to pay.


And there’s an Austen connection! Streaming Musicals launched last night by offering a musical version of Emma, adapted by Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon and staged and filmed earlier this year in New York. Viewers pay $7.99 to rent the two-hour film, or $19.99 to buy it.


At least four previous musical versions of Emma exist, and although some of the publicity touts the Streaming Musicals show as “new,” Gordon’s Emma is in fact one of the four: It was first produced in 2006-7, winning excellent reviews for several regional productions.


Judging from photos, however, the older productions were traditional period pieces, whereas the new version updates the setting and costumes to the mid-twentieth century. Whether this choice is bold or foolhardy remains to be seen: It’s sometimes tricky to make Austen’s stories work in modern contexts, as legions of fanfic writers have learned to their – or our -- cost.


I haven’t had a chance to watch yet, but the musical snippets available online seem charming. And it’s hard not to root for a venture that hopes to give more people access to both live theater and Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 1 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s novels are filled with marital mismatches. Clever, sardonic Mr. Bennet treats Mrs. Bennet with thinly veiled disrespect. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Palmer has discovered “like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favor of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” The long-dead mothers of Anne Elliot and Henry Tilney seem to have suffered in their marriages to selfish, difficult men. As we close each novel, we trust that our heroine and hero will be happy together, but the specter of marital failure lurks everywhere.


Nevertheless, nearly a quarter-century of swoony screen adaptations of Austen’s novels have persuaded the non-Janeite public that she is the embodiment of all things romantic. Two examples of this phenomenon crossed my desk this week:


* “Derbyshire is the most romantic place in the UK,” declares the no-doubt-completely-impartial website DerbyshireLive, the online home of the Derbyshire Telegraph newspaper. The area “is visually stunning and has inspired love stories which have bewitched the world.”


Cue mention of Pride and Prejudice; unverifiable claim that Derbyshire landmark Chatsworth was the inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley; and mention of other local sites featured in various filmed versions of the novel. (Jane Eyre merits a cameo, too.)


Derbyshire looks gorgeous, so don’t let me discourage anyone from proposing there. (Indeed, Among the Janeites includes the story of a man who proposed to his Austen-scholar wife at Chatsworth, which played Pemberley in the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice.) I’m just a little leery of this “Austen=lifelong happiness” equation.


* “Make the love of your life fall for you all over again with these 50 beautiful love quotes that say ‘I love you’ in different ways,” urges YourTango, which bills itself as “the leading online magazine dedicated to love and relationships.”


I must admit that whenever my Jane Austen Google alert highlights listicles like this one, I experience a certain all-too-familiar sinking sensation. I fear I am about to enter the Land of Faux Austen Quotes, that zone in which any line ever uttered by a character in an Austen movie is automatically attributed to the novelist herself.


Alas, YourTango has indeed harvested its beautiful love quotes from this same barren field. Amid the lines credited to the likes of Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, and Ed Sheeran – plus a selection from Lolita*: how creepy is that? – are two attributed to “Jane Austen.”


Brace yourself. At #25, we have “My heart is, and always will be, yours.” And at #27, we have that hoary classic “You have bewitched me body and soul.”


I loved hearing Hugh Grant sweetly deliver #25 to Emma Thompson in the 1995 movie of Sense and Sensibility. I was less enamored of Matthew Macfadyen delivering #27 to Keira Knightley in the 2005 P&P, but to each her own. Neither line, however, appears in the Austen novel on which the film is based.


Indeed, there’s a reason that romantic sayings from Jane Austen are so seldom drawn from the actual novels of Jane Austen: She didn’t write many swoony love scenes. Her novels are as determinedly un-swoony as it’s possible for courtship novels to be.


But hey: If you want to go around saying these things to the love of your life, perhaps while proposing in front of Chatsworth, be my guest. Just don’t blame Jane Austen if the marriage doesn’t work out.




* Which is, IMHO, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, but not my go-to choice for healthy expressions of romantic love.


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