Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 15 2018 01:00PM

The Watsons -- the novel Jane Austen began, probably in 1804, but never finished -- is a fascinating fragment. It’s bleak and wintry, centering on a once-genteel family facing economic disaster and a heroine, Emma Watson, who struggles with feelings of displacement, loneliness and rejection.

Although The Watsons has inspired its fair share of fanfiction – I reviewed ten Watsons completions in a 2014 blog series – as far as I know, it’s never been adapted for the stage or screen.

So I was delighted to learn that this omission will be rectified later this year, when a Watsons dramatization by contemporary British playwright Laura Wade opens at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Chichester, Sussex, in southeastern England. (Those who enjoy playing Six Degrees of Jane Austen will note that the production will be directed by Samuel West, Wade’s life partner, who played Mr. Elliot in the excellent 1995 film of Persuasion.)

Judging from the description on the theater’s website, Wade’s version of The Watsons will have some postmodern fun with the notion of an unfinished manuscript. “Who will write Emma’s happy ending now?” the blurb asks. “This sparklingly witty play looks under the bonnet of Jane Austen and asks: what can characters do when their author abandons them?”

It all sounds most promising. Although Jane Austen apparently gave some of her relatives a general sense of what she planned for her Watsons characters, her outline leaves plenty of scope for fleshing out the story in unexpected ways. It should be fascinating to see whether Wade follows Austen’s roadmap or branches off on her own.

The play won’t open until November, but tickets are already on sale. My chances of being in Chichester this fall are nil, sadly, but If any lucky readers see the show, please post here and let us know what you thought.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 12 2018 01:00PM

The definitive screen adaptation of Mansfield Park has yet to be made. We’re still waiting for the first full-length movie of Sanditon, once planned for a 2017 release. And yet we are a mere three months away from the broadcast of a sequel to Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a deeply terrible Austen-themed TV movie from 2016.

Life is filled with unfathomable mysteries.

You remember Unleashing Mr. Darcy. It was a badly written, poorly acted Hallmark movie, based on a mediocre Austen fanfic updating Pride and Prejudice to the dog-show world. I watched it two years ago, in pursuit of Jane Austen video completism. Then I panned it. Then I forgot about it.

Apparently, others did not forget it. Apparently, in fact, others liked it – enough others that Hallmark has summoned the charm-free actor Ryan Paevey to reprise his role as dog-show judge Donovan Darcy, in a sequel slated to air in June. No word, at least on IMDB, about whether the talent-free Cindy Busby will return as dog-owner and romantic foil Elizabeth Scott.

Perhaps unaware that the name has already been used for a Jane Austen card game, the producers of this benighted project have christened it Marrying Mr. Darcy. I’m afraid I will have to watch, lest the Girl Scouts revoke my Jane Austen Video Completist badge. Maybe someone can suggest a drinking game to make the two hours pass more quickly.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 8 2018 02:00PM

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

Two centuries ago, Jane Austen had spent her day productively.

“Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter finished exactly 204 years ago today (#98 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.”

To put myself in the correct frame of mind for this blog, I have read The Corsair and mended a pillowcase, since there’s little call for petticoats in my house. (Unlike Austen, I still have a long to-do list, but I did try.)

Byron is a great poet, but The Corsair -- which was published in February 1814, a month before Austen read it -- is not my cup of tea. Yes, the verse is miraculously supple and natural, but you can’t say the same of the story, what with its obscurely-tortured-yet-devastatingly-attractive pirate-hero, its selflessly virtuous heroine, and its homicidal anti-heroine-cum-harem-slave. Apparently, men too can write bad romance-novel plots.

Nevertheless, reading The Corsair – for the first time! My education has been sadly neglected – points up the comedy in Austen’s sentence. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Byron’s swashbuckling saga than the domestic chore of mending underwear. Coupling the two has the salutary effect of puncturing Byron’s pretensions, though Austen may also be poking fun at the lack of drama in her own life.

Meanwhile, as I plied my needle, like so many centuries of women before me, I found myself reflecting -- as perhaps Austen did, too -- on the bankruptcy of the madonna-whore dichotomy into which Byron so neatly fits his female characters.

Of course, Austen’s books contain their fair share of flawed men and good, or not-so-good, women. In case we need reminding that she took a subtler approach than The Corsair, later in the letter Austen reports on her brother’s response to her soon-to-be-published new novel, the story of a virtuous woman who withstands the blandishments of a plausible but problematic suitor.

“Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better,” she tells Cassandra. “He is in the 3d vol.—I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end;--he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 5 2018 02:00PM

In your average general-interest bookshop, a majority of the titles have probably been authored by men. No surprise there – historically, to quote Anne Elliot, “men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. . . . the pen has been in their hands.”

So I took a certain visceral satisfaction in learning that, for the next five days, London readers will be able to browse through the shelves of an all-women-all-the-time pop-up bookstore. The Like A Woman Bookshop, located on Rivington Street in the Shoreditch neighborhood of east London, is a collaboration between publisher Penguin Random House and bookseller Waterstones to mark two feminist milestones: the annual celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), and the centennial of the 1918 law that gave (some) British women the right to vote.

“The bookshop will celebrate the persistence of women who’ve fought for change: those who fight, rebel and shout #LikeAWoman,” Penguin Random House’s press release says. (Yes, there is a certain irony in the spectacle of a big corporation putting its imprimatur on scrappy anti-establishment rebelliousness, complete with a no-doubt-carefully-vetted hashtag. But you take what you can get.)

Like A Woman’s shelves will be organized on idiosyncratic lines, “not just by genre or category but by the impact the author has had on culture, history or society, including ‘Essential feminist reads,’ ‘Inspiring young readers,’ ‘Women to watch,’ ‘Your body’ and ‘Changemakers,’ “ Penguin Random House says.

It’s not clear to me if Jane Austen will make the cut, since Penguin Random House claims its pop-up shop will stock “the most inspiring and iconic titles in recent times” and all the authors mentioned by name date from the mid-twentieth century or later.

But as Chawton House’s extensive rare book collection makes clear, the literary landscape of Jane Austen’s time was populated with plenty of female writers, some of whom Austen admired greatly. It’s not hard to imagine a time-traveling Jane Austen enjoying the chance to spend this week leafing through the stock in the Like A Woman Bookshop.

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