Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 4 2016 01:00PM

Jane Austen was only seven when the American War of Independence ended, and as far as I know she is not on record either pro or con – though, as a loyal daughter of Great Britain, she would most likely not have chosen to set off celebratory July 4 fireworks today.


But the smashing success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical Hamilton got me wondering about whether Hamilton appears in Austen’s work. And wouldn’t you know it – he does! Or, at least, his surname does:


"[Anne Elliot] had heard. . . of there being an old school-fellow in Bath, who had the two strong claims on her attention of past kindness and present suffering. Miss Hamilton, now Mrs. Smith, had shewn her kindness in one of those periods of her life when it had been most valuable. Anne had gone unhappy to school, grieving for the loss of a mother whom she had dearly loved, feeling her separation from home, and suffering as a girl of fourteen, of strong sensibility and not high spirits, must suffer at such a time; and Miss Hamilton, three years older than herself, but still, from the want of near relations and a settled home, remaining another year at school, had been useful and good to her in a way which had considerably lessened her misery, and could never be remembered with indifference." (Persuasion, ch. 17)


I must concede that it’s unlikely Jane Austen had that Hamilton in mind when she chose the unlucky Mrs. Smith’s maiden name. (If anyone, Lord Nelson's scandalous mistress Emma Hamilton, surely -- though the cheerful but infirm Mrs. Smith is hardly a glamorous adultress.) Still, if anyone in need of a dissertation topic (“Jane Austen and the Founding Fathers: A Study of Influence”?) wants to hunt for Jeffersons, Madisons or Burrs, be my guest. There's definitely an Adams in the Juvenilia. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 9 2015 02:00PM

It’s not exactly news that we Janeites feel very, very strongly about Jane Austen’s characters. Like, more strongly than we do about most real people. But I was reminded of this fact recently by my own visceral reaction to an article, via the British digital-TV company UKTV, headlined, “Which Austen Couples Would Last?”


Predictably, the piece finds Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet to be a perfect long-term match (“They didn't just fancy each other - they came to genuinely like and admire each other”), and it also gives good odds to Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney, and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars.


Unsurprisingly, though incorrectly, the author is equally certain that Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon are doomed. “Marianne will be hankering for another pretty boy soon enough,” s/he writes, ignoring Jane Austen’s authoritative verdict: “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.”


I’ll grant you that the phrase “in time” has given many of us a pang, as we imagine Marianne initially embarking on marriage without the passion she had expected to feel. But hankering for another pretty boy? Puh-leeze. The point of the book is that she’s learned something. She’s grown up. She’s moved beyond the pretty-boy stage.


Missing the point again, the piece gives us this verdict on Emma and Mr. Knightley: “There's no denying he's good for Emma. . . . But the fact is that Emma, despite playing Cupid for others, never really showed much of a romantic yearning for anyone herself. And there's definitely the sense that she's settling for Mr Knightley simply because getting married is the ‘thing to do’, rather than because she's been overwhelmed by passion. Long-term chances: So-so, but he definitely likes her more than she likes him.”


Um, read the book much? Emma has no social or financial need for marriage. She has already announced to Harriet that she isn’t going to get married merely because it’s the thing to do. She changes her mind precisely because she suddenly realizes who stands at the center of her life, and always has: “Till now that she was threatened with its loss, Emma had never known how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection. Satisfied that it was so, and feeling it her due, she had enjoyed it without reflection; and only in the dread of being supplanted, found how inexpressibly important it had been.”


Personally, I’d say that the intense language of that passage – threat, loss, dread, inexpressible importance -- evinces passionate attachment. Emma’s moral growth and maturation demand that she come to understand her own heart. That's the point of the book. If he likes her more than she likes him, then what has she learned?


Still, my annoyance at the running down of the romantic prospects of these people – sorry, these fictional characters – really hit overdrive when I came to the section on Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth: “They've spent so many years remembering and romanticizing each other, how can they be trusted with their feelings now?. . . Long-term prospects: Dodgy.”


Excuse me? Jane Austen tells us exactly why they can be trusted with their feelings now: “More tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.” And you – you random blogger – dare to question this relationship? I think not.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2015 01:00PM

Ianthe Broome, the protagonist of Barbara Pym’s 1982 novel An Unsuitable Attachment, is a quiet, self-effacing woman. "She saw herself perhaps as an Elizabeth Bowen heroine -- for one did not openly identify oneself with Jane Austen's heroines," Pym writes.


Well, Ianthe, those days are over.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 21 2014 01:00PM

The UK’s Independent newspaper just asked one hundred people working in the arts – writers, publishers, actors, directors – to pick their favorite literary characters. (Actually, I only count ninety-nine selectors, but never mind).


The choices range widely, from childhood favorites (Harriet the Spy and Anne of Green Gables are represented, along with British faves by Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton), to books that just about every literate English-speaker has probably cracked open at some point (Great Expectations, Hamlet), to difficult modernist masterworks often left unfinished on the bedside table (Ulysses, The Magic Mountain).


Naturally, we Janeites are above such vulgar matters as noticing who won Most Mentions in a totally random newspaper survey, so this is just for the record: Jane Austen won. Nyah-nyah. Told you she was great.


Five Austen characters – one from each of the novels except Northanger Abbey – were chosen as favorites: Elizabeth Bennet (no surprise there), along with Emma Woodhouse, Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot and Mrs. Norris. (Once again, poor Fanny Price gets dissed in her own novel. And by evil Aunt Norris, no less.)


Austen edged out Dickens, with four nominations (three from Great Expectations, one from Oliver Twist); Philip Roth (three nominations, from three different novels); and Joseph Heller (three nominations, all from Catch-22). Seven other writers, all men, garnered two nominations apiece, and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary was picked twice, if you include all the selections of novelist David Mitchell, who insisted on choosing four beloved characters instead of just one.


Only 19 of the 83 authors represented on the list are female, as are only 27 of the 101 characters mentioned, which may tell us something about the patriarchal domination of English literature, both on and off the page. Incidentally, these statistics also tell us that Austen created 20 percent of the female characters singled out as favorites by the Independent's arty types.


But who’s counting?



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