Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 5 2017 01:00PM

I love the British press. When it comes to Jane Austen, they can manufacture a story out of the thinnest gossamer. Even recycled gossamer, as it turns out.

Last week, several UK news outlets (see here, here and here) were shocked – shocked! – to learn that the image of Jane Austen that will appear on the new £10 note, set for release in September, is somewhat controversial. The Austen portrait chosen by the Bank of England has been “air-brushed,” “prettified,” or “retouched,” they asserted, quoting recent Austen biographers Paula Byrne and Lucy Worsley.

Regular readers of my blog may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. Back in 2013, when the bank unveiled its prototype of the Austen tenner, Byrne made this identical point about the chosen image. And she wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every Janeite who pays attention noticed that the bank’s Austen image is based not on Cassandra Austen’s well-known sketch of her sister -- arguably the only portrait of Austen’s face made during her lifetime -- but on the gussied-up version of the Cassandra sketch commissioned by the family as a frontispiece to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 memoir of his famous aunt.

Why did the bank choose this particular image? As far as I know, they haven’t explained. Perhaps the National Portrait Gallery, where the Cassandra sketch hangs, was going to charge too much for the rights, as AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan suggested when I wrote about this topic before. (The NPG certainly charged me enough when I put the Cassandra sketch on my website!) Perhaps bank officials thought Cassandra’s peevish Austen conveys insufficient Great Writer Gravitas. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better.

But really -- does it matter? I don’t think so, and here’s why:

It’s fair to object that the Austen on the note looks calmer and sweeter than the Cassandra sketch. It’s fair to object that a calm, sweet Austen doesn’t match your personal mental image of a novelist noted for her biting wit. But as I have pointed out before, it’s not fair to object that the Austen portrait doesn’t look like Jane Austen – because we don’t have any idea what Austen looked like. And therefore, as far as I’m concerned, one fictional image is as good as any other.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 22 2017 01:00PM

Twenty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

By May 1817, Jane Austen was gravely ill, just surfacing from an attack that had kept her mostly bedridden for more than a month. But in the letter she wrote exactly two centuries ago today – the last surviving letter she sent from her beloved home in Chawton -- she speaks more of her gratitude than of her suffering.

“How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!—Every dear Brother so affectionate & so anxious!—And as for my Sister!—Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a Nurse she has been to me,” Austen writes to her friend Anne Sharp, in letter #159 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection.”

Lest we worry that on her deathbed, our adored, acerbic Jane Austen morphed into one of those Pollyannaish “pictures of perfection” that, as she had told her niece Fanny two months earlier, made her “sick and wicked,” the ailing Austen still manages a waspish remark or two.

Her less-than-adored sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd Austen, the wife of the oldest Austen brother, James, was lending the family carriage to transport Jane and her sister, Cassandra, to Winchester for medical treatment, and Austen appreciates the favor – up to a point.

“Now, that’s a sort of thing which Mrs J. Austen does in the kindest manner!” Austen writes. “But still she is in the main not a liberal-minded Woman.” Nor does Austen expect Mary’s recent good fortune – the news that James would inherit the property of his wealthy, lately deceased uncle upon the death of his widowed aunt – to improve her character.

“Expect it not my dear Anne;--too late, too late in the day,” Austen writes. “--& besides, the Property may not be theirs these ten years. My Aunt is very stout.” (Indeed, James did not live to inherit – he survived only two more years, while his aunt lived for another nineteen; the property passed to his son. People always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them, as Fanny Dashwood noted.)

Two days after sending her letter to Anne Sharp, Jane Austen left Chawton for the last time. Eight weeks later, she died in Winchester.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 9 2017 02:00PM

Twentieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Jane Austen came from a large and close-knit tribe of siblings who remained intimately engaged with each other all their lives.* So Austen’s uncharitable description of her oldest brother, contained in a letter to their sister, Cassandra, finished exactly 210 years ago today, has intrigued biographers.

“I should not be surprised if we were to be visited by James again this week,” Jane wrote to Cassandra, then staying with their brother Edward in Kent. “I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give one more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself;--but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied from his Wife’s, & his time here is spent I think in walking about the House & banging the Doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water.” (Letter #50 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)

In “Brothers of the More Famous Jane,” a fascinating paper delivered at the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Maggie Lane calls this passage “the most negative thing that Jane Austen ever wrote about any of her family—or at least, that Cassandra allowed to stand when she cut up the letters” and argues that “it has colored all subsequent portraits of James.”

Noting his support for his sister’s writing and his deep affection for his children, Lane convincingly mitigates posterity’s harsh verdict on James Austen (1765-1819). More than a decade older than Jane, James followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming a clergyman and eventually taking over the living at Steventon in 1800, when the elder Austens retired to Bath. He was his mother’s favorite, an Oxford graduate and a lifelong writer of unpublished poetry – indeed, something of a literary man manqué.

His toughest critics believe that the biting Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility, in which a man allows his wife to talk him out of acting generously toward his widowed stepmother and younger half-sisters, is Jane Austen’s barely veiled account of how James and his second wife, Mary Lloyd Austen, behaved over the move to Steventon.

I’ve always been leery of this conclusion, as I so often am of biographical readings of Austen’s fiction, given the dearth of our information about Austen’s life and writing process. Sure, it’s possible that John and Fanny Dashwood are precise portraits of James and Mary Austen and that the bitterness of those scenes in S&S reflects Austen’s own feelings over her displacement from her childhood home. But it’s equally possible that Austen observed, interrogated and reshaped events, drawing inspiration from real life but heightening the emotions and exaggerating the behavior in the service of her story. This is what writers do.

So what should we make of Austen’s unflattering portrait of the middle-aged James as a dull and inconsiderate houseguest? I’m inclined to be cautious in assuming that this passage represents Jane Austen’s definitive verdict on her brother. Who among us has never felt irritated by a sibling? Who among us has never confided such irritation to an injudicious email? Two centuries from now, would we want our future biographers to conclude that irritation was the sum total of what we felt?

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2017 02:00PM

Nineteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

If Cassandra Austen had known how much speculation would be spawned by the letter her sister Jane wrote her exactly 221 years ago today, she would surely have consigned it to the flames, along with the uncounted others she burned before her death.

Instead, however, Cassandra preserved it, and as a result it became the earliest Jane Austen letter that has come down to us -- #1 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. I’ve always wondered if the outsize attention this letter has received owes something to that accidental position of prominence: The very first time we encounter the joyful, chatty voice of the twenty-year-old Jane Austen, she’s talking about her crush on a young man named Tom Lefroy.

“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved,” Austen writes to Cassandra, away in Berkshire visiting the family of her fiancé, Tom Fowle. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. . . . He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much, for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago. . . . After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr Tom Lefroy. . . . he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove – it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”

Obviously, she liked him. Apparently, he liked her back. A few days later they parted, never to meet again. And largely on the basis of this letter, plus references to Lefroy in two others, a cottage industry has arisen devoted to the proposition that Tom Lefroy, the Irish nephew of Austen’s friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, was the love of Austen’s life, the real-life model for Mr. Darcy, the reason she never married, the muse who inspired her greatest work. . . you name it.

In his 2003 book Becoming Jane Austen, the scholar Jon Spence claimed that Austen and Lefroy had a longer-lasting and more serious relationship than the few references in her letters suggest. The 2007 film Becoming Jane, inspired by Spence’s work, took that thesis and ran with it, positing a romance, a first kiss, a thwarted engagement, an abortive elopement, a selfless renunciation and a poignant late-life reunion.

Since I haven’t read Spence’s book, I can’t say how convincing his scholarship is, but there’s no question that the movie encouraged a generation of filmgoers to conclude that Jane Austen wrote those books of hers (“They’re romance novels, right?”) in wistful tribute to the first love she never got over. Loyal blog readers will recall that I am, shall we say, not charitably inclined toward this thesis, which rests largely on thinly documented speculation about the psychological state of someone who died two centuries ago.

I won’t go so far as to say that I wish Cassandra had tossed the Lefroy letter onto her bonfire. No, I treasure every scrap of Austen’s prose too much for that. But I wish the rest of us could stop speculating about Austen’s love life and go back to reading her books.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 19 2016 02:00PM

Eighteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Reading has its hierarchies. We prefer acquaintances to catch us absorbed in, say, a collection of Plato’s dialogues or a paperback of Hamlet than deep into the second volume of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (That’s the one with the mask on the cover. I mean -- so I’ve heard.)

And this privileging of certain kinds of literature over others goes back a long way – arguably, back to Plato (who famously banned poets from his ideal Republic), and certainly back to Jane Austen’s era. That’s obvious in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, that Austen sent exactly two hundred and eighteen years ago today (#14 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

“I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin requesting my name as Subscriber to her Library which opens the 14th of January,” the twenty-three-year-old Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra, who was on one of her frequent visits to the family of their older brother Edward, in Kent. “As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c—She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so;--but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers.”

In other words, the shamefaced attitude that many of us bring to our preferred form of trashy reading -- whether it be erotic romance, violent thriller, cheesy sci-fi or gossipy celebrity bio – was the attitude many readers in Austen’s time took toward novels of all kinds. The English novel was arguably barely a century old, and the genre’s status was low relative to that of more venerable literary forms like poetry, history or philosophy.

It didn’t help that middle-class women, confined at home, with long hours available for socializing and leisure activities, were often seen as the novel’s main audience. How good could those books be if only girls read them?

Raised in a family of voracious novel-readers, and acutely aware of the time and craft it took to write one, Austen, of course, thought this snobbery absurd. “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid,” she has Northanger Abbey’s hero, Henry Tilney, tell his heroine, Catherine Morland, after she assumes, “You never read novels, I dare say?. . . . gentlemen read better books.”

And of course it’s also in Northanger Abbey that Austen uncharacteristically lapses into lecture mode to describe the novel as “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

OK, maybe not every novel. Jane Austen surely knew that not all novels are created equal: Henry Tilney lauds the good ones, after all. Fifty Shades hardly deserves Austen’s praise for wit, insight and linguistic virtuosity. (I mean -- so I’ve heard.) What annoyed her was the blanket generalization, the failure to distinguish between the work of Burney and Edgeworth, on the one hand, and the work of eighteenth-century E.L. Jameses, on the other.

Today it’s romance, more than any other fictional genre, that labors under an indiscriminate stigma like that suffered by the novel in Austen’s time. And it’s not accidental, I’d argue, that once again, most of the readers of the maligned genre are female. How good could those books be if only girls read them?

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