Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 15 2018 02:00PM

Last month, the Washington Post drew well-earned Janeite derision when it published an article exploring the astonishing news that Jane Austen wrote about marriage but never married. (Turns out that novelists make up stuff they haven’t experienced personally! Who knew?)


Perhaps news of this teapot tempest didn’t cross the pond: Tomorrow is the London premiere of a show I’ve mentioned before -- “Austen: The Musical” – which is apparently obsessed with the very same non-issue.


"The question we ask and ultimately try to answer in the show,” the musical’s author, Rob Winlow, told the London Evening Standard, “is how come Jane Austen wrote so eloquently about romantic affairs when she had seemingly few loving relationships and never married?"


Leaving aside the fact that, in my humble opinion, this is perhaps the least interesting question that one could possibly ask about Jane Austen, I must take issue with the claim that “she had seemingly few loving relationships.” Austen was part of a large and close-knit family: at a minimum, we are pretty sure that she adored her father, was close to two or three of her brothers, corresponded regularly with her oldest nieces, maintained a number of lifelong friendships with women about her own age, and was almost inseparable from her sister.


This is hardly the portrait of someone whose emotional life was a desert. Unless, that is, your definition of “loving relationship” includes only heterosexual romantic relationships. Which is kind of, you know, sexist.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 11 2018 02:00PM

Some years ago, I attended a picnic sponsored by my local branch of the Jane Austen Society of North America, to which a fellow JASNA member had brought her small dog. Like many Janeites, she had named him after one of her favorite Austen characters. As a result, halfway through the afternoon, we all heard the witness to a moment of canine discourtesy gasp out a truly unexpected sentence: “Mr. Knightley just peed in Deborah’s purse!”


(As indeed he had. Luckily, the purse was washable.)


I’m not a pet-owner myself, but I have long enjoyed hearing about pets with Austen-related names. So I was delighted to stumble upon (a few weeks late, but never mind), this “Pet of the Week” article in the Sunday Post, a Scottish weekly, seeking a home for a black guinea pig named. . . Mr. Darcy.


Guinea pigs leave me cold, as a rule, but this one looks about as appealing as it’s possible for a rodent to be, even if his resemblance to either Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen is notional.


Nevertheless, the animal seems to have taken his famous name very much to heart. According to the article, Mr. Darcy “can be a little scatty upon being picked up,” but “he soon settles and will happily sit on your lap and enjoys being the centre of attention,” even eating out of your hand “if the mood takes him.”


Basically, that’s the plot of Pride and Prejudice right there. Mr. Darcy: difficult at first, but soon eating out of your hand, and always the center of attention.


For potential adoptive owners, the Scottish branch of the SPCA sounded only one cautionary note: “Mr Darcy has previously had tiffs when living with another male guinea pig.”


No word on the name of that unfortunate erstwhile roommate, but my money is on Mr. Wickham.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 8 2018 02:00PM

Among the commemorations planned during last year’s bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, one of the most delightful was the Chawton quilt project – an ambitious effort by the staff of Jane Austen’s House Museum to create a quilt whose individual panels would tell the story of Austen’s life.


The museum – aka Chawton cottage, the place where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels – solicited volunteer quilters, held workshops for local participants, and helped the children from Chawton’s elementary school design and create a central panel.


And last week, the museum blog dedicated to the project reported that the quilt squares created by Janeite stitchers across the globe are now being assembled into the final product – indeed, two final products, to accommodate the unexpectedly numerous contributions. Contributors included representatives of Jane Austen societies, professional quilters, and even prison inmates involved in a program of rehabilitation through needlework.


The squares glimpsed on the blog so far (here, for instance) look quite lovely. I’m eagerly awaiting a shot of the completed quilts. They will join one of the gems of Chawton’s collection, the famous coverlet co-created by Austen herself.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 4 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen is no stranger to the quiz-show world, on either side of the pond: As blog readers will recall, just four years ago, she got a whole Jeopardy! category to herself, a few months before a team of Cambridge University students drew on their Janeite knowledge to win Britain’s much-loved University Challenge quiz competition.


And now comes word that a contestant on another venerable UK quiz show, the BBC's Mastermind, plans to make Jane Austen her specialist subject in a pending semi-final match.


Last month, twenty-five-year-old Madeline Grant, who works as a digital officer for a rightwing think tank in London, won an initial round of Mastermind, in which players compete to answer questions testing both their general knowledge and their expertise in a subject of their own choosing.


In her initial victory, Grant specialized in Harry Potter, but in the semi-final – the date of which, as far as I can tell, has not yet been announced – she’ll take on Austen. (This being Britain and not America, the winner of the Mastermind final receives an engraved glass bowl and a large helping of glory, but no money.)


Four years ago, Grant made her first appearance on Mastermind, missing out on a semi-final berth by a single point. For that outing, she specialized in the novels of E.M. Forster. You will not be surprised to hear that she was an English major at Oxford.


Before any of her quiz-show appearances, back when she was a mere slip of a girl of nineteen, Grant was at the center of a ridiculous media kerfuffle, of the kind so dear to the hearts of British tabloid readers: As an undergraduate, she ran for election to a job in the Oxford Union debating society, famous as a testing-ground for budding UK politicians, using a joking, slightly off-color slogan that referenced a portion of the female anatomy.


(Okay, okay. Since you insist. The slogan was “I don’t hack, I just have a great rack.” Hacking being the practice of ruthlessly seeking to advance one’s personal political or journalistic ambitions in a student organization.)


At the time, Grant claimed she intended to poke fun at the Union’s pretensions, which, as a former Oxford student myself, I can attest are legendary. Then the organization confirmed her point by summoning her to a disciplinary tribunal and fining her for “bringing the Union into disrepute” by employing an allegedly sexist slogan.


Apparently, the Union’s officers are unfamiliar with the concept of satire. Luckily, it will not be they who must appear in front of a large TV audience to answer questions about a consummate literary satirist.


Alas, it’s difficult to (legally) watch BBC TV here in the US, so I may have to rely on YouTube video pilfered after the fact to match Janeite wits with Grant. But needless to say, I will be rooting for her to take home the Mastermind title, if only so she can stick it to the pompous future politicians of the Oxford Union.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 1 2018 02:00PM

Once upon a time, Jane Austen was a British writer. But today, she’s an international phenomenon, with fan societies on at least five continents. As 2018 dawns, herewith an entirely unscientific and incomplete sampling of a few of the places Austen will turn up this year, as fans mark the sort-of bicentennials of Austen’s last two published novels:


* In a bookstore in Islamabad, where members of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan will convene to discuss Austenistan, their newly released collection of Austen-inspired stories set in contemporary Pakistan.

January 11


* In a nineteenth-century town hall in Salem, Massachusetts, where Regency dance enthusiasts will celebrate at a Jane Austen Ball.

February 17


* In a Baroque palace in Ansbach, Germany, where yet more dancing will take place at Der Grosse Jane Austen Ball.

April 7


* In a building called “the Dutch Versailles,” where Austen’s fans in the Netherlands will celebrate the bicentenary of Persuasion with still another ball.

May 12


(Which should not be confused with the Gothic ball being held in a suburban London church a week later to celebrate the bicentenary of Northanger Abbey.

May 19)


* At a women’s university in Tokyo, where the Jane Austen Society of Japan will hold its twelfth annual convention.

June 30


* In the capital of Australia, Canberra, where the country’s Jane Austen Society will hold a weekend-long conference on the bicentenary of Persuasion.

July 6-8


* On streets where Austen herself once walked, as Georgian-costumed revelers parade through Bath, England, during the annual Jane Austen Festival.

September 14-23


Here's hoping that this year you find a dance, a tea, a conference, an exhibition, a festival -- or even just a conversation -- about Jane Austen somewhere near you.


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