Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 17 2018 01:00PM

Dissing the members of the British royal family -- at least the popular ones -- is not for the faint of heart.


Jane Austen confined her criticism of the royals of her day to her private correspondence, where she revealed her dislike of the Prince Regent (later George IV) and her not-unmixed support for his slandered and abused wife, Princess Caroline.


Sandi Toksvig, the current co-host of TV’s Great British Bake Off – known to American audiences as The Great British Baking Show – was unwise enough to do her dissing in public.


Back in 2013, Toksvig, then known as a radio personality, told the Guardian that she wasn’t excessively impressed with Prince William’s willowy wife, the former Kate Middleton.


“Kate Middleton is not enough for me. We used to admire women who got their place in life through marriage and having children, but I like to think we've grown up a bit,” Toksvig said back then. “I can't think of a single opinion she holds – it's very Jane Austen.”


(The first quarter of 2013, not long after the announcement of the royal couple’s first pregnancy, was rife with Kontroversial Kate Kommentary: Just a few weeks before the Toksvig interview, novelist Hilary Mantel had caused a minor kerfuffle by comparing Princess Kate’s* public image to that of a “shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.”)


A few days ago, Toksvig took the opportunity to apologize for her 2013 remarks, insisting she had meant no offense and hoped that Kate had taken none. I, however, have a different view of the matter. It seems to me that the person who deserves Toksvig's apology isn’t Kate Middleton but Jane Austen.


Because whether you’re referring to the novelist herself or to her fictional heroines, there is nothing “very Jane Austen” about holding no opinions of anything. Elizabeth Bennet has no ideas of her own? Emma Woodhouse is a shrinking violet? Marianne Dashwood keeps her mouth shut and defers to the views of others? And don’t even get me started on the strong-minded woman who created these mouthy, opinionated characters.


As so often happens, "Jane Austen" in this context doesn't actually mean "the novelist Jane Austen," or "Jane Austen's books," or "Jane Austen's characters." Austen's name is used as shorthand, signifying a cluster of ideas, attitudes and social arrangements that she herself did not create and did not necessarily endorse.


Probably Toksvig meant to say that it is “very Jane Austen” for women to earn their social positions through marriage and childbearing. Fair enough: Austen does write about a world in which that’s the case. But that’s not “very Jane Austen”; it’s “very nineteenth-century patriarchy.”



* Oh, OK: the Duchess of Cambridge. But we all call her Princess Kate, don’t we?


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 13 2018 01:00PM

One of the occupational hazards of Janeite life is a heightened sensitivity to every mention of Jane Austen, no matter the context. Whatever you’re reading – a cookbook, a computer manual, an obituary column – if you stumble across an Austen sighting, that’s what will stick in your memory later.


Thus it was that my last few days’ perusal of the New York Times turned into a veritable festival of Janeite delight, as I ran across no fewer than three Austen mentions in three different sections of the paper.


* Saturday: As a subscriber, I get my physical copy of the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review a day early, and as usual I turned to the “By the Book” column, in which a famous or semi-famous author answers assorted questions about her/his reading life. This week’s participant, the excellent novelist Kate Atkinson, cited Pride and Prejudice as the last great book she’d read and Elizabeth Bennet as one of her favorite literary heroes. No quarrel there. *


* Sunday: I usually skip the business section – this may explain why I am not richer – but the headline on the day’s top story pulled me in: Young law student’s theory of anti-trust law could help bring Amazon to heel. (OK, yes, probably the book connection helped.)


Deep in the story came this cute anecdote, describing the recent marriage of the law student, Lina Khan, to cardiologist Shah Ali. “The honeymoon was in Hawaii,” the story explained. “Dr. Ali took Jane Austen’s Persuasion, because he hadn’t reread it in a while. Ms. Khan brought a book on corporations and American democracy.”


To which a Janeite can only say: Lina, honey, you’ve married the perfect man – a man who not only reads Austen but rereads her.


* Monday: I love the quirky, obscure stories in the obituary section, and this day featured the poignant tale of crime writer Amanda Kyle Williams and her untimely death at sixty-one. Although I’ve never read any of Williams’ books, I was pulled in by the headline, which mentioned her dyslexia. And my reward came right there in the sixth paragraph, after an account of Williams’ miserably illiterate childhood and eventual dyslexia diagnosis, at twenty-two.


“With the psychologist’s help, she learned to read, and at twenty-three she did something that had once filled her with dread: She walked into a library,” the obituary said. “There she finished her first book, Pride and Prejudice.“


Talk about starting at the top! And yet, unintimidated, Williams went on to write seven novels of her own. It’s quite a story.


Three days, three Austen sightings: Such is the life of a Janeite. OK, I admit that none came in a cookbook or a computer manual. But there’s always next week.



* Blog readers will recall that five years ago, I calculated that seventeen percent of the first fifty-eight “By the Book” subjects had mentioned Austen, one way or another. I haven’t kept track since then, but perhaps I should.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 10 2018 01:00PM

Poor never-married Jane Austen: Lacking nuptials, she never got a bachelorette party, either.


Strange, then – not to say strangely hilarious – to see Austen cited as a key reason for the proliferation of risqué bachelorette parties in Bath, England.


According to the UK news-and-entertainment website Somerset Live, Bath’s Jane Austen connections, along with its architecture, location, and quintessential Britishness, are likely responsible for the increase in Bath-based “hen dos,” as the British call them. The only evidence for this increase cited in the story is a rise in the bookings of the featured company, Butlers in the Buff.


Yes, nothing says “Jane Austen” quite like handsome young male waitstaff clad in tiny aprons that do not cover their bottoms.


No doubt it is unfair of me to speculate that the sole purpose of this story was to provide an excuse for running photos of, by my count, three shapely male posteriors – or six, if you scroll through the photo gallery. Probably this story represents a serious effort to come to grips, as it were, with an important economic development issue.


The Bath hen do is not a new phenomenon: Readers of Among the Janeites may recall that during my trip to Bath on the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2011 tour, I happened across a cordial fellow who dressed up as Mr. Darcy and staged glass-blowing demonstrations for brides-to-be and their friends.


Although the juxtaposition of Austen's no-sex-till-marriage ethos and today's you-go-girl embrace of female lust is headspinning, to say the least, perhaps the pairing isn't as incongruous as it seems. See, glass-blower Darcy made clear that he was not a stripper, and “Ben,” the long-time Butler in the Buff interviewed by Somerset Live, says that he, too, does not remove his clothing, such as it is.


“Ben believes most women are no longer interested in the vulgarity of a stripper experience - especially in Bath,” the story notes. “Ben reckons women at Bath hen dos are ‘classier on the whole.’ ”


Seeing as they’re Jane Austen fans and all,


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 6 2018 01:00PM

For sale: four-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,400-square-foot house that -- as the long-time residence of Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen’s first modern, non-family biographer and a co-founder of the UK’s Jane Austen Society – has a real, if tangential, Austen connection.


I know what you’re thinking: At last! An Austen-related home that I can afford! Not one of those palatial English country mansions that’s out of the price range of everyone but a Russian oligarch!


Um, sorry. The location-location-location real estate mantra has never been truer: Although Jenkins’ former home, built in the nineteenth century in Regency Gothic style, looks to be a comparatively modest, albeit charming and elegant, residence, it’s plunked right in the middle of Hampstead, one of north London’s most desirable neighborhoods. And therefore it has a price tag to match: £4.25 million (about $5.5 million).


Jenkins (1905-2010) was a respected biographer and novelist, and her 1938 Austen biography is a lucid, tasteful, and restrained account of the author’s life. Her father bought her the house on Hampstead’s Downshire Hill, and beginning in 1939 she lived there for more than fifty years, eventually titling her 2004 memoir The View from Downshire Hill.


Despite the stratospheric heights that Hampstead property values achieved during her lifetime, Jenkins, like so many writers, was never wealthy: one of her obituaries described her as content with “the Victorian kitchen and one-bar electric fires” of her genteelly strapped life.


Those who acquired the house after her reportedly renovated the interior, and given the temperature of the London property market, they will no doubt soon reap their reward. Here’s hoping that the new residents share Jenkins’ passion for history, literature, and, especially, Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 3 2018 01:00PM

Only two months ago, I announced that second-order Austen adaptations -- adaptations of adaptations of Austen novels -- were now officially A Trend. It seems I was onto something, for now comes word that yet another piece of Austen fanfic has been sold to the movies.


This time, the hot property is Ayesha At Last, by first-time novelist Uzma Jalaluddin, a Pride and Prejudice update set in the world of young Muslims in contemporary Toronto. Last week, rights to the book – already out in Canada and due to be published in the United States next year -- were acquired by Pascal Pictures, run by former Sony Pictures chair Amy Pascal.


Of course, a sale to the movies is not the same thing as an actual movie, so no point buying popcorn for the screen version of Ayesha At Last just yet. And I haven't read the book, so the all-important issue of quality remains an unknown, at least for me, though I'm intrigued by the premise. Austen's tales of life in socially constricted Regency England seem to resonate strongly for contemporary readers from similarly conservative cultures -- hence, perhaps, the vogue for Austen on the Indian subcontinent, which I've written about here and here.


Whatever happens with Ayesha At Last, however, it’s refreshing to see that the box-office mojo of Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther has introduced Hollywood to the radical notion that not every movie has to be about white boys blowing things up. Who knew?


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