Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 19 2018 01:00PM

Janeites tend to know quite a bit about Jane Austen: her books, her characters, her family, her life and times. But hey – there’s always more to learn, right?


Next Monday sees the launch of “Jane Austen: Myth, Reality and Global Celebrity,” an online course developed by the University of Southampton in England and co-taught by Gillian Dow, a university English professor who is executive director of the library at Chawton House.


The class – a so-called MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course – requires a modest commitment: three hours a week for two weeks. No college credit is involved, but if you fork over $49, you can take tests and receive a “Certificate of Achievement” if you pass. Or you can just watch the lectures for free.


The instructors – Dow and Kim Simpson, a Southampton University lecturer who is currently a Chawton House postdoctoral affiliate – promise to cover a wide range of topics, from the social and historical context of Austen’s work to the marketing of Austen as a contemporary pop celebrity. Judging from the course’s promotional video, participants will also be treated to some lovely shots of iconic Austen-related locations.


The only prerequisite is “a basic knowledge of [Austen’s] novels,” which shouldn’t pose much of a problem for your average Janeite.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2018 01:00PM

Good news for those of us who can never get enough Jane Austen adaptations: Apparently, theater professionals in London and New York are working on a new musical based on Emma.


London casting for an upcoming workshop production was announced last week, and an invitation-only reading was held in New York last September. The show’s book and lyrics are by playwright Meghan Brown, and the music is by composer Sarah Taylor Ellis.


It’s encouraging to see an all-female writing team behind this show, especially one whose previous collaboration is a feminist musical about slumber-party guests possessed by demons. Perfect preparation for Jane Austen!


You can’t call the whole Emma-as-a-musical-thing a new idea, however: A quick Google search informs me that an Emma musical by Paul Gordon was presented in New York in 2006, as part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals, and an apparently completely different version, by Joel Adlen, showed up the following year as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.


And that’s not even to mention Eric Price’s Emma! A Pop Musical, which seems to be popular with the drama departments of middle schools and high schools. That version updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs as a score, in the jukebox fashion made famous by shows like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.


No word on how close the latest show is to a full-fledged production, but you know I’ll be there if it happens.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 12 2018 01:00PM

Back when I was writing Among the Janeites, I happened across two Facebook groups whose titles encapsulated a common set of attitudes about Austen’s novels. One was called “I am going to marry one of the men in Jane Austen’s novels.” The other was called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of love.”


I recalled those now-defunct nests of Janeite Facebookers earlier this week, when my Google Alert sent me word of an opinion column in inews.com, the online version of the British daily newspaper i, headlined “Jane Austen’s novels have ruined me for dating modern men.”


It’s about what you’d expect: The author, a British journalist and fiction writer named Emily Hill, complains that she’s single at thirty-four because guys today, with their multiple dating apps and caddish behavior, can’t measure up to Mr. Darcy. “At no point has any man – proud, haughty or otherwise – stormed into my presence to declare ‘in vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,’ ” she mourns.


I hate to be one of those officious Janeites who goes around telling everyone else that they’re reading the books wrong, but – Emily, I think you might be reading the books wrong.


It’s Hill’s choice of Darcy quote that’s a giveaway. As we Janeites know, that quote comes from Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth – the insulting one, in which he tells her he tried his best not to love her because of her unsuitable family but finally had to give in, against his better judgment.


As I’ve pointed out before, Austen does not mean this scene to be a swoon-worthy romantic moment. Like other Austen scenes that seem to fit neatly into a romance-novel template, it’s intended more as a warning: Danger! Don’t try this at home! It’s surely not a good sign that Hill even speaks semi-approvingly of the weak and unreliable Willoughby, “who at least gave Marianne in Sense and Sensibility the most exciting months of her life.” *


It’s odd to find a self-proclaimed Austen addict hankering after love-at-first-sight, sweep-me-off-my-feet, Willoughby-and-Marianne romance when the books seem – to me at least – self-evidently critical of such relationships. Most of the Austen heroines are temporarily waylaid by exciting strangers who seem to check all the Conventional Romantic Hero boxes: good-looking, charming, self-confident, smooth. But every Austen heroine marries someone else: a man she’s had time to get to know, whose family or friends she has met, whose character she has seen tested. If Hill equates love with instant passion and then bemoans her inability to find it, I don’t think it’s Austen who can be blamed.


Meanwhile, anyone paying close attention to Austen’s novels will notice that many of the established marriages she portrays are unhappy mismatches (the Bennets) or making-the-best-of-it pairings of a reasonably bright partner with a fairly dim one (Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram). Sure, there are exceptions – the Crofts, the Gardiners, the Westons – but it’s hard to escape the conviction that Austen partially shares the views of that ruthless marital pragmatist Charlotte Collins, née Lucas: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”


So are Austen’s happy endings pure fairy tales, as Hill suggests? Is it true that “if one looks at [Darcy] objectively, he behaves like no man ever did on earth”? Or that Austen’s lifelong spinsterhood points its own lesson: “Look to the life and the fiction starts to fall apart”?


I’m not going to deny that Austen’s happy endings have a fairy-tale dimension, but Hill misidentifies the fantasy elements. It’s fantasy that an a) rich and b) handsome man from c) a distinguished family would get to know, let alone fall in love with, a d) not-rich woman e) far outside his social sphere. Especially in Pride and Prejudice, it’s the social context that supplies the Cinderella-style fantasy.


But let’s say you’ll suspend your disbelief that far. Is it really fantasy that a mature and responsible man confronted with bitter evidence of his failings in the eyes of someone whose opinion he values would undertake a moral inventory and try to do better? I guess I’m not cynical enough to say so.


Perhaps because I missed the online dating moment, Austen’s heroes don’t seem so unrealistic to me. With the notable exception of Darcy, most of them aren’t fabulously wealthy or especially good-looking. Their leading qualities are kindness, wit, generosity, and moral seriousness. I’ve met plenty of men like that. I even married one of them.




* It gets worse: Hill also speaks longingly of the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, a book I love but would hardly take as a relationship guide.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 9 2018 01:00PM

Few are the places with genuine Jane Austen connections. Austen’s birthplace, Steventon Rectory, was razed in the nineteenth century; though some of her temporary homes in Bath survive, her long-term residence in Southampton is gone, replaced by a pub. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, is a treasure, of course, and Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral is worth a pilgrimage, but many of the sites that Janeite tourists visit are movie locations where Austen herself probably never set foot.


So it’s exciting to learn that the newly restored Reading Abbey Gateway will open to the public later this week (see accounts here and here). As Janeites will recall, the Gateway once housed the Reading Ladies’ Boarding School, where the ten-year-old Austen and her older sister, Cassandra, were pupils in 1785-6, the final year of their brief formal education.


Although news accounts imply that visitors will see the very classroom where Austen studied, I doubt this is actually the case. Instead, it seems that in September, the local museum plans to move an already existing Victorian classroom exhibit into the Gateway. Since, as we Janeites are so often called on to point out, Austen was a Regency writer, not a Victorian one, it’s not clear how much relevance this exhibit will have to her own schooldays.


But when it comes to genuine Austen sites, we beggars can’t be choosers. Any readers who get a chance to visit Reading, please let us know what you think of the restored Abbey Gateway!


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 5 2018 01:00PM

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


Publishers jerk authors around.


This is not exactly news, least of all to authors who have argued over titles and cover art, watched publication dates come and go with no action, or pleaded in vain for increases to the publicity budget.*


Nor is this a modern phenomenon, as the letter Jane Austen wrote exactly 209 years ago today [#68(D) in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence] makes clear.


Six years earlier, in the spring of 1803, Austen – working anonymously through her brother Henry and his lawyer, William Seymour – had sold the manuscript of what eventually become Northanger Abbey to London publisher Benjamin Crosby & Co. for a respectable £10. The book, then titled Susan, was advertised for sale the same year.


And then – nothing. No book ever appeared. It’s hard to imagine a more infuriating and discouraging outcome for a hopeful first-time author.


By 1809, Austen was done waiting. She was about to move into a settled home at Chawton cottage; perhaps she wanted to gather all her unfinished work and get down to some serious revision.


And so she wrote to Crosby & Co. asking that it either publish Susan or dissolve the old contract. “Should no notice be taken of this Address, I shall feel myself at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere,” she wrote. She signed the letter “MAD” – shorthand for her pseudonym du jour, “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” but no doubt also a pointed commentary on her state of mind.


With an alacrity notably absent from the earlier handling of Austen’s work, Richard Crosby wrote back three days later. He denied that the firm had ever promised to publish at any particular time (or, indeed, at all), threatened legal action if Austen tried to publish elsewhere, and offered to return the manuscript in exchange for the £10 previously paid.


Austen may have been MAD before; she must have been enraged when she got this insulting reply. Frustrated, too: It took her another seven years – and the publication of four other novels – before she could find the money to buy back her own work. Which, of course, was finally published in 1818 -- exactly two hundred years ago.


(For a fascinating and detailed account of Northanger Abbey’s publication history, check out Deborah Barnum’s post in blogger Sarah Emsley’s ongoing series about Austen’s last two published novels.)


If this sorry episode demonstrates anything – beyond the fact that publishers have mistreated authors for centuries – it is how much persistence, determination, and commitment it took for Jane Austen to get her books into print. She needed a thick skin and deep reservoirs of MAD. Even for an Austen-caliber genius, talent wasn’t enough.



* #NotAllPublishers, of course. I have no complaints about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Among the Janeites.


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