Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 21 2019 02:00PM

Few expressions of Janeite commitment are as permanent -- not to mention as painful -- as the Jane Austen tattoo. Therefore, I’d have thought – call me crazy! – that it would be worth taking the trouble to verify ahead of time the accuracy of any Austen quotation you planned to etch onto your skin.


Apparently, not everyone agrees with me. For every Janeite as careful as Alethea White-Previs, whose impressive array of Austen tattoos features several genuine, take-‘em-to-the-bank Austen quotations, there seem to be any number of people willing to commit themselves on the basis of a cursory Google search.


I can only hope no one is following the lead of Lucy Martin, a columnist for the University of Warwick (England) student newspaper, whose recent literary tattoo suggestions included “For those who love romance novels, ‘I love you most ardently’ from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” A line which a) is misquoted from b) a scene that, properly understood, isn’t romantic, in c) a book that is not a romance novel.


But Martin isn’t alone in her apparent inability to text-search before tattooing. In 2014, a BuzzFeed list of “23 Epic Literary Love Tattoos” included not one but two photos of skin art featuring not-in-Austen lines, both from the screenplay of the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice: “We are all fools in love” (#22) and “You have bewitched me body and soul” (#19).


The latter tattoo incorporated a picture of a quill pen, even though screenwriter Deborah Moggach seems much more likely to have used a computer. (Over on Pinterest, a poster noted proudly that the font of her new “You have bewitched me etc.” tattoo mimics “Jane Austen’s handwriting,” in which those words were never written.)


In November 2015, Bustle recommended the “fools in love” line as one of “14 Jane Austen Quotes That Would Make Great Tattoos.” Two months later, the same website featured a picture of the same phrase, prettily inked onto the skin of someone-or-other. “Jane Austen laid down some serious truth bombs in her books, but this quote from Pride and Prejudice is so universal, honest, and accurate, it practically screams ‘Pick me, pick me!’ from inside the pages,” the accompanying caption explained.


Except that you won’t find that quote inside the pages of P&P, because Jane Austen didn’t write it.


Obviously, if you love a line from a Jane Austen movie and want to ink it onto your skin, you should go right ahead. But if your goal is to acquire a literary tattoo, then it might be worthwhile to consult an actual book. And if that seems like too much work to do for your Jane Austen tattoo, maybe you’d better stick to the temporary kind.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 17 2019 02:00PM

The Janeite world is a-twitter (and a-Twitter) this week over the serendipitous discovery of a Victorian photo album filled with pictures of Austen descendants – the children and grandchildren of her brother Edward, who was adopted by wealthy relatives and took their name, Knight.


It’s an irresistible story: Last November, a history buff in Ireland paid $1,000 for an eBay offering -- and discovered that she’d stumbled across previously unseen documentation tangentially related to the world’s trendiest classic novelist. *


Too bad that, inevitably, press coverage has swept right past the tangential nature of the discovery in order to wallow in the usual silly speculation and inaccuracy.


To wit:

--The Daily Mail: “Austen . . . has never been pictured herself** but the remarkable discovery gives historians an unprecedented insight into the inspirations for her most famous characters . . . . the photo album shows the family and places which are said to have influenced her writing.”


Guys, this is a stretch.


Austen loved her nieces – and her relationship with the eldest, Fanny, whose picture appears in the album, was important enough that it’s plausible to speculate about influences – but most of the people pictured here were children, if that, when Austen died in 1817. A family wedding from 1865 does not give historians insight into Austen’s influences fifty years earlier, no matter how gee-whiz it is that the groom lost his arm in a tiger attack in India.


As for the places that influenced her, only Chawton House, the Knight family manse in Hampshire, seems to be pictured here, and it’s not exactly “unprecedented” news that Austen spent lots of time there. Nearby Chawton cottage, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels, is now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, for crying out loud.


For Janeites, it’s ultra-cool to put faces to the names we’ve seen on Austen family trees, but “unprecedented insight” into Austen’s fiction? I don’t think so.


--Jezebel: “Am I the only one who thought Jane Austen’s family was at least Pride and Prejudice-level poor? According to the pictures of her fancy-ass relatives in The Daily Mail, it turns out they were Emma rich. Look at that manor house!”


Sigh. Where to begin?


1. The Bennets of Pride and Prejudice are not poor, whatever Joe Wright’s 2005 movie may have implied to the contrary. They are landed gentry. Mr. Bennet does not have to work. His daughters move in the best circles of their small-pond country world. The Bennet family's problem is not immediate poverty; it’s a lack of security for the future.


2. Jane Austen’s family of origin was also not poor. The Austens were respectably middle class. Unlike the Bennets, however, they were not landed gentry. The Rev. George Austen did have to work, as a teacher and a minister. This is well-documented in roughly a gazillion Austen biographies.


3. But one of Jane Austen’s brothers – the one whose descendants are pictured here – was rich, possibly even Emma rich. (See above.) Again, this is not news.


4. In any case, however, the people pictured here lived long, long after Jane Austen, in a social world far different from her own. Their economic circumstances, while interesting in themselves, don’t tell us much about Austen’s own life.


Still, if you want to ransack the attic again in hopes of finding a previously unsuspected Austen family relic, be my guest. It doesn’t have to offer unprecedented! insights! to be intriguing.



* Novelist and academic Sophia Hillan, the author of a non-fiction account of three Austen nieces who settled in Ireland, mentioned the album in passing in a piece she published last month in the Irish Times. (I mentioned it here.) But the press doesn't seem to have registered the importance of the discovery until a few days ago.


** No big surprise, that, since she died two decades before the invention of photography. (Details!)


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2019 02:00PM

Literary critics turn up in the most unexpected places.


Last November, the Maryland Zoo, in Baltimore, asked the public whether this year’s crop of African penguin chicks should be named for shades of color, types of pasta, or literary characters. Literary characters won, and earlier this month the zoo announced names for the first four of its recent hatchlings.


Three of them – Zorro, Gatsby and Coraline – need not detain us here. No doubt those chicks will grow up into perfectly adequate penguins.


The fourth, however, has been named Knightley.



Knightley the penguin


No doubt you, like me, are wondering why the zookeepers of Baltimore feel that, when you contemplate Austen’s large gallery of characters, the hero of Emma is the one who says Penguin.


Alas, because the zoo has provided no explanation for its literary exegesis, we can only speculate. Perhaps it’s because Mr. Knightley looks good in formalwear. (“His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body's eyes” – ch. 38). Or because, like the monogamous African penguin, he’s a one-woman man. (“There is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell” – ch. 42). Or because, like the members of this species, in which males and females share equally in egg-incubation duties, he’s good with kids. (“He was soon led on to. . . take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity” – ch. 12).


Whatever the reason, I’m sure we Janeites can all agree that this name sets a high bar for its avian owner. He’s not a happy-go-lucky Bingley, a brooding Brandon, or even a kindly Croft. He evokes one of Jane Austen’s most grownup characters: responsible, mature, ethically rigorous, a good neighbor, a careful estate manager.


It’s a lot for one small penguin to live up to.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 10 2019 02:00PM

Last Thursday, James McAvoy, the excellent Scottish actor who played Jane Austen’s crush Tom Lefroy in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, paid a visit to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, where he Instagrammed a semi-incognito selfie from the gift shop.


You know it’s a slow Jane Austen news week when you’re reduced to discussing an actor from a bad Austen biopic visiting a faux Austen tourist attraction.


I know, I know: Many, many Janeites love this movie and this museum. I am a killjoy. Toss a blanket over my head and ignore me.


New Year’s Resolution: Stop being a killjoy.

**deep breath**

I will try to do better. Here goes:


If you’re a fan of Becoming Jane – which, based on exactly zero evidence, posits Lefroy as the Big Romance Who Inspired Pride and Prejudice Because Jane Austen Couldn’t Have Just Imagined It – then curl up with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy another viewing! If you love the Jane Austen Centre -- which houses artifacts Austen did not own in a building where she did not live -- please buy another ticket and wallow to your heart’s content! I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours! As Tom Lefroy probably didn't say!


Well, it’s only January. I still have time to get this no-killjoy thing right.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 3 2019 02:00PM

Over the last eight years, we’ve marked a plethora of Jane Austen anniversaries: the bicentennials of the publications of all six of her novels (2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2018) and the bicentennial of her death (2017). It’s lucky we’ve had all that practice, because 2019 will bring us three more notable Austen anniversaries – or, to be exact, three Austen-fandom anniversaries:


--Thirty years ago, the Jane Austen Society of Australia (JASA) was founded. A birthday party is already scheduled for December 14, just two days ahead of Austen’s own 244th.


--Forty years ago, the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) marked its debut with an October 5 dinner at Manhattan’s Gramercy Park Hotel, attended by one hundred guests and covered in the New Yorker magazine. On the same evening this year, about six times that many people will raise a glass to JASNA in Williamsburg, Virginia, the site of this year’s Annual General Meeting. The conference theme is “200 Years of Northanger Abbey.” Actually, it’s 201 years, but who’s counting?


--Seventy years ago, the most beloved Austen pilgrimage site, Jane Austen’s House Museum – aka Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – welcomed its first visitors. On the July 23 anniversary of the opening, the museum’s first seventy visitors will get in for the 1949 admission price (about a quarter of the current cost), and four days later everyone is invited to a birthday party.


After all the partying, by this time next year, you may feel inclined to take a breather. But don’t get too comfortable: 2020 marks the eightieth anniversary of the UK Jane Austen Society, the world’s first, whose initial goal was the raising of money to preserve Chawton cottage. And once that anniversary is safely over, it will be time to start thinking about the biggie just over the horizon: 2025, the two hundred and fiftieth year since Austen’s birth.


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