Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 5 2018 02:00PM

In your average general-interest bookshop, a majority of the titles have probably been authored by men. No surprise there – historically, to quote Anne Elliot, “men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. . . . the pen has been in their hands.”

So I took a certain visceral satisfaction in learning that, for the next five days, London readers will be able to browse through the shelves of an all-women-all-the-time pop-up bookstore. The Like A Woman Bookshop, located on Rivington Street in the Shoreditch neighborhood of east London, is a collaboration between publisher Penguin Random House and bookseller Waterstones to mark two feminist milestones: the annual celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), and the centennial of the 1918 law that gave (some) British women the right to vote.

“The bookshop will celebrate the persistence of women who’ve fought for change: those who fight, rebel and shout #LikeAWoman,” Penguin Random House’s press release says. (Yes, there is a certain irony in the spectacle of a big corporation putting its imprimatur on scrappy anti-establishment rebelliousness, complete with a no-doubt-carefully-vetted hashtag. But you take what you can get.)

Like A Woman’s shelves will be organized on idiosyncratic lines, “not just by genre or category but by the impact the author has had on culture, history or society, including ‘Essential feminist reads,’ ‘Inspiring young readers,’ ‘Women to watch,’ ‘Your body’ and ‘Changemakers,’ “ Penguin Random House says.

It’s not clear to me if Jane Austen will make the cut, since Penguin Random House claims its pop-up shop will stock “the most inspiring and iconic titles in recent times” and all the authors mentioned by name date from the mid-twentieth century or later.

But as Chawton House’s extensive rare book collection makes clear, the literary landscape of Jane Austen’s time was populated with plenty of female writers, some of whom Austen admired greatly. It’s not hard to imagine a time-traveling Jane Austen enjoying the chance to spend this week leafing through the stock in the Like A Woman Bookshop.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 1 2018 02:00PM

Do Jane Austen’s characters keep bars of soap handy for washing? This is one of the many details of Regency life that Austen does not discuss. My electronic search found not a single mention of the word “soap” in any of the finished novels.

Presumably, contemporary readers knew what hygiene habits were typical for the gentry class that populates her novels. Modern readers must rely on historical research, such as the account in this helpful blog post, which suggests that, in Austen’s era, bar soap was an expensive item, more accessible to the upper classes than to the poor.

Or we can just throw history to the winds and patronize our preferred purveyor of “Jane Austen soap” – i.e., attractively colored, scented and packaged bars labeled with Austen-inspired names. Think Jane Austen candles, and you’ll get the idea.

Judging from Google and Etsy, this niche market has practically spawned a cottage industry. There’s lavender-scented Jane Austen Bath Soap – “Suds and Sensibility,” the label reads. Don’t like lavender? Perhaps you would prefer Earl Grey, green tea, or sweet honeysuckle.

Tired of buying your Jane Austen soap from establishments that promiscuously mingle Austen-themed products with those based on the works of other writers, from Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelley to J.K. Rowling and Diana Gabaldon? Then there’s Northanger Soapworks (“handmade soap for the Jane Austen addict”), whose offerings include a tobacco-and-black-tea-scented soap called Captain Wentworth’s Constancy and an orange-scented soap named after Mary Bennet and decorated with a lace pattern.

Some of these soaps look good enough to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re that desperate for Austen-themed hygiene, stick with the Jane Austen toothpaste.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 26 2018 02:00PM

The Winter Olympics are over, but not without a fleeting Jane Austen moment.

Last week, as my daughter and I were sitting glued to the livestream of the ice dancing competition, I perked up when the announcers informed us that the German team of Kavita Lorenz and Joti Polizoakis would be setting their four-minute free skate to – and I quote -- “Pride and Prejudice.”

Since the Germans were probably not going to be skating to an Audible-style reading of Jane Austen’s immortal masterpiece, we were clearly about to hear a short excerpt from the soundtrack to one of the filmed adaptations of the novel. But which adaptation? NBC’s announcement provided no clue.

And then the swoonily romantic opening bars played, and all became clear. Although both Lorenz and Polizoakis were born in 1995, the year the BBC released its iconic Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt P&P, they skated to music from the 2005 film – aka the Keira Knightley version.

Maybe they should have gone with the music from the earlier, better adaptation. As it was, Lorenz and Polizoakis finished in sixteenth place.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 22 2018 02:00PM

Sometimes the English are just so. . . English that you can’t help giggling. And so it was earlier this month, when I happened across the story of a teapot tempest involving a Jane Austen-connected Cotswold village, a restored medieval church, a wealthy businessman, and a local historian with a distaste for nouveau riche pretensions.

Our scene is set in the Gloucestershire village of Adlestrop, population 80, which – along with the stately Warwickshire mansion Stoneleigh Abbey, which sits on 690 acres some twenty miles farther north -- was the ancestral home of the Leighs, the clan to which Jane Austen’s mother belonged. The family tree boasts a Lord Mayor of London, a duke’s sister, and a master of Balliol College, Oxford, but Mrs. Austen’s particular twig was less star-studded.

Still, Mrs. Austen was proud of her illustrious relatives, and Jane Austen certainly kept abreast of family news. In 1806, she even stayed at Stoneleigh Abbey with an elderly cousin who had just inherited the estate. Plausible speculation holds that Austen might have had the family chapel at Stoneleigh in mind when she imagined the family chapel at Sotherton, site of an important scene in Mansfield Park.

Back in Adlestrop, another branch of the Leighs lived for centuries at the less palatial (about 100 acres) but still plenty nice Adlestrop Park. By 1999, however, this property had passed to the family of a high-powered businessman with the appropriately Austenesque name of Collins. (That would be Dominic Collins, chair of international insurance broker Hyperion Insurance Group.) The Collinses restored the house and donated to renovation projects at the local church, St. Mary Magdalene.

So when Collins asked if he could put up a hatchment – a diamond-shaped plaque bearing a coat of arms – in the church to honor the memory of his late wife, the church agreed.

Enter the disgruntled historian: thirty-year Adlestrop resident Victoria Huxley, author of the 2013 book Jane Austen and Adlestrop: Her Other Family, which explores Austen’s links to the village. Huxley, it appears, didn’t think those upstart Collinses, no matter how much money they had given to fix up the church bells, had deep enough roots in the village to deserve a plaque.

Huxley, reports the Telegraph, told a church court that she was “very surprised that someone with a relatively short link to the village (compared to the age of the church) should seek to place their coat of arms in the church. . . . I feel that only a family which has strong ties over several generations should have such a display.”

(It’s not clear from the reporting whether the matter went to the church court, formally known as consistory court, because of Huxley’s objections, or whether the court had to approve any hatchment request regardless.)

If hearing about this rich stew of ecclesiastical politics, small-town class resentment, and officious meddling makes you feel that you have mistakenly wandered into a Trollope novel – well, you’re not alone. Personally, I can’t tell whether I’m more entertained by the pretentiousness of the whole coat-of-arms-on-a-plaque idea, or by the spectacle of the thirty-year village resident policing the Johnny-come-lately aspirations of the twenty-year village resident. It’s all quite delicious.

Alas, the final chapter of this saga may already have been written: Huxley lost the argument. "The Jane Austen connection does not preserve in aspic this Church,” the court wrote, clearing the way for the Collins hatchment.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 19 2018 02:00PM

Although it’s been a quiet few weeks on the Austen beat, at least compared with last year’s bicentenary frenzy, a few bits of Janeite news have come in over the transom. Herewith, a roundup:

* Garden seat: Bicentenary commemorations live on, as Jane Austen’s House Museum -- aka Chawton cottage, the Hampshire home where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – inaugurated its spring season this month by unveiling a Garden Memorial to Austen.

The memorial consists of two stone benches carved with a delightful quote from Austen’s 1816 letter to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, who had advised her to make her next book a “Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg.”

Deftly deploying self-deprecation to deflect this asinine suggestion, Austen replied, "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter."

The benches sit in view of the cottage, in a corner of the small garden – another landmark for Janeite visitors to check out when they’re next in Chawton.

* Quiz fail: Alas, British twenty-something Madeline Grant – familiar to readers of an earlier blog post -- lost in the semifinals of the beloved BBC quiz show Mastermind, despite correctly answering eleven questions on her specialty subject, Jane Austen’s life and works. (Apparently, she did less well on the test of general knowledge.)

The episode aired on February 9, but rights issues prevent viewing it on this side of the pond. Thus, I can’t tell you anything about the Austen questions, unless one of my intrepid readers knows of an – ahem! – less orthodox viewing method. Here’s hoping for a future Janeite Mastermind champ.

* Football and faux-Austen: One or two times in the past – OK, make that one or two hundred times – I have expressed, sometimes rather forcefully, my displeasure at the Internet’s habit of mistaking quotes from movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels for genuine Jane Austen quotes. (For one such post, click here.)

Sadly, my Sisyphean labor has yet to bear fruit, and the Internet is at it again. On Valentine’s Day last week, Linda Holliday, longtime girlfriend of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, posted to Instagram a photo of the happy couple relaxing on a beach vacation.

Underneath the photo, she wrote, “ ‘You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love ... I love ... I love you!’ ~ Pride and Prejudice” (A heart emoji was also involved, but I can't replicate it here.)

There is nothing wrong with Holliday's caption, since the sentence she quotes – swoonily romantic or irredeemably cheesy, depending on your taste – does, indeed, come from Pride and Prejudice. Not, however, from the Jane Austen novel of that name, but from the 2005 Joe Wright film adaptation of said novel.

The Internet does not understand this distinction.

“Holliday quoted Jane Austen from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ” the Boston Globe happily – and inaccurately – reported. Yes, agreed the gossip site The Smoke Room: Holliday was “quoting Jane Austen’s 19th century book ‘Pride And Prejudice.’ ”

Inevitably, the next person searching for the origins of the “body and soul” sentence will happen across the Globe’s attribution and, lulled into a false sense of security by the newspaper’s reputation for good journalism, will perpetuate the error.

What is to be done? A friend to whom I ranted about this latest idiocy reminded me of a famous line in the Jewish ethical teachings known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." The work of eradicating faux Austen quotes goes on.

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