Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 1 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s novels are filled with marital mismatches. Clever, sardonic Mr. Bennet treats Mrs. Bennet with thinly veiled disrespect. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Palmer has discovered “like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favor of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” The long-dead mothers of Anne Elliot and Henry Tilney seem to have suffered in their marriages to selfish, difficult men. As we close each novel, we trust that our heroine and hero will be happy together, but the specter of marital failure lurks everywhere.


Nevertheless, nearly a quarter-century of swoony screen adaptations of Austen’s novels have persuaded the non-Janeite public that she is the embodiment of all things romantic. Two examples of this phenomenon crossed my desk this week:


* “Derbyshire is the most romantic place in the UK,” declares the no-doubt-completely-impartial website DerbyshireLive, the online home of the Derbyshire Telegraph newspaper. The area “is visually stunning and has inspired love stories which have bewitched the world.”


Cue mention of Pride and Prejudice; unverifiable claim that Derbyshire landmark Chatsworth was the inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley; and mention of other local sites featured in various filmed versions of the novel. (Jane Eyre merits a cameo, too.)


Derbyshire looks gorgeous, so don’t let me discourage anyone from proposing there. (Indeed, Among the Janeites includes the story of a man who proposed to his Austen-scholar wife at Chatsworth, which played Pemberley in the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice.) I’m just a little leery of this “Austen=lifelong happiness” equation.


* “Make the love of your life fall for you all over again with these 50 beautiful love quotes that say ‘I love you’ in different ways,” urges YourTango, which bills itself as “the leading online magazine dedicated to love and relationships.”


I must admit that whenever my Jane Austen Google alert highlights listicles like this one, I experience a certain all-too-familiar sinking sensation. I fear I am about to enter the Land of Faux Austen Quotes, that zone in which any line ever uttered by a character in an Austen movie is automatically attributed to the novelist herself.


Alas, YourTango has indeed harvested its beautiful love quotes from this same barren field. Amid the lines credited to the likes of Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, and Ed Sheeran – plus a selection from Lolita*: how creepy is that? – are two attributed to “Jane Austen.”


Brace yourself. At #25, we have “My heart is, and always will be, yours.” And at #27, we have that hoary classic “You have bewitched me body and soul.”


I loved hearing Hugh Grant sweetly deliver #25 to Emma Thompson in the 1995 movie of Sense and Sensibility. I was less enamored of Matthew Macfadyen delivering #27 to Keira Knightley in the 2005 P&P, but to each her own. Neither line, however, appears in the Austen novel on which the film is based.


Indeed, there’s a reason that romantic sayings from Jane Austen are so seldom drawn from the actual novels of Jane Austen: She didn’t write many swoony love scenes. Her novels are as determinedly un-swoony as it’s possible for courtship novels to be.


But hey: If you want to go around saying these things to the love of your life, perhaps while proposing in front of Chatsworth, be my guest. Just don’t blame Jane Austen if the marriage doesn’t work out.




* Which is, IMHO, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, but not my go-to choice for healthy expressions of romantic love.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 27 2018 01:00PM

When you’re off to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual conference, and the theme of that conference is Persuasion, it’s irresistible to quote the following exchange from the novel, the last one Austen finished before her death:


"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

"You are mistaken," said he gently; "that is not good company; that is the best.” (ch. 16)


And the best company is what I’m expecting over the next four days. JASNA’s annual general meeting, or AGM, is invariably a great time, with thought-provoking lectures, beautiful period costumes, energetic Regency dancing, excellent Austen-themed shopping, and quirky special sessions. (I’ve been looking forward to the “Cheese Tour of Jane Austen’s England” for two years.) But the highlight is the chance to talk Austen with fellow devotees.


Although Kansas City, where the conference is being held, is reputedly a pleasant locale, it’s quite possible that I will never leave the hotel, except for the occasional lunch. The cheese, and the conversation, will tide me over nicely.



By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2018 01:00PM

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


Jane Austen never lived alone. From her earliest days, she was surrounded by parents and siblings; on visits away from home, she stayed with friends and extended family. Her writing time was snatched in shared living spaces rendered temporarily quiet enough to facilitate mental concentration. Surely she must sometimes have been frustrated by the enforced companionship.


Perhaps that’s why I like to imagine her as she describes herself in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#89 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen was on a long visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward’s stately home in Kent, and most of the letter recounts the doings of Edward’s family, friends, and visitors. “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Even[in]g,” Austen wote.


By the time she finished the letter, however, the others had apparently scattered: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” Austen wrote, “—at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody.”


The poem in question is Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk,” published in 1782, which famously begins, “I am monarch of all I survey.” Selkirk was the marooned sailor whose story helped inspire Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Cowper imagines him lonely and despairing, pining for human contact.


Austen’s ironic self-description – as she well knew, she was mistress of nothing, least of all Edward’s many expensive books -- suggests more satisfaction than despair: a moment of breathing-room snatched amid the doings of a busy household.


But not for long: by the time Austen finished the letter, a few paragraphs later, she had a message for the people back home in Chawton, courtesy of her eight-year-old niece: “Louisa’s best Love & a Hundred Thousand Million Kisses.”


Louisa was the ninth of Edward’s eleven children. She sounds adorable, and probably also exhausting. No wonder Austen found her moment of solitude in the library worth memorializing in print


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 20 2018 01:00PM

Last year, I blogged about Alejandra Carles-Tolra, a young Spanish photographer, based in London, who had won a competitive grant to photograph Jane Austen fans.


Carles-Tolra’s photo essay, “Where We Belong,” is now finished. Twenty-one photos are available on her website, and a selection accompanied a recent article in the Guardian about her subject: the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society, a smallish band of British Janeites, most of them female, who met a few years ago at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, and now get together regularly to dress in Regency clothing and do Austen-y things.


The JAPAS – I still don’t get the whole pineapple thing, but perhaps a commenter can enlighten me – was founded by Sophie Andrews, a Janeite who blogs at Laughing with Lizzie and is also a featured “ambassador” for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. *


Carles-Tolra’s photos -- which show JAPAS members strolling, napping, and leaping, Lizzy Bennet-like, over a gate in a verdant field -- aim to explore “themes of belonging, femininity and escapism” in this “community of like-minded people,” she writes.


I’ll leave it to the photography critics to decide how expertly Carles-Tolra presents those themes. For the rest of us, it’s fun to catch the allusions – check out her Regency-costumed version of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” – and ogle the beautiful gowns.



* The literacy foundation was established by collateral Austen descendant Caroline Jane Knight, a member of the last generation to grow up at Chawton House, down the road from the Hampshire cottage where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


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?


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