Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 15 2018 02:00PM

They crop up regularly, those Janeite dream jobs. We read the announcements, and we think how lovely it would be to spend hours cataloguing artifacts at Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen wrote or revised all her completed novels, or dishing up tea and scones across the street at Cassandra’s Cup.

The latest such announcement, however, tops them all, because this Janeite dream job requires you to live at Chawton House, the restored Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. Yes, that’s right: Get the job of Deputy House Manager and you will live in a stately home where Jane Austen herself was a frequent visitor.

The job runs until December, pays a modest £25,000 (about $34,600) per year, and sounds (click through to the job description) as if it would require quite a lot of work: organizing group tours, running the gift shop, helping out in the tea room, assisting with special events and social media, and taking charge on the weekends. Depending how busy Chawton House gets – and, as blog readers will recall, it’s really, really hoping to get a lot busier – the job could be kind of a grind, for not much money.

And yet, ever since I read an interview with Caroline Knight, a member of the last generation of Austen descendants to live in Chawton House before American gazillionaire Sandy Lerner turned it into a library for the study of early English writing by women, I’ve thought of the house with a certain romantic nostalgia.

Living in a genuine Austen site: What an opportunity for a writer! Just breathing the air could probably ensure, if not literary immortality, then at least a couple of really good sentences. Alas, job applications were due on Saturday, so I guess I’ve missed my chance. I’ll have to look for my good sentences elsewhere.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 12 2018 02:00PM

Long, long ago – wait, was it only 2009? – a clever young man named Seth Grahame-Smith interpolated zombie references into the text of Pride and Prejudice and sold a gazillion copies of the resulting mashup.

Ever since, the temptation to take Jane Austen’s out-of-copyright masterpieces and dress them up with references to. . . whatever. . . has seemed inescapable. We’ve had Sense and Sensibility with sea monsters, Mansfield Park with mummies, P&P with added Jews, and Emma with previously unsuspected vampires.

This year, just in time for Valentine’s Day, a British TV channel called Drama* has brought us yet another addition to this trend: Pride and Prejudice reimagined for the social media age. No, not another update of the story to our own times: Drama’s version is the 1813 text, except with Facebook, WhatsApp, email and selfies accompanying the carriage rides and formal balls.

“We're seeing if technology would ruin the 'art of romance' in classic love stories,” Drama explains on its website, which offers a free download of this new P&P, along with social-media-enhanced versions of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

From my skim of the enhanced Austen, the changes seem much as they were in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: sometimes amusing, mostly cosmetic, and likely to become tiresome when stretched to book length. Darcy spends his time at the Meryton Assembly swiping on Tinder instead of dancing with the locals. Elizabeth captures his insult to her beauty in a Snapchat video. Mr. Collins’ letters arrive via email. Lady Catherine threatens to unfollow Elizabeth if she persists in her designs on Darcy. After Wickham leaves Meryton, rumors circulate that he “had created a secret online account under the name ‘The Militia Stallion’ which he used first to entrap, then to ghost certain ladies.” And a ringing cellphone interrupts both of Darcy’s proposals.

The only major plot change I detected was Drama’s decision to correct Jane Austen’s unaccountable error in omitting the now-famous scene of Darcy diving into the Pemberley lake and emerging in a clinging wet shirt. Yes, at last this moment, invented by Andrew Davies for the BBC’s iconic 1995 P&P adaptation, has made it onto the page. And this time, Elizabeth takes a smartphone photo of Darcy in post-lake deshabille, captions it “OMG,” and posts it online, inadvertently setting off “a Twitter storm of epic proportions.”

So what's the answer to Drama's question? Does social media ruin “the art of romance”?

Not really. As soon as Darcy switches off his phone, that second proposal goes about as well as you'd expect.

* As blog readers will recall, it was Drama that -- exactly a year ago, also just in time for Valentine’s Day -- earned a tidy little publicity windfall for its rebroadcast of beloved Austen adaptations by commissioning an artist’s rendering of the “real” Mr. Darcy. The dweeby result, based on the investigations of a historian and an Austen scholar, made clear that the standards of male beauty in Austen’s time differed dramatically from our own Firth-and-Macfadyen-inflected preferences.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 8 2018 02:00PM

Is Jane Austen hard to read?

“Absolutely not!” I hear you Janeites saying. “She’s a master of precise and lucid prose! Her dialogue sparkles! Her novels are models of economical storytelling!”

Okay, okay! You know I agree with you! But I still shook my head when I was reminded recently, via this blog by writer Nick Douglas, of a three-year-old post about the supposed “reading levels” of famous books.

Journalist Shane Snow evaluated a number of works using the Flesch-Kincaid reading tests, which purport to determine how easy it is to read a given book and how much formal education is required to understand it. Jane Austen came in at about a fifth-grade reading level, and so easy to understand that a twelve-year-old could do it.

On the one hand, who could disagree? Many Janeites got started on Austen’s novels at just about that age.

On the other hand, the internet is filled with people complaining about how hard Austen is. “Impenetrable prose that makes my head throb with pain when I try to read it,” complains one commenter on a (pro-Austen) post titled “Why the F*ck Do People Love Jane Austen So Much? A Primer.” “I cannot truly imagine anybody having a genuinely pleasant or easy time reading such ugly, technically-demanding sentences,” adds our anti-Janeite. “It’s like reading a computer-program printout.”

In the Yahoo! Answers column, replies to the question “Are books by Jane Austen difficult to read?” range from “Not at all” to “Jane Austen was a brilliant writer but she used a slightly pedantic language and turn of phrase which is not always readily understandable now.”

Another reply warns, “The dialogue and descriptions can be very drawn out. . . .There are probably pages of her works you could skip over because the details really don't matter that much.” (Where are those long descriptive passages this reader objects to? They must have been accidentally left out of my editions.)

Although I disagree with these responses, I don’t find them completely mystifying. Austen’s nineteenth-century vocabulary differs from our own; her balanced, Johnsonian sentences don’t fit today’s preference for the brief and telegraphic; her plots turn on tiny incidents and subtle emotions, not huge melodramatic events; and the social context in which her characters move is largely alien to us. That’s a combination that can leave inexperienced or unmotivated readers in the dust.

So how, then, can Austen’s works be simultaneously fifth-grade level and impenetrably pedantic? The problem surely lies in trying to determine reading level via a quantitative formula that takes account only of the lengths of words and sentences. Much of what makes Austen’s works more difficult than those of, say, J.K. Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book comes in at a similar reading level, is unquantifiable; it has to do with the relative unfamiliarity of the syntax and the profusion of meanings packed into even the simplest words.

Take one of my favorite Austen sentences: “The stupidity with which he was favored by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.” (Ch. 22 of Pride and Prejudice)

Most of the words are short – indeed, only five consist of more than two syllables – and in common usage; while the sentence is long, it is conveniently divided in two by a semi-colon. Still, it’s not hard to imagine an incautious reader puzzling over what “establishment” refers to in this context, or tripping over “disinterested,” whose true meaning – not a synonym for “uninterested”! – is often missed.

And it takes a modicum of attention to pick up the humor in the first half of the sentence (“favored by nature” – priceless!) and the ironic sting when the high-flown idealism of “pure and disinterested desire of. . .” is brought thumpingly back to earth by the materialistic pragmatism of “an establishment.”

To be fair, according to Microsoft Word, this sentence taken by itself comes in at an eleventh-grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid index. (Did you know that Word has a reading-level function? Thanks to Nick Douglas, I do now!) Meanwhile, the blog post you’ve just been reading scores at nearly a tenth-grade level – considerably harder than Pride and Prejudice as a whole. Go figure.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 5 2018 02:00PM

Nobody called it branding in Jane Austen’s day, although Lord Byron, at least, was an expert practitioner of the craft avant la lettre. But branding is exactly what seems to underlie the most interesting tidbit of Janeite news so far this month: Chawton House Library’s decision to rename itself just plain Chawton House.

Readers of Among the Janeites will recall that Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Chawton House, an Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward, and turn it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. But in 2016, more than a decade after the 2003 opening, Lerner announced she would no longer fund operations, leaving the library scrambling to replace her money. (Find details of the ensuing saga here.)

Fundraising is still ongoing, but last week, Chawton House announced it was dropping the “Library” from its name. “We’ve had feedback that potential visitors to the house and gardens are confused and – in some cases – put off by having ‘library’ in the name, which could mean that it is only open to library users when this is certainly not the case,” said Chawton’s board chair, Louise Ansdell. “We want all to come and enjoy what we have to offer.”

Chawton is hoping to reposition itself – beautifully restored historic mansion, charming gardens, convenient tearoom -- as not only a scholarly research site but also an Austen-related tourist destination, along the lines of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, down the road. The project has its challenges: Although Austen certainly spent time at Chawton House with her brother’s family, she did not live or write there, making the big house less of a Janeite pilgrimage site than the cottage. On the other hand: Historic mansion. Charming gardens. Tearoom.

As for the fundraising, it seems to be making steady but slow progress: Chawton House won a £100,000 two-year grant (about $143,000) late last year, and its appeal to individual donors has raised £15,000 (about $24,000) in three months. That’s still only a fraction of the $600,000-plus that Lerner provided in 2015, however, so there’s still a long way to go. If you want to help, you’ll find Chawton’s fundraising site here.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 1 2018 02:00PM

The most beloved Austen site in England -- Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, the Hampshire home where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – was closed last month. But it’s reopening today with some exciting programming for 2018, which marks the bicentennial of the publication of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

For the next seven months, Chawton’s exhibits will “explore the themes of family and friendship in both Northanger Abbey and in the lives of the Austen family,” on the premise that the Morlands’ big, noisy clergy family might be partly inspired by the Austens’ big, noisy clergy family.

Then, in the last four months of 2018, a year that also marks the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, the museum will launch an exhibit linked to Persuasion, set during the last months of the Napoleonic Wars. The exhibit will look at “the impact of war on Jane Austen's novels, the life of the Austen family, and on the country at large.”

Interesting stuff! Once again, it’s a good year to visit Chawton cottage. But, then, every year is a good year to visit Chawton cottage. . .

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