Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 9 2017 02:00PM

As this Jane Austen bicentenary year nears its close, I’m happy to report that I’ll get to play a small part in the local commemoration: I’ll be speaking on Among the Janeites and Austen fandom at the Monmouth County Library this Sunday, November 12. The library is located at 125 Symmes Drive in Manalapan, New Jersey.

The library is planning a full afternoon of Austen-bicentenary commemoration: My talk and book-signing will run from 2 to 3 pm and will be followed by a radio play of Pride and Prejudice, which sounds like a lot of fun.

Hope you can stop by!

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 6 2017 02:00PM

Nearly ten years ago, Jeanne Kiefer, an Austen fan with a background in journalism and corporate surveys, conducted what is, as far as I know, the only published study of Janeite demographics. (Please correct me if you know of others!)

Kiefer’s work, based on a survey of 4,501 Janeites, was chock-full of interesting details and served both to confirm and refute stereotypes of the community. (Yes, we’re mostly female; no, we don’t all own cats.)

An update of that wide-ranging research would be a welcome development. In the meantime, however, we’ll have to make do with something a bit different: two more efforts to survey us, albeit on a narrower set of topics.

1. An American graduate student in Ireland, Meredith Dabek, is at work on a project about transmedia and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the delightful 2013 online series that updated Pride and Prejudice to contemporary California.

Mostly, Dabek’s survey seeks to discover how respondents interacted with LBD: Did they follow the characters’ Tumblr accounts? Send them Twitter messages? Create fanfic or GIFs about the show? (I am old, so all I did was watch.)

But Dabek also asks a set of questions of more immediate Janeite interest: Had you read P&P before watching LBD? And if not, did the show make you want to read the book? Here’s hoping that respondents answer yes to that one! Because while LBD is charming, P&P is sublime. . .

2. Someone is writing a dissertation on Austen’s contemporary popularity. I know this because at several social media sites, s/he posted a link to a Google Docs survey that asks questions like “How do you feel about the hardcore Janeites?” (you mean, like the one I see in the mirror every day?) and “If you could ask Jane Austen any question, what would it be?” (possibly “How do you feel about the hardcore Janeites?”)

Strangely, however, I cannot find any identifying details about the individual seeking this information. The post in which I found the survey link, on the Republic of Pemberley’s Facebook discussion group, seems to have vanished, and similar posts at several Tumblr sites (for instance, here) are attributed to “anonymous.” Nor does the survey link itself explain who the researcher is, list an academic affiliation, or give any details about the nature of the project.

Although the dearth of detail looks fishy, it’s hard to detect an ulterior motive; it’s not as if the questions include requests for bank account information or Social Security numbers. I suspect it’s just slapdash and somewhat less than professional (and the slightly arbitrary nature of the survey questions seems to bear out that impression: Why, for instance, ask whether respondents have written Austen fanfic, but not whether they’ve read any?)

So I’d have to chalk this one up as Answer At Your Own Risk. But if Jeanne Kiefer ever gets in touch again, you should definitely reply.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 2 2017 01:00PM

Keeping track of the many Jane Austen celebrations, conferences, festivals, and exhibits taking place around the world – especially during this bicentennial year – has been a full-time job. (Or would have been, had I been making any attempt at completeness.)

But imagine if we Janeites were actually trying to attend all these events, like rock fans following the band in hopes of racking up maximum concert coverage. (We could call ourselves Janeheads! Or Austen Nation! Or. . . prizes given for better suggestions. . .)

If such a Janeite pastime existed, this weekend we’d all be heading for Seattle, where the University of Washington is hosting what sounds like a totally fun one-day JaneFest, featuring booths, workshops and presentations on such topics as Regency dress, food, dance and letter-writing, along with discussions of Austen’s work. The day concludes with a Regency ball, which was, predictably, sold out a very, very long time ago.

This week, the university was also planning three lead-up events: an Austen game night last Thursday, a Regency dance workshop yesterday, and tonight a Regency clothing workshop (also sold out) led by fashion historian and JASNA Regional Coordinator Agnes Gawne, who graciously hosted me two years ago, when I spoke to JASNA’s Puget Sound chapter.

Sadly, I won’t make it to Seattle this weekend, and heaven only knows what’s coming up the rest of the year. (I don’t, because, like I said, I haven’t really tried to keep up.) What a long strange trip it’s been. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 30 2017 01:00PM

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

Jane Austen’s books contain few young children, and those few are often disagreeable. While Isabella Knightley’s family in Emma and Charles Blake in The Watsons are rather endearing, only a mother could love the spoiled little Middletons in Sense and Sensibility, the excessively rambunctious junior Musgroves in Persuasion, or the noisy and quarrelsome Price siblings in Mansfield Park.

What all these portraits of children have in common is their unsentimental realism: Although Jane Austen was childless, she knew how children look and sound when they are demanding attention, insisting on staying up late, or asking for a favorite story. And she came by this knowledge honestly, via her relationships with the twenty-five nieces and nephews born in her lifetime.

Her rapport with those real-life children comes through vividly in the few surviving letters that she wrote to them, including the letter she wrote exactly 202 years ago today to her 10-year-old niece, Caroline Austen, the youngest child of Austen’s oldest brother, James.

Jane was in London to correct the proofs of Emma (and, soon after, to nurse her brother Henry through a sudden dangerous illness), and the family were celebrating the recent arrival of the first baby born to Caroline’s older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy.

“Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever You do,” Austen wrote the little girl with mock solemnity. “I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.” She keeps the joke going as she signs off, “Beleive me my dear Sister-Aunt, Yours affect[tionate]ly, J. Austen.”

The letter is charming because of the way that Austen simultaneously honors and gently mocks the self-centeredness of childhood – for Caroline, the most important thing about Anna’s baby is naturally the aunt-ly status its existence confers – while companionably implicating herself in the same self-centeredness. In the voice of that all-important aunt, it’s not hard to hear an echo of the wry, ironic outlook on human folly that we know so well from Austen’s novels.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 26 2017 01:00PM

Somewhere out there, lost lambs are baa-ing to return to the fold, and a group of scholarly Bo Peeps is ready to shepherd them home.

The little lambs in question are hundreds of books formerly owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight, whose estates at Godmersham and Chawton once housed libraries fine enough to satisfy even the exacting tastes of a Mr. Darcy.

In the two centuries since a catalog of the Godmersham library identified some 1,250 books, the Knight family fortunes have declined, and many volumes have scattered to the wind. (The remaining volumes belong to Chawton House Library, the library for the study of early English writing by women that is now housed in the Knights’ restored Chawton House.)

Earlier this month, three Austen scholars – Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Deborah Barnum, a board member of the North American Friends of Chawton House Library who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont; and Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Canada – announced the formation of a group whimsically entitled the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society, or GLOSS. (Barnum in fact began posting about the group months ago.)

GLOSS’ goal is to track down the scattered Knight family volumes, whose inner covers bear one of the three bookplates of Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Edward Knight. (See the three bookplate designs here.) Locating the lost volumes will help to reconstruct the literary context that influenced Jane Austen, since she visited Edward’s family and had access to both his libraries.

Last February, while inspecting the Austen collection of a Texas Janeite, Barchas stumbled across an incredible find: Chawton’s copies of all six Austen novels, in the 1833 Bentley edition that brought Austen back into print for the first time after her death. The owner of the volumes, Sandra Clark, donated the books to Chawton House Library, and clearly GLOSS hopes other collectors who happen across one of Montagu George Knight’s bookplates will do the same: As regular blog readers will recall, cash-strapped Chawton is in no position to buy anything right now.

Failing that level of generosity, however, GLOSS is willing to settle for digital images of the books’ bindings, title pages and Knight bookplate. Anything to rescue those poor little lambs who have lost their way – baa, baa, baa.

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