Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 17 2018 02:00PM

Fortieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s not always easy to tell when Jane Austen, master of irony, wants you to take her words at face value. And perhaps that’s why we’re still arguing about the self-assessment contained in the letter she finished writing exactly 202 years ago today (#146 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). That letter – begun a day earlier, on Austen's forty-first birthday, the last she would ever celebrate – was written to her eighteen-year-old nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen (later Austen-Leigh).


Edward, as the family called him, had just arrived home at Steventon -- where his father, James, the oldest Austen brother, served as rector -- after finishing his high school studies at Winchester College. Like his older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy, Edward was a would-be novelist, and apparently two and a half chapters of his manuscript-in-progress had recently gone missing.


“It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them,” Austen writes in a letter welcoming him home. “Two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something.—I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?—How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”


It’s clear that much of this passage – indeed, much of this whole letter -- is written tongue in cheek. Elsewhere, Austen teasingly encourages Edward to come clean at last about the dissipations of his high school life and, amid much news of the comings and goings of various Austen brothers, directs him not to “be tired of reading the word Uncle, for I have not done with it.”


Obviously, she didn’t really think anyone would suspect her of stealing Edward’s chapters, even if her rave review of his work was an honest critical appraisal and not merely the kindness of a doting aunt encouraging a boy she had known since birth.


So did her irony extend to the apparently self-deprecating two-inches-of -ivory assessment of her own work – perhaps the most famous passage in all of Austen’s correspondence? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I would guess the answer is both yes and no.


Austen surely didn’t long to write with the unpolished exuberance of a teenage boy, and it seems likely that she knew her labors produced the very opposite of “little effect.” Her performance of ladylike modesty is, at least partly, just that: a performance, whose insincerity she perhaps expected Edward to recognize and find amusing.


But there’s enough penetration in the two-inches-of-ivory passage to suggest that Austen wasn’t being entirely ironic. She wasn’t wrong to associate her method with the delicacy and precision of fine brushwork – and certainly she knew that fine brushwork requires great skill. Nor was she wrong to note that her canvas is restricted – though whether that restriction amounts to laser-focus or limitation is a never-ending debate.


Ironic yet serious, self-deprecating yet quietly confident: The very passage in which Austen seems to play down her own artistry bears witness to its inexhaustible subtlety.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2018 01:00PM

Thanks to her four reproductively prolific brothers – James, Edward, Frank and Charles produced an impressive total of thirty-three sons and daughters, all but five of whom lived into adulthood – the never-married Jane Austen has many, many collateral descendants.


Some of these nieces, nephews and many-times-great iterations thereof have capitalized on their Austen connections. Frank’s daughter Catherine Hubback was the first person to publish Jane Austen fanfic – a completion of the unfinished Watsons manuscript; James’ son, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote the first biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


Later generations published the first collection of Jane Austen’s letters (Edward’s grandson Lord Brabourne); wrote chronicles of the family’s history (Frank’s grandson John Hubback and great-granddaughter Edith Hubback Brown, and James’ grandson and great-grandson William and Richard Austen-Leigh); and helped found the Jane Austen Society of North America (James’ great-great-granddaughter Joan Austen-Leigh).


Last week brought news of the death of another such Austen descendant: ninety-nine-year-old Diana Shervington, a great-great-granddaughter of Edward, who spent the last third of her long life in Lyme Regis, one of England’s most Austen-evocative places. Shervington, a homemaker and potter whose two Austen-descended grandmothers were sisters (yes, that means her parents were first cousins), led an interesting life, judging from the obituaries (see here and here). Check out the tale of her wartime romance with the man who became her husband. Talk about a meet-cute!


Although Shervington’s sister-grandmothers had never known Jane Austen, they knew older relatives who had, and they shared these second-hand memories. And during Shervington’s childhood, her parents spent years at Chawton House, Edward’s former home, caring for an elderly relation who in turn left Shervington some of her Austen relics.


When the late-nineties Austen craze hit, Shervington gained Janeite semi-fame by donating some of those heirlooms to Lyme’s museum and showing others off during talks she gave to visiting Austen fans. Whether her particular brand of reminiscence was to your taste or not – I confess to being in the “not” camp, but nil nisi bonum and all that – it’s sad to see the snapping of another tenuous link to the real Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 9 2018 01:00PM

In Jane Austen’s time, as we know, women’s lives and opportunities were circumscribed in ways we can scarcely imagine today. Women were excluded from the professions; the sexual double standard was brutal and inexorable; married women couldn’t own their own property; husbands and fathers had power little short of tyrannical.


No doubt we’ve come a long, long way.


On the other hand, it’s salutary to be reminded from time to time of just how recently male authority figures still felt empowered to enact their sexism – and just how hard women had to fight to hold them accountable.


Today’s text is drawn from a fascinating recent article in the alternative weekly DigBoston, which chronicles the nine-year effort by Austen scholar Julia Prewitt Brown to reverse Boston University’s 1981 refusal to grant her tenure, the lifetime job security that is the academic equivalent of the Holy Grail.


At the time, Brown was a young scholar whose first book, the feminist-influenced Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form, had recently been published by Harvard University Press.


Her tenure was refused by high-ranking university administrators after her department and two lower-level committees voted to grant it, and Brown argued that she was the victim of sex discrimination. Eventually, she won a jury verdict giving her tenure, legal fees, and $215,000 in damages; the verdict was upheld on appeal, and Brown is retiring this year after forty-four years in BU’s English department.


The case was relatively high-profile in its time because BU’s then-president, John Silber, was known nationally for his outspoken and uncompromising conservativism. In 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts.


In trial testimony aimed at discrediting Brown’s scholarship, Silber, a philosopher, “implied that Austen was an inherently less complex or worthy subject than Dryden or Kant,” writes Max L. Chapnick, author of the DigBoston article.


Silber wasn’t the only Austen-disser to testify: Brown tells Chapnick that BU’s dean, who had offered her a three-year extension of her contract in lieu of lifetime tenure, testified that although he was not a literary scholar, “he felt comfortable judging a book on Jane Austen because he had lived in England near where Jane Austen lived.” (“Not in those times?” the judge asked. “Not quite, sir,” the dean replied.)


Brown might have been denied tenure even if she hadn’t been a feminist scholar writing about a female novelist whose subject was the domestic lives of women. Nevertheless, Brown’s case resonates with a certain unfortunate historical strain in the response to Austen.


Over the past two centuries, Austen’s fans have been male as often as female, but contemporary Austen fandom – and, to a lesser extent, scholarship – skews female. I’ve long been convinced that sexist denigration of Austen fans (those cute middle-aged women in their bonnets!) borrows from a tradition of sexist denigration of Austen dating back to her nephew’s affectionate but trivializing 1870 Memoir.


In this tradition, Austen is caricatured as either a sweet maiden aunt writing charming little romance novels or, alternatively, as a sour spinster working out her sexual frustration by satirizing other people’s love stories – anything but a morally serious professional artist. And these attitudes still crop up, especially in popular treatments that draw more on movie adaptations of Austen novels than on the novels themselves.


Brown won her case in part because her adversaries were so unsubtle: Silber described BU’s English department, whose faculty ranks comprised six women and more than fourteen men, as “a damn matriarchy.” Today’s adversaries are sometimes less obvious (though, #metoo knows, not always). Still, history tends to repeat itself, if we let it. Remembering stories like Brown’s is one way to make sure it won’t.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 22 2017 01:00PM

The past year has brought us a bumper crop of stories about real estate with more or less legit Austen connections. (Mostly less.)


Last spring, we learned we could rent rooms at Goodnestone Park, the Kent mansion of Jane Austen’s brother’s in-laws. Over the summer, we had a chance to buy a converted oast house on a farm where Austen’s father once lived. In November, we learned that the British government would contribute a goodly sum towards renovations of Wentworth Woodhouse, a gigantic Yorkshire mansion whose history Austen may or may not have mined for inspiration. And just last month, we sighed over a real estate listing for the house that played the Bennet family’s Longbourn in the BBC’s beloved 1992 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


And now comes word of a real estate offering with rock-solid Austen connections: a listing for Scarlets, the Berkshire home built in the 1760s by Austen’s maternal uncle, James Leigh-Perrot, and his disagreeable wife, Jane.


The listing provides the usual drool-worthy photos of oak paneling, parquet flooring, huge rooms suffused with natural light, and French doors opening onto acres of gardens. (Only 1.25 acres, actually, but the pictures make it look bigger.) And, compared to the £9 million ($11.7 million) price of Luckington Court, the aforesaid Longbourn stand-in, Scarlets is a bargain at a mere £3.5 million ($4.4 million).


For Janeites, it’s more than a little ironic that Scarletts, as it’s now known –the extra “t” is a post-Leigh-Perrot acquisition – is being advertised for its Austen connections. We can’t help remembering how badly the already ailing Jane Austen took the news of Uncle Leigh-Perrot’s March 1817 will, which left his entire estate, including Scarlets, to his wife, providing no immediate legacy to his sister’s struggling offspring. (Though Scarlets did eventually come down to Austen’s nephew and future biographer, James Edward Austen-Leigh.)


If the house were now to come into the possession of an Austen devotee? Revenge is sweet.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 5 2017 01:00PM

I love the British press. When it comes to Jane Austen, they can manufacture a story out of the thinnest gossamer. Even recycled gossamer, as it turns out.


Last week, several UK news outlets (see here, here and here) were shocked – shocked! – to learn that the image of Jane Austen that will appear on the new £10 note, set for release in September, is somewhat controversial. The Austen portrait chosen by the Bank of England has been “air-brushed,” “prettified,” or “retouched,” they asserted, quoting recent Austen biographers Paula Byrne and Lucy Worsley.


Regular readers of my blog may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. Back in 2013, when the bank unveiled its prototype of the Austen tenner, Byrne made this identical point about the chosen image. And she wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every Janeite who pays attention noticed that the bank’s Austen image is based not on Cassandra Austen’s well-known sketch of her sister -- arguably the only portrait of Austen’s face made during her lifetime -- but on the gussied-up version of the Cassandra sketch commissioned by the family as a frontispiece to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 memoir of his famous aunt.


Why did the bank choose this particular image? As far as I know, they haven’t explained. Perhaps the National Portrait Gallery, where the Cassandra sketch hangs, was going to charge too much for the rights, as AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan suggested when I wrote about this topic before. (The NPG certainly charged me enough when I put the Cassandra sketch on my website!) Perhaps bank officials thought Cassandra’s peevish Austen conveys insufficient Great Writer Gravitas. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better.


But really -- does it matter? I don’t think so, and here’s why:


It’s fair to object that the Austen on the note looks calmer and sweeter than the Cassandra sketch. It’s fair to object that a calm, sweet Austen doesn’t match your personal mental image of a novelist noted for her biting wit. But as I have pointed out before, it’s not fair to object that the Austen portrait doesn’t look like Jane Austen – because we don’t have any idea what Austen looked like. And therefore, as far as I’m concerned, one fictional image is as good as any other.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter