Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 21 2016 02:00PM

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


In 1884, when Jane Austen’s great-nephew Lord Brabourne published an edition of her letters, he made some judicious edits. The publication fourteen years earlier of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen had sparked interest in the writer’s life, but Brabourne apparently worried that some of her observations might seem a tad too. . . candid for Victorian sensibilities.


One of the most famous examples of his bowdlerizing red pen can be seen in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, that the twenty-four-year-old Jane Austen finished writing exactly two hundred and sixteen years ago today, on November 21, 1800 (Letter #27 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Cassandra was staying in Kent with the family of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, whose daughter Fanny would one day be Brabourne’s mother.* Back home at Steventon, Jane had attended a ball and, with an eye for detail and an ear for a phrase that will seem familiar to any reader of her novels, she described the company:


“There were very few Beauties, & such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck. . . . Miss Debary, Susan & Sally all in black, but without any Statues**, made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.”


In his edition, Brabourne silently substitutes “circumstances” for “their bad breath.” Brabourne, the son of a baronet, had been elevated to the peerage only four years earlier, and although he was proud of his author-aunt, he also had a social position to maintain – a position that he apparently thought would not be enhanced by the publication of Austen’s commentary on unpleasant bodily odors. The Victorians, it seems, were easy to shock.




* Fanny seems to have shared Brabourne’s concern over Austen’s supposed coarseness: she has outraged generations of Janeites by writing, in an 1869 letter to one of her sisters, that Austen “was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent” and would have been “very much below par as to good society and its ways” had she not benefited from her relationship with the wealthy and well-bred Knight family, who adopted Fanny's father.


** My thanks to anyone who can explain to me what this reference to “statues” is all about. Who brings statues to a ball? I’m stumped.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2016 01:00PM

Like her characters Marianne Dashwood and Jane Fairfax, Jane Austen was, we are told, a committed amateur pianist.


“In her youth she had received some instruction on the pianoforte; and at Chawton she practised daily, chiefly before breakfast,” her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote in his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen. “In the evening she would sometimes sing, to her own accompaniment, some simple old songs, the words and airs of which, now never heard, still linger in my memory.”


At least eighteen Austen family music books survive, some of them containing pieces copied out by hand, including by Austen herself. Now, thanks to the efforts of the University of Southampton in England, the nearly six hundred pieces in the Austens’ collection are available online in digital facsimiles.


“The books present a vivid picture of domestic musical culture in England in the years around 1800, furnishing valuable insights on music making in the homes of gentry families as well as essential contextualisation for musical episodes in Austen’s fiction,” writes Southampton music professor Jeanice Brooks in her introduction to the digital archive. (A decade ago, a member of the Alabama chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America created a site dedicated to Austen's music, but without the benefit of direct access to the Austen music books.)


Although the Southampton archive seems to have become available late last year, I first learned about it from a recent blog post in which Brooks further discusses the significance of the collection. (As an extra treat, the post includes an audio file of piano variations on “Robin Adair,” the love song that Jane Fairfax plays in Chapter 28 of Emma.)


Alas, I’m no musician, so I can’t evaluate what Austen’s musical choices tell us about her taste or proficiency. But it’s heartening, just six years after the launch of a similar web archive devoted to Austen’s fiction manuscripts, to see more and more Austen primary sources becoming available to a wide audience of scholars, whether amateur or professional.


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