Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 31 2016 01:00PM

For someone who led such a short, uneventful life, and one about which comparatively little is known, Jane Austen has inspired a surprising number of biographies -- at least twenty-two, by my count, and that doesn’t even include the various books that use Austen’s life as a jumping-off-point for historical explorations of such topics as tea, houses, fashion or gardening.

Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh launched the genre with his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, based on family reminiscences. But it’s the first modern biography by a non-family member -- Elizabeth Jenkins’ Jane Austen: A Biography, published in 1938 – that is the subject of this month’s entry in the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I try to plug some of the holes in my Austen education.

Jenkins (1905-2010) was a well-regarded British novelist and biographer: her subjects, in addition to Austen, included Elizabeth I, Henry Fielding and Lady Caroline Lamb. For Janeites, her most significant contribution is as a co-founder of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, which succeeded in buying Chawton cottage and turning it into a beloved museum of Austen’s life.

Jenkins’ Austen biography is a model of taste, decorum and restraint. With only one lapse, Jenkins is scrupulous about acknowledging the limits of the evidence available to her, and she resists – rightly, in my view – the temptation to read the events in Austen’s novels as evidence for the events in Austen’s life. “To try to deduce from her novels a personal history of Jane Austen, is completely to misunderstand the type of mind she represents,” Jenkins argues.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2015 01:00PM

Just in case – ahem! – you were wondering what to get me for my birthday, a particularly scrumptious set of Jane Austen editions is issuing, with tantalizing slowness, from the Folio Society. London-based Folio is known for producing elegantly printed, beautifully illustrated and crazily expensive hardbacks of works both classic and contemporary.

The Austen editions came to my attention this week, when Folio announced the release of its Sense and Sensibility, with an introduction by the mysterious Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, famous for using a pseudonym so impenetrable that, supposedly, no one knows who she (?) really is.

Turns out that Folio did a Pride and Prejudice last year and an Emma earlier this year, as well as an edition of the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh. We can only hope that the rest are not far behind.

Judging from the web site pictures I’ve been squinting at, all four of the volumes published so far look delightful. Together, they’ll run you just about $234. Which seems about right for a birthday, don’t you think?

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 9 2015 01:00PM

Sixth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters

By all accounts, Jane Austen was an exceptional aunt, and she had a broad field on which to exercise her powers: in her lifetime, four of her brothers produced a total of twenty-five nieces and nephews. (Another eight were born after her death, and all but five of the thirty-three survived into adulthood).

The most famous of these Austen offspring is James Edward Austen, whom his family called Edward, the only son of Jane’s oldest brother, James. In 1870, Edward – by then using the surname Austen-Leigh, in honor of the rich great-uncle and -aunt who had left him a tidy fortune – published his Memoir of Jane Austen, the first biography of the author and still a key source for anyone interested in her life.

The letter Austen wrote to the 17-year-old Edward exactly 199 years ago today (#142 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) makes clear why her nieces and nephews adored her: she addresses him as an adult, sending along tidbits of news about family and friends, but she also indulges in the affectionate teasing and silliness that so often make her letters entertaining even at a remove of two centuries.

She complains about the rain – in order, she says, to get rid of it, “for I have often observed that if one writes about the Weather, it is generally completely changed before the Letter is read.” She jokes about his needing a change of scene for his health: “Your Physicians I hope will order you to the Sea, or to a house by the side of a very considerable pond.”

And she teases him for, apparently, dating the letter she is answering from Steventon, his parents’ house, and then redundantly mentioning that he is back from school at Winchester. “I am so glad you recollected to mention your being come home,” Austen jokes. “My heart began to sink within me when I had got so far through your Letter without its being mentioned. I was dreadfully afraid that you might be detained at Winchester by severe illness, confined to your Bed perhaps & quite unable to hold a pen, & only dating from Steventon in order, with a mistaken sort of Tenderness, to deceive me. – But now, I have no doubt of your being at home, I am sure you would not say it so seriously unless it actually were so.”

Now who could resist an aunt like that?

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2015 01:00PM

We writers are a shameless bunch. We don’t really care why our books are being bought and read (Mandatory class assignment? Gift from clueless aunt? Choice of book club’s most annoying member? No problem!) just so long as our labors aren’t going completely ignored.

So I imagine that Lois Austen-Leigh would be perfectly happy to hear that her obscure 1931 mystery novel The Incredible Crime will soon be republished in the British Library’s “Crime Classics” series, even though it seems likely that her famous name played a role in this literary resurrection.

Even the august BL can’t be immune to the appeal of newspaper stories mentioning that the book is by “the granddaughter of Jane Austen’s nephew” (that's James Edward Austen-Leigh, author of the 1870 memoir that is the first Austen biography) and was “supposedly written on the very desk used by her illustrious ancestor.” It’s all advertising!

On the other hand, the novel by Lois Austen-Leigh, who died in 1968, sounds as if it could be a lot of fun: haunted stately home, friendly satire of Cambridge University life, and, according to its editor, “a Darcy-esque, as in rude and eventually adoring, academic love interest.” I suspect that fans of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Jane Austen will all be lining up for a copy. Somewhere, Lois is smiling.

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