Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 23 2014 01:00PM

From time to time, it’s useful to recall that not everyone knows as much about Jane Austen as we Janeites do.

Last week’s salutary reminder came in the form of a post on Slate’s history blog, The Vault, wherein writer Rebecca Onion shared with the masses a fascinating document in Jane Austen’s hand: Austen’s compilation of friends’ and relatives’ opinions about Emma and Mansfield Park.

“The British Library recently made the manuscripts available online,” Onion wrote. “Below, I’ve transcribed Austen’s collection of feedback on Mansfield Park.”

The piece left me befuddled. Was Onion under the impression that the BL’s digitization was making a little-known document widely available for the first time? ‘Cause Janeites know that’s just not so.

In fact, excerpts from the “Opinions” were first published in 1870, in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s famous Memoir of Jane Austen, and the legendary Austen editor R.W. Chapman followed up with a 1926 printing. (That history is reported here.) My 1996 Knopf edition of Austen’s minor works – the fourth printing of that edition, by the way – includes the full text of the “Opinions,” and the long-out-of-copyright minor works have been published in other editions, too.

Online, the text has been available at the Republic of Pemberley for I’m-not-sure-how-long (Pemberley was founded in 1997, and judging from the primitive interface, this item goes back quite a few years). Both a facsimile of the BL’s manuscript and a transcription of the text can also be found on the wonderful Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts website, which launched four years ago.

I hope Onion didn't strain her wrist with all that unnecessarily duplicative transcription. No news here, folks! Move along!

But still: the "Opinions" are well worth another look, if only to confirm that Austen readers have been puzzling over Fanny, Edmund and the Crawfords for as long as there have been Austen readers. And of course it’s always lovely when the rest of the world catches up to Our Jane.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 3 2014 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s writing routine: a model for us all? Apparently so, according to a new-ish book mentioned in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. Austen is among the 161 certified geniuses – artists, writers, scientists – whose daily rituals the Harvard blogger sifted for Rules to Write By.

Among her findings: Avoid distraction. Take a daily walk. Get someone else to do the laundry.

None of it is too remarkable, but I have to say I’m a teensy bit skeptical about how it all applies to Austen.

Apart from the famous creaking-door story*, reported by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, we don’t really know all that much about Austen’s work routine. Which isn’t surprising, since we don’t really know all that much about anything in her life. We don't have her daily calendars, or her reflections on the best time of day to compose, or her thoughts on the relative merits of first-draft inspiration vs. second-thought revision. We're piecing together a speculative quilt out of a few stray remarks and family anecdotes.

I’ll bet it was all in those burned letters. Blame Cassandra.

* Austen-Leigh claimed that his aunt tried to conceal her writing from casual visitors by hiding it under blotting paper when the creaky door of the Chawton cottage sitting room gave her warning that someone was approaching.

This story is sometimes interpreted as proof that the oh-so-modest-and-spinsterly Jane Austen thought her writing was disreputable, or inappropriate, or unimportant. As a writer myself, however, I know how cringe-inducing it is when people ask, “Oh! What are you writing? Can I read it? Is it anything like the last one?” when the work still feels too new and fragile to share. I’d guess Jane Austen was using the creaking door to head off those conversations.

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