Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Although Jane Austen was, famously, not a big fan of Bath, London was a different story: Her trips to the metropolis to visit her worldly brother Henry seem to have been delightful whirls of shopping, parties, and culture – much like London tourism today.


The letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#85 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) memorializes a London trip during which Austen entertained herself with a whimsical pastime: seeking likenesses of the eldest Bennet sisters -- Pride and Prejudice had been published four months earlier – among the paintings in exhibitions she visited.


At one relatively unheralded exhibit, “I was very well pleased—particularly. . . with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. . . . exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” Austen writes. “She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.”


(Scholars believe Austen was probably referring to this painting, Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin), by the French portraitist Jean-François-Marie Huet-Villiers).




The following Monday, the day her letter was written, Austen attended a far more famous exhibition, the Sir Joshua Reynolds retrospective at the British Institution in Pall Mall, searching in vain for a portrait of “Mrs. D.,” aka Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. “I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye,” Austen writes. “I can imagine he wd have that sort [of] feeling—that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.”


The 1813 Reynolds exhibition is the subject of What Jane Saw, University of Texas English Prof. Janine Barchas’ fascinating online reconstruction of the paintings Austen viewed, displayed as they were two centuries ago. It’s a striking demonstration of the power that comes from marrying literary-historical scholarship to contemporary technology, and it brings to life the afternoon visit that Austen describes to Cassandra.


Scholarship aside, I find it charming to encounter the Austen of this letter -- another fond author, so wrapped up in her imagined people, with their favorite colors and happy marriages, that they seem to go on living once her story ends, becoming as real to her as the real-life sitters in the portraits she viewed. Devouring fanfic Austen sequels or comparing our co-workers to Austen characters, we Janeites can relate


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 13 2014 02:00PM

Ogling unattainable real estate is one of life’s great pleasures, and the mother of all real estate ogling is upon us now: Wentworth Woodhouse may soon be on the open market, if preservationists can’t quickly raise the bargain asking price of £7 million.


Whether a long-ago owner, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, was really, as this Daily Mail article has it, “the man who inspired Mr. Darcy” is hardly a slam-dunk – as we Janeites know, that distinction has been bestowed upon more than one man, on the slimmest of evidence.


What’s beyond doubt is that this stunning, ginormous stately home in northern England – we’re talking ninety acres of parkland, five miles of corridors and, in its prime, a household staff of nearly four hundred – has a plethora of Austen-ish associations. Its four-hundred-year history is replete with Wentworths, Woodhouses, D’Arcys, Watsons, and Fitzwilliams, as Janine Barchas chronicled in her recent book, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity.


Alas, despite the soaring ceilings and jaw-dropping plasterwork, the place is a bit of a fixer-upper, with an estimated £42 million in needed repairs for such alarming items as subsidence damage, probably caused by extensive coal mining on the property.


Even Sandy Lerner, the multimillionaire Janeite who rescued Chawton House, might hesitate to take this on: we all know that repair costs have a way of ballooning beyond initial estimates. So don’t look at me. But surely someone will come forward to save this national treasure for future generations of Britons – not to mention their real-estate-ogling visitors.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 13 2014 01:00PM

I’m back home after four whirlwind days at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting – held this year in Montreal – which focused on the tantalizing, fascinating Mansfield Park, as fresh today as when it was published exactly two centuries ago.


JASNA AGMs encompass many pleasures: seeing old friends and making new ones; admiring Regency gowns that seem to grow more elaborate and beautiful each year; and cruising the Emporium for the latest Austeniana (this year’s find: the Jane Austen-shaped cookie cutter!)


But at its heart the AGM is a weekend-long conversation about the author we all love, and every year I hear something that makes me think about Austen in a new way.


Herewith just eight of the countless provocative, touching, hilarious or enlightening somethings I heard at this year’s AGM:


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