Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 23 2020 01:00PM

I like to think that I do not “rant” about Jane Austen-related error. I merely point it out, in a snarky yet restrained way.


At times, it may be true, I do allow my annoyance at the total sloppiness that surrounds us at all times and would be so easy to avoid if only people would avail themselves of the greatest research tool ever known to humankind which they all have at their very fingertips every moment of every single day. . . where was I again? Oh, yes. . . allow my annoyance to issue in the occasional bit of mocking chastisement. But always with restraint.


Still, it’s very tempting to rant when an entertainment news site that actually calls itself ScreenRant is the latest source of ridiculous Austen-error, such as appears in the site’s recent listicle “James McAvoy’s 10 Greatest Films, According to IMDB.”


This is not the time to argue with the users of IMDB over whether Atonement is better or worse than various installments of the X-Men franchise, or whether Split should or should not have beaten out The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.


It is, however, the perfect time to take issue with this description of Becoming Jane, the Austen biopic that comes in at #8 on the McAvoy Greatest Hits list: “Based on letters written by Jane Austen to a young Irishman, McAvoy's Tom Lefroy, this movie focuses on Austen's pre-fame romance instead of the romance from one of her classic novels.”


Yes, that’s right: Apparently, we now have letters written by Jane Austen to Tom Lefroy. Actual, bona fide Jane Austen love letters.


Also, the Loch Ness Monster surfaced on camera recently, and the Holy Grail was discovered underneath a parking lot in the Lake District.


I might be less inclined to. . . not rant. . . offer a strongly worded critique of this entirely false claim about Austen’s correspondence were it not for my fear that this error will soon spread like a coronavirus, infecting the entire internet faster than you can say, "It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do."


You know how it happens: ScreenRant claims that Becoming Jane is based on Austen’s (non-existent) letters to Tom Lefroy; then three more stories about James McAvoy link to ScreenRant’s listicle and repeat the letter claim; then an introductory paragraph to a Valentine’s Day feature on Bustle titled “15 Ways Jane Austen Makes Us Love Love” notes in passing that “she wrote passionate love letters to an Irish heartthrob named Tom Lefroy”; and pretty soon you can’t Google “Jane Austen” without being offered “letters to Tom Lefroy” as a search term.


It’s enough to inspire a rant. At least from someone less restrained than I am.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 18 2019 02:00PM

Forty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


For devotees of the Tom-Lefroy-was-the-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life-and-the-inspiration-for-all-her-best-material school of thought – and blog readers will recall that I am not a member of this gushy clan -- the letter that Jane Austen finished writing exactly 221 years ago today is a crucial piece of evidence.


Almost three years earlier, Lefroy had spent a few weeks in the neighborhood, visiting his aunt Anne Lefroy, an older friend and mentor of Jane Austen’s. The two young people met, danced, talked, and enjoyed each other’s company – perhaps too much: The Lefroys, concerned that the not-rich Tom might contract a disadvantageous marriage with the not-rich Jane, seem to have rapidly hustled him out of town.


How deeply Austen cared for Tom Lefroy, and how much his departure hurt, are unresolvable questions whose very unresolvability has spawned rampant speculation, not to mention the biopic Becoming Jane. As an old man, Lefroy told a younger relative that he had felt a “boyish love” for Austen. So there’s that.


And there’s this: Letter #11 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.


Writing to her sister, Cassandra, who is in Kent to help out after the recent birth of their brother Edward’s latest child, Austen reports on a recent visit from Anne Lefroy.


“Of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little,” Austen tells Cassandra. “She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practice.”


“Too proud to make any enquiries”: That smacks of wounded pride, at least, and a desire not to let even a close friend – perhaps the close friend Austen blamed for breaking up the budding romance – see how much she had cared. It suggests that even three years later, Austen felt vulnerable and self-protective when it came to Tom Lefroy. That’s not slam-dunk proof that she had loved him, let alone that she still did, but it’s evidence that the relationship was more than a casual flirtation.


On the other hand, she never mentioned him again in a single extant letter, and there is exactly zero evidence that she used him as a model for any of her characters. Could Cassandra have burned all the letters in which Austen despairingly confessed that she would never be able to love again, and that Tom was the man she imagined every time she sat down to create a hero? I suppose anything’s possible.


(**snort**)


Rather than indulge such speculations, however, I prefer to note that one person quietly acquits himself beautifully in the scene Austen sketches in this letter: Her kind father, who presumably knew or suspected that his daughter’s heart had been bruised, and who found a way to get her the information she was too proud to ask for.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 13 2019 01:00PM

Most Janeites don’t need to hear, yet again, that Jane Austen was not a kindly maiden aunt whose sweet, insubstantial little romance novels provide a wholesome escape from reality. But it’s still enjoyable to listen as smart people discuss her life and work, and thus it is that I can recommend a recent half-hour episode in the BBC’s “Great Lives” radio series.


The segment, which aired last week, features Caroline Criado Perez, the British journalist and activist whose campaign to put a woman on the UK’s currency brought us the Jane Austen £10 note; and Paula Byrne, the scholar whose Austen books include The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things and The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood.


In conversation with host Matthew Parris, Byrne and Criado Perez discuss Austen’s juvenilia, Austen’s family, Austen’s humor, Austen’s misleading public image (“What more annoys me is when people dislike her for the wrong reasons,” Criado Perez says), and—inevitably—Austen’s love life.


Parris begins, “There is a biopic called Becoming Jane. . .”


“. . . oh, God. . . ,” interjects Criado Perez, right before she and Byrne savage the evergreen tale of Austen’s heartbreak over her youthful crush Tom Lefroy as so much sexist bunkum.


“She did have an eye for men,” Parris suggests, noting the sex appeal of Austenian heroes.


“We all have an eye for men, but that doesn’t mean we want to marry them and have their babies,” Criado Perez replies tartly. “Sometimes there are other things in a woman’s life.”


Not that this is news to Janeites. But it still bears repeating.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 10 2019 02:00PM

Last Thursday, James McAvoy, the excellent Scottish actor who played Jane Austen’s crush Tom Lefroy in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, paid a visit to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, where he Instagrammed a semi-incognito selfie from the gift shop.


You know it’s a slow Jane Austen news week when you’re reduced to discussing an actor from a bad Austen biopic visiting a faux Austen tourist attraction.


I know, I know: Many, many Janeites love this movie and this museum. I am a killjoy. Toss a blanket over my head and ignore me.


New Year’s Resolution: Stop being a killjoy.

**deep breath**

I will try to do better. Here goes:


If you’re a fan of Becoming Jane – which, based on exactly zero evidence, posits Lefroy as the Big Romance Who Inspired Pride and Prejudice Because Jane Austen Couldn’t Have Just Imagined It – then curl up with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy another viewing! If you love the Jane Austen Centre -- which houses artifacts Austen did not own in a building where she did not live -- please buy another ticket and wallow to your heart’s content! I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours! As Tom Lefroy probably didn't say!


Well, it’s only January. I still have time to get this no-killjoy thing right.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2017 02:00PM

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


If Cassandra Austen had known how much speculation would be spawned by the letter her sister Jane wrote her exactly 221 years ago today, she would surely have consigned it to the flames, along with the uncounted others she burned before her death.


Instead, however, Cassandra preserved it, and as a result it became the earliest Jane Austen letter that has come down to us -- #1 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. I’ve always wondered if the outsize attention this letter has received owes something to that accidental position of prominence: The very first time we encounter the joyful, chatty voice of the twenty-year-old Jane Austen, she’s talking about her crush on a young man named Tom Lefroy.


“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved,” Austen writes to Cassandra, away in Berkshire visiting the family of her fiancé, Tom Fowle. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. . . . He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much, for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago. . . . After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr Tom Lefroy. . . . he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove – it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”


Obviously, she liked him. Apparently, he liked her back. A few days later they parted, never to meet again. And largely on the basis of this letter, plus references to Lefroy in two others, a cottage industry has arisen devoted to the proposition that Tom Lefroy, the Irish nephew of Austen’s friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, was the love of Austen’s life, the real-life model for Mr. Darcy, the reason she never married, the muse who inspired her greatest work. . . you name it.


In his 2003 book Becoming Jane Austen, the scholar Jon Spence claimed that Austen and Lefroy had a longer-lasting and more serious relationship than the few references in her letters suggest. The 2007 film Becoming Jane, inspired by Spence’s work, took that thesis and ran with it, positing a romance, a first kiss, a thwarted engagement, an abortive elopement, a selfless renunciation and a poignant late-life reunion.


Since I haven’t read Spence’s book, I can’t say how convincing his scholarship is, but there’s no question that the movie encouraged a generation of filmgoers to conclude that Jane Austen wrote those books of hers (“They’re romance novels, right?”) in wistful tribute to the first love she never got over. Loyal blog readers will recall that I am, shall we say, not charitably inclined toward this thesis, which rests largely on thinly documented speculation about the psychological state of someone who died two centuries ago.


I won’t go so far as to say that I wish Cassandra had tossed the Lefroy letter onto her bonfire. No, I treasure every scrap of Austen’s prose too much for that. But I wish the rest of us could stop speculating about Austen’s love life and go back to reading her books.


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