Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 9 2015 02:00PM

It’s not exactly news that we Janeites feel very, very strongly about Jane Austen’s characters. Like, more strongly than we do about most real people. But I was reminded of this fact recently by my own visceral reaction to an article, via the British digital-TV company UKTV, headlined, “Which Austen Couples Would Last?”


Predictably, the piece finds Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet to be a perfect long-term match (“They didn't just fancy each other - they came to genuinely like and admire each other”), and it also gives good odds to Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney, and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars.


Unsurprisingly, though incorrectly, the author is equally certain that Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon are doomed. “Marianne will be hankering for another pretty boy soon enough,” s/he writes, ignoring Jane Austen’s authoritative verdict: “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.”


I’ll grant you that the phrase “in time” has given many of us a pang, as we imagine Marianne initially embarking on marriage without the passion she had expected to feel. But hankering for another pretty boy? Puh-leeze. The point of the book is that she’s learned something. She’s grown up. She’s moved beyond the pretty-boy stage.


Missing the point again, the piece gives us this verdict on Emma and Mr. Knightley: “There's no denying he's good for Emma. . . . But the fact is that Emma, despite playing Cupid for others, never really showed much of a romantic yearning for anyone herself. And there's definitely the sense that she's settling for Mr Knightley simply because getting married is the ‘thing to do’, rather than because she's been overwhelmed by passion. Long-term chances: So-so, but he definitely likes her more than she likes him.”


Um, read the book much? Emma has no social or financial need for marriage. She has already announced to Harriet that she isn’t going to get married merely because it’s the thing to do. She changes her mind precisely because she suddenly realizes who stands at the center of her life, and always has: “Till now that she was threatened with its loss, Emma had never known how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection. Satisfied that it was so, and feeling it her due, she had enjoyed it without reflection; and only in the dread of being supplanted, found how inexpressibly important it had been.”


Personally, I’d say that the intense language of that passage – threat, loss, dread, inexpressible importance -- evinces passionate attachment. Emma’s moral growth and maturation demand that she come to understand her own heart. That's the point of the book. If he likes her more than she likes him, then what has she learned?


Still, my annoyance at the running down of the romantic prospects of these people – sorry, these fictional characters – really hit overdrive when I came to the section on Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth: “They've spent so many years remembering and romanticizing each other, how can they be trusted with their feelings now?. . . Long-term prospects: Dodgy.”


Excuse me? Jane Austen tells us exactly why they can be trusted with their feelings now: “More tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.” And you – you random blogger – dare to question this relationship? I think not.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 20 2015 01:00PM

I write letters. Admittedly, I wrote more of them before the advent of email, but I still try to send my oldest friends handwritten birthday cards once a year. I answer photocopied Christmas letters with personalized messages. Over long years of nagging, I drilled into my children the art of the thank-you note.


So I was delighted to stumble across a blog called The Lost Art of Letter Writing – Revived!, whose author, Pam Foster, writes, “I am a letter lover and enjoy all things postal.”


Among Foster’s efforts is the still-evolving “Jane Austen Letter-Writing Society,” which is apparently going to be a non-electronic social network for women who share a love of such old-fashioned delights as “waxed seals, fountain pens, inks, pressed flowers and home-made stationery.”


Austen is an appropriate patron for a letter-writing society. She wrote many letters herself – only 160 survive, but that number certainly represents a small fraction of her lifetime output – and scholars believe that both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice started out as epistolary novels. Although only the novella Lady Susan remains in epistolary form, letters crucially advance the plot in all Austen’s novels.


Think of Willoughby cruelly brushing off Marianne, or Isabella Thorpe trying unsuccessfully to wheedle her way back into Catherine Morland’s favor. Recall Mary Crawford eagerly anticipating Tom Bertram’s death in an unintentionally revealing dispatch to Fanny Price, or Jane Fairfax insisting on her solo walk to the post office to pick up Frank Churchill’s love letters.


And that's before mentioning the biggies: Darcy’s letter of explanation to Elizabeth after his unsuccessful first proposal ("Be not alarmed, madam”) and, of course, The Letter itself: Captain Wentworth’s declaration of unaltered love for Anne Elliot (“You pierce my soul”).


Frankly, if we could all count on letters like that, nobody would ever use email.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 4 2014 01:00PM

Not being a math type, I have never spent much time trying to calculate the contemporary equivalents of the sums mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels: Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year, Emma Woodhouse’s £30,000 dowry, etc.


So I turned with interest to a recent Telegraph story assessing “the modern-day fortunes of Jane Austen's fictional heroes,” wherein we learn that “Mr Darcy's annual income of £10,000 in around 1803 would be worth £796,000 per year today” – in American terms, roughly $1.3 million.


Although by most standards, that’s a more than comfortable income, the story goes on to point out the inherent complications of these historical calculations. Two hundred years ago, labor was cheap and manufactured goods weren’t: the financially stressed Price family can still afford to employ a servant, while despite the wealth of Mansfield Park, Fanny is expected to mend her own clothes. Today, it’s the opposite: we toss aside our ripped clothing because we can get a new T-shirt for $10, but we fix our own meals because it’s too expensive to hire a cook.


The Telegraph piece tries to manage these differences by employing a concept called “prestige value,” which supposedly takes account of how the amounts Austen mentions stack up against Britain’s per capita GDP in the early nineteenth century. But the results strike me as bizarrely out of whack with the social world Austen portrays.


According to the Telegraph’s “prestige value” calculations, the Dashwood sisters and their mother are living on $730,000 a year at Barton Cottage. Captain Wentworth’s prize money works out to $36.6 million, and Emma Woodhouse’s dowry is the equivalent of nearly $44 million. Even Catherine Morland brings $4.4 million into her marriage.


Such numbers would put all these characters, even the strapped Dashwoods and the modest Morlands, well into the top few percentage points of the current U.S. income or wealth distributions.


I know that Regency England was a place of great inequality, where the many people whose lives Austen doesn’t chronicle lived in sometimes abject poverty. But still these numbers seem wildly overstated to me. The Dashwoods, too poor to accept Willoughby’s gift of a horse, aren’t living the lives of a family with $730,000. Emma, though a local queen bee, isn’t dwelling in the hedge-fund stratosphere.


Yes, Mr. Darcy seems to have Kennedy-style wealth in the world the Bennets inhabit. But Captain Wentworth? A guy with $36.6 million would surely be fending off the advances of more than the Musgrove girls.


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