Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 23 2017 01:00PM

Regular blog readers will recall that I find the very concept of “Jane Austen-inspired” smells, flavors and visuals – as in Austen perfume, toothpaste or knitting patterns – bizarre and problematic. I accept that this is because I am a blinkered and limited human being.


Clearly, however, others are far less bemused by Austen-inspired brand extension than I am. The latest evidence of this fact is the Jane Austen textile design competition co-sponsored by the Whitchurch Silk Mill, a historic nineteenth-century factory located not far from Steventon, the Hampshire village where Jane Austen was born and lived until she was twenty-five.


Earlier this week, the mill announced that a textile pattern designed by Nicole Calliste, a student at the Winchester School of Art, had won a contest “to produce a design which reflected Jane Austen’s enduring influence for a modern-day audience.” (Like so much else going on in Hampshire this year, the competition is part of the commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death.)


Calliste’s design, which she will weave on a handloom at the mill, was inspired by the curious and imaginative Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. “This is the sort of fabric a young woman of great imagination and creativity may have chosen today,” the mill’s director says.


By June, the pattern will be for sale in the mill’s gift shop, incorporated into pencil cases and other items. Judging from the newspaper photo, it’s a bright and appealing textile. But if you didn’t already know it was Austen-inspired, could you tell? I couldn’t – but, as we’ve already established, I’m blinkered and limited.


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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