Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 3 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s books feature plenty of quietly competent women going about their work with minimal fuss – and, sometimes, minimal appreciation from others. Think of Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Fanny Price – even Miss Bates and Charlotte Lucas.


So it seems appropriate that my Jane Austen Google alert should recently have reminded me of two such real-life women whose work helped bring Jane Austen the celebrity she now enjoys.


--In a recent edition of the Review of English Studies (abstract available here; full text requires payment), Austen scholar Janine Barchas explores the life and work of Katharine Metcalfe (1887-1978), the editor of the first scholarly edition of Pride and Prejudice, published by Oxford University Press in 1912.


You might be forgiven for thinking that the first scholarly editions of Austen’s work began appearing a decade later, under the stewardship of the magisterial R.W. Chapman. That’s the story we Janeites have always heard – the “Chapman editions” were standard reference points for Austen quoting. (Still are, in some precincts.)


A classic story of a woman done out of the credit rightfully due her by an interloping male? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that: Chapman became Metcalfe’s husband in 1913.


Hmm. Mr. Collins, anyone?


--A belated obituary that appeared last month offered fascinating details about the life of Jean Bowden, who served from 1984 to 1994 as the curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum (aka Chawton cottage) where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


Bowden, who died in January at the age of 86, was known to me as the author of a column about the doings at Chawton that appeared regularly in the newsletter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. In her accounts of the museum’s newest acquisitions and the latest plants to bloom in the garden, Bowden came across as a charming, slightly fusty English spinster of the tea-drinking, cat-owning variety.


Turns out, however, that earlier in her career she had administered the orchid collection at the magnificent Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. She was the first woman to go on a Kew-sponsored specimen-collecting trip – four months in Nigeria – and later published a book about a little-known British botanist. And all this before presiding over significant restoration and refurbishment at Chawton cottage, that beloved Janeite pilgrimage site.


It seems apt, somehow, that these lesser-known women should have helped nurture the flame of Austen’s fame, even as noisier folks, some of them male, got more of the credit. Jane Austen would recognize the phenomenon.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 6 2014 01:00PM

The other day, I ran across this attractive Austen-themed craft idea, and it got me thinking about that silhouette.


Now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, it pops up everywhere as a representation of Jane Austen, whose image is famously hard to pin down. (The Jane Austen Society of North America summarizes the issue here, and I’ve written about it here and here.)


Why do we think this silhouette represents Jane Austen? According to Princeton scholar Claudia L. Johnson’s excellent Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, it was “found in 1944 pasted into the second edition of Mansfield Park” and labeled “L’aimable Jane.” The pioneering Austen editor R.W. Chapman thought that closed the case: “Who would insert, in a copy of Mansfield Park, a portrait of any other Jane than its author?”


With apologies to the magisterial Chapman, that’s about as lame an argument as can be imagined. Although the NPG dates the silhouette to circa 1810-15 – early enough to be an accurate representation of Austen -- we have no idea where it came from or when it was pasted into the book. We don’t know who did the pasting or why s/he wrote in French.


Might it have been a Francophone Austen friend fashioning an impromptu author portrait out of a taken-from-life image? Absolutely.


Might it also have been a moony French teenager who found the silhouette at a flea market decades later and decided it looked exactly like her mental image of the author? Could be. No way of telling.


AustenBlog’s Margaret Sullivan, who shares my skepticism about the provenance and accuracy of the image, argues that “the silhouette is charming and we have no problem with it being a symbolic representation of the youthful Jane Austen.” Fair enough. Just so long as we remember that we don’t really know who’s in the picture.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter