Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 1 2017 01:00PM

I love the idea of gardening – fresh air! Closeness to nature! The magic of growth and change!

I love the results of gardening -- beautiful flowers! Homegrown vegetables! Aromatic herbs!

In fact, I love everything about gardening -- except for the actual gardening, which involves dirt, sweat, and backbreaking, repetitive labor.

So I will leave to others the practical application of the latest Jane Austen bicentenary news: the launch, during last week’s Chelsea Flower Show in London, of a new “Jane Austen rose.” (Not to be confused with the Pride and Prejudice rose, released by the same grower in 2013.)

The Jane Austen rose

Suitable-for-planting versions of the new rose, described by The English Garden magazine as an “orange-flowered Floribunda” with “a light sweet scent,” will be on sale this fall for £12.95 (about $16.59). As usual with these Austen tie-ins, it's impossible to say wherein the Austen-ness of this particular flower inheres, but it certainly looks pretty.

And Janeites can feel particularly virtuous about buying their own rosebush because a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage. Later this year, a Jane Austen rose will also be planted in the museum’s garden. Where I hope to someday admire the results, since I’m unlikely to have one planted closer to home.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 29 2017 01:00PM

Any plans late next month? No? Then head over to the web site of Jane Austen 200 – the clearinghouse for events scheduled this year in Hampshire, England, to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death – and enter the sweepstakes.

The prize is a three-night, late-June stay in Winchester and Basingstoke, along with free tickets to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried; Chawton cottage, now a museum of her life; Chawton House Library, located in the mansion once owned by her brother Edward; and a book talk by historian, curator and TV presenter Lucy Worsley, author of a new Austen biography. Plus £100 (about $130) towards travel expenses.

OK, it’s obvious that this package is more of a draw for British Janeites, who a) can probably get to Winchester for not much more than £100; and b) had probably heard of Worsley before the recent plagiarism kerfuffle. But hey – three free nights in England is three free nights in England, right? And entering is a breeze, requiring only the answer to an Austen trivia question of such laughable simplicity that it’s practically an insult to Janeite intelligence.

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, Dec 8 2016 02:00PM

As every homeowner knows, the passage of time can wreak havoc on even the best-constructed building. Paint peels, window frames warp, roofs start to leak – it’s common. And when your home is a couple of centuries old, it’s inevitable.

So it’s no surprise that Chawton cottage, the iconic Hampshire house where Jane Austen wrote or revised all her novels, is in need of some fixing up. And given that next year is the bicentenary of Austen’s death – and therefore, in our anniversary-obsessed culture, the occasion for all manner of festivals, commemorations, publications and the like – it’s no surprise that the trustees of the cottage, now a museum of Austen's life, are using the momentous date as the excuse for a bit of fixer-upper fundraising.

The Jane’s Fund campaign, which launched last month, aims to raise £250,000 ($318,000) toward “vital building repairs. . .required to ensure that the fabric of the house does not deteriorate further,” explains the web site of Jane Austen’s House Museum. “Exterior and interior work will secure the house now and protect it for future generations. In addition, there is an exciting plan to refurbish each of the House’s rooms to bring visitors closer to Austen’s life and works than ever before.”

Those lucky folks who can afford to donate £1,000 ($1,280) or more (don’t look at me!) will get a private tour of the house, free from the encroachments of pesky fellow Janeites. No word on whether dinner with Colin Firth is on offer in exchange for an even bigger gift.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 10 2016 01:00PM

We’ve had Jane Austen musicals, Jane Austen operas, and databases of the music that Jane Austen herself played. And now comes word that a British composer with roots in the Hampshire town of Alton, not far from Chawton Cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, has written a piece of classical instrumental music inspired by seven of Austen’s female characters.

Philip Andrews’ Jane Austen Suite, a twenty-minute piece scored for piano, violin, cello, clarinet and flute, was first performed in Alton in June 2015. I learned about it from a press release Andrews’ publicist sent out last week, in hopes of drumming up interest ahead of next year’s bicentenary commemoration of Austen’s death.

Andrews was born in Alton, and his grandfather worked as a footman at Chawton House, though presumably not while it was owned by Austen’s older brother Edward Austen Knight, who died in 1852. Still, it’s a closer Austen connection than most of us can boast of.

I enjoyed the brief excerpts from the Jane Austen Suite (snippets from the “Mary Bennet,” “Charlotte Heywood” and “Miss Bates” movements) available on Andrews’ web site, though I’m such a musical ignoramus that my approval doesn’t mean much. Those of you who know from notes and keys can order the full score from the site. Tell us what you think -- and whether you're planning a local performance during next year's commemoration

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