Deborah Yaffe


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

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 25 2016 01:00PM

I am, of course, aware that online listicles with titles like “22 Places in the UK That Are a Must-See for Jane Austen Fans” are silly clickbait to which I should pay no mind. However, I am constitutionally incapable of passing such pieces by without a teensy-weensy bit of grumbling.

So let’s get on with it.

Buzzfeed’s twenty-two-item list includes three places with rock-solid connections to Jane Austen’s life: Chawton cottage (#1), where she spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels; Chawton House (#2), one of her brother Edward’s properties, which she often visited; and Winchester Cathedral (#3), where she is buried.

Then there are three places with legit links to the novels: Chatsworth House (#10), which Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit during their holiday trip in Pride and Prejudice; Box Hill (#16), where Emma insults Miss Bates; and the Bath Assembly Rooms (#22), where Catherine Morland meets Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

Throw in a couple sites with rather more tangential relationships to the life, the work or both: Saltram House (#12), whose one-time mistress, the Countess of Morley, was a fan of Austen’s writing; and Stoneleigh Abbey (#19), which Austen is known to have visited and whose chapel is likely to have served as the inspiration for the Sotherton chapel in Mansfield Park.

Heck, I’m in a forgiving mood, so I’ll even grant that the Jane Austen Centre in Bath (#4), although an entirely artificial creation for tourists, belongs on the list, given that Austen did spend several unhappy years living in the city.

But thirteen of the twenty-two places on the list – nearly two-thirds – are stately homes and/or picturesque villages known to Austen lovers only as locations where Austen movies were shot.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have been to some of these places, and they are delightful. If you want to visit them, don’t let me stand in your way. (Although I really can’t imagine making a special trip to Newby Hall -- #20 – merely because the execrable Billie Piper Mansfield Park was shot there. Maybe that’s just me.)

But here’s my point. If you’re compiling a list of places in the UK for Austen fans to visit, it seems a tad perverse to take up nearly two-thirds of your list with movie locations while omitting a bunch of places with real Austen connections: places like St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, where Austen’s father was the rector for the first twenty-five years of her life; the Vyne, where Austen attended a ball or three; Godmersham Park, where Jane and Cassandra often stayed with Edward’s family; Goodnestone Park and House, the home of Edward’s in-laws, where the Austen sisters also visited; Lyme Regis, where key scenes in Persuasion take place; or the British Library, where Austen’s portable writing desk is on display.

Yes, I will grant you that Steventon is hard to get to, Godmersham House is closed to the public, and Goodnestone costs a small fortune to rent for a night. But such minor logistical considerations never stopped a real fan.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 4 2015 01:00PM

Cassandra Austen gets a bad rap from Janeites. As I’ve noted before, many of us just can’t forgive her for burning who-knows-how-many of Jane Austen’s letters, depriving us of untold biographical insights.

But it’s a letter written by Cassandra herself (#CEA/3 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) that’s in the Janeite spotlight at the moment. Jane Austen’s House Museum, the cottage at Chawton where Austen spent the last six years of her life, is raising money to buy one of Cassandra’s three extant letters (the other two are in New York’s Morgan Library & Museum).

The letter, dated July 29, 1817 – eleven days after Jane Austen’s death – is currently on loan to the museum, which has until July to raise 10,000 British pounds towards its purchase. According to the BBC, the 20,000-pound balance of the purchase price has already been contributed by Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund.

The letter makes clear that, despite Cassandra’s bonfire, there’s no doubting the depth of her affection for her brilliant sister – “the dear Angel,” as Cassandra calls her here.

Writing to Fanny Knight, the eldest of the Austen nieces, Cassandra describes the day of Jane’s funeral and offers to send Fanny a piece of jewelry made with her dead aunt’s hair.

But mostly Cassandra writes movingly of her grief, which she is palpably struggling to bring under the command of her religious faith.

“Of course those employments suit me best which leave me most at leisure to think of her I have lost & I do think of her in every variety of circumstance. In our happy hours of confidential intercourse, in the chearful family party, which she so ornamented, in her sick room, on her death bed & as (I hope) an inhabitant of Heaven,” Cassandra writes. “Oh! If I may one day be reunited to her there!”

And then she poignantly expresses that familiar paradox of grief, the pain whose diminution is another kind of pain: “I know the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea, but I do not like to think of it.”

Whatever you think of Cassandra, it’s a letter that belongs in the museum’s permanent collection, and I hope Janeites around the world will make the acquisition possible.

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