Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 4 2020 01:00PM

When Elinor Dashwood learns (as she thinks) that the love of her life, Edward Ferrars, has finally married his longtime fiancée, she is surprised at the intensity of her sense of loss.


“Elinor now found the difference between the expectation of an unpleasant event, however certain the mind may be told to consider it, and certainty itself,” Jane Austen tells us in chapter 48 of Sense and Sensibility. “She now found, that in spite of herself, she had always admitted a hope. . . . and she condemned her heart for the lurking flattery, which so much heightened the pain of the intelligence.”


For Janeites, last Tuesday brought our own painful Elinor moment: the arrival of a long-expected-yet-greatly-dreaded email from Liz Philosophos Cooper, the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, officially canceling JASNA’s Annual General Meeting. Scheduled for October 9-11 in Cleveland, the conference—“Jane Austen’s Juvenilia: Reason, Romanticism, and Revolution”—was to have centered on the short, boisterous burlesques that Austen wrote as a teenager.


It’s hard to argue with Cooper’s reasoning: It’s vanishingly unlikely that a COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available this fall; large gatherings risk spreading the virus; and JASNA’s AGM attendees skew toward the older end of the age spectrum, making them especially vulnerable to illness.


“It is impossible to hold our conference without undue risk to public health,” Cooper wrote in her message to JASNA members. “None of us wants to look back and wish that we had been more careful.”


Sigh. It’s all true, and anyone who’s been following the news must have known this was coming. And yet—what a sad difference certainty itself makes! See, this was going to be such a fun AGM! Novelty! (JASNA has held only one prior AGM on the juvenilia, and that was in 1987.) Hilarity! (The juvenilia are often laugh-out-loud funny.) Glory! (OK, that was a personal note. I was going to be co-presenting one of the breakout sessions, achieving a long-held goal.)


JASNA has held an autumn AGM in a different city every year, without fail, since the society’s founding in 1979, even pulling off a Seattle conference less than a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This year-without-an-AGM will set a sad precedent.


It’s likely that the canceled 2020 conference will be rescheduled, but with AGM locations already chosen for 2021 and 2022, that presumably can’t happen for at least three years. Still, it’s something to look forward to—which seems about as much expectation of certainty as we can get these days.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2015 01:00PM

Ianthe Broome, the protagonist of Barbara Pym’s 1982 novel An Unsuitable Attachment, is a quiet, self-effacing woman. "She saw herself perhaps as an Elizabeth Bowen heroine -- for one did not openly identify oneself with Jane Austen's heroines," Pym writes.


Well, Ianthe, those days are over.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 26 2015 02:00PM

Over the weekend, my daily Google alert called my attention to artist Carmen Medlin’s rendition of Elinor Dashwood. . . as a mouse.


I find the drawing rather sweet, but more to the point it got me wondering about animal-world equivalents of our favorite Austen characters.


Suggestions, anyone? I’m thinking Wickham as a fox, Henry Crawford as a snake (Garden of Eden reference very much intended) and Lady Bertram as a three-toed sloth. Mr. Elton as a weasel? Sir Walter Elliot as one of those chest-beating gorillas? Mrs. Jennings as a motherly but somewhat dim manatee?


All of a sudden I’m looking forward to the animated Disney version of Pride and Prejudice! (It can’t be worse than the zombie flick.) Somehow, though, this Austen-animal game seems much easier to play with the caricature-like secondary characters than with the heroes and heroines, whose personalities are more nuanced.


Although if anyone’s a mouse, it’s surely Fanny Price.





By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 21 2014 01:00PM

The UK’s Independent newspaper just asked one hundred people working in the arts – writers, publishers, actors, directors – to pick their favorite literary characters. (Actually, I only count ninety-nine selectors, but never mind).


The choices range widely, from childhood favorites (Harriet the Spy and Anne of Green Gables are represented, along with British faves by Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton), to books that just about every literate English-speaker has probably cracked open at some point (Great Expectations, Hamlet), to difficult modernist masterworks often left unfinished on the bedside table (Ulysses, The Magic Mountain).


Naturally, we Janeites are above such vulgar matters as noticing who won Most Mentions in a totally random newspaper survey, so this is just for the record: Jane Austen won. Nyah-nyah. Told you she was great.


Five Austen characters – one from each of the novels except Northanger Abbey – were chosen as favorites: Elizabeth Bennet (no surprise there), along with Emma Woodhouse, Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot and Mrs. Norris. (Once again, poor Fanny Price gets dissed in her own novel. And by evil Aunt Norris, no less.)


Austen edged out Dickens, with four nominations (three from Great Expectations, one from Oliver Twist); Philip Roth (three nominations, from three different novels); and Joseph Heller (three nominations, all from Catch-22). Seven other writers, all men, garnered two nominations apiece, and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary was picked twice, if you include all the selections of novelist David Mitchell, who insisted on choosing four beloved characters instead of just one.


Only 19 of the 83 authors represented on the list are female, as are only 27 of the 101 characters mentioned, which may tell us something about the patriarchal domination of English literature, both on and off the page. Incidentally, these statistics also tell us that Austen created 20 percent of the female characters singled out as favorites by the Independent's arty types.


But who’s counting?



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