Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 10 2014 02:00PM

A fascinating column in a recent edition of the Financial TimesFT Magazine uses the income data in Pride and Prejudice to illustrate a larger point: that in the twenty-first century, citizenship has replaced social class as the most important marker of relative privilege.

Let other pens debate that point. I’m more interested in columnist Tim Harford’s calculation of the contemporary equivalents of the income Elizabeth Bennet can expect if she does – or does not – marry Mr. Darcy. And I’m happy to say that his numbers make far more intuitive sense than the wildly inflated ones tossed around a couple of months ago, the last time British journalists concerned themselves with the economic underpinnings of Jane Austen’s world.

According to Harford, the Bennet family’s annual income is £430 per capita. If Elizabeth marries Darcy and acquires half his £10,000 a year, her income rises more than tenfold; if her father dies and she fails to marry, she ends up with £40 a year.

Place the incomes of Elizabeth and Darcy at similar points on the 2004 economic scale – his in the top 0.1 percent, hers at twice the national average – and “all the gaps shrink dramatically,” Harford reports: Darcy makes £400,000 (about $633,000 in US dollars) and Elizabeth Bennet can count on a spinsterly provision of £23,000 ($36,000).

“Marriage in the early 19th century would have increased her income more than 100 times; in the early 21st century, the ratio has shrunk to 17 times,” Harford says. Actually, I think the twenty-first-century ratio is closer to 9, but that only reinforces Harford's point -- that social class is a far less powerful determinant of economic well-being today than it was in Austen’s time.

Why is Austen always the author to whom we turn for insight into the economics of the early nineteenth century? (The most famous recent example of this phenomenon is Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty, a much-praised book that used examples from Austen to illustrate its argument about capitalism and inequality. Or so I’m told by those who’ve read it.)

One explanation, of course, is that Austen’s stories are so familiar that they need no introduction. But surely we also rely on Austen because she pays such close attention to economics. She doesn’t just tell us that Darcy is rich and Elizabeth not so much. With characteristic precision, she gives us the numbers.

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?

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 20 2014 02:00PM

Jane Austen was not perfect. Not every sentence that fell from her pen was a masterpiece; like all of us, she needed an editor’s eye from time to time. And the 17,000-plus words of The Watsons, the novel she abandoned a decade or more before her death, probably lack the layers of polish that her revisions would have applied.

But let’s face it: she was a genius, and when you edit genius – even unfinished genius -- you proceed with care. Unless you too are a genius, most of the time, your edits aren’t going to be improvements.

I couldn’t avoid these reflections as I made my way through John Coates’ 1958 continuation of The Watsons, the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series. Coates was a professional novelist and playwright, and his continuation is far from terrible. His grasp of pacing and characterization is much surer than that of some of his predecessors in the Watsons-continuation game.

But an avid Janeite can’t repress a momentary shock on reaching Coates’ afterword, in which he forthrightly admits, “I have altered the original fragment.” His goal, he explains, was to replace words whose meaning seemed obscure to modern ears; to introduce more wit and sparkle than Jane Austen’s original included; and to prune for length. The results show that Coates, while by no means a bad writer, just wasn’t a genius.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 2 2014 02:00PM

New Year’s Resolutions for Janeites

1. Adopt Mr. Woodhouse’s macrobiotic/vegan diet.

“The wedding-cake. . .had been a great distress to him. . . . His own stomach could bear nothing rich.”

2. Join Elizabeth Bennet’s gym.

“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker.”

3. Follow Lady Bertram’s sleep schedule.

“Sunk back in one corner of the sofa. . . just falling into a gentle doze. . .”

4. Use Sir Walter Elliot’s budgeting software.

“They must retrench; that did not admit of a doubt.”

5. Undertake Marianne Dashwood’s stress-management program.

“I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it, my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved.”

6. Tackle Catherine Morland’s TBR pile.

“Are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

7. Embrace Lady Susan Vernon’s approach to me-time.

“I am tired of submitting my will to the caprices of others.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 1 2013 01:05AM

I listened to eminent scholars offer fascinating new perspectives on Darcy and Elizabeth, added a coffee mug adorned with a Mary Crawford quote to my souvenir collection, danced “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” (badly), and brought home Jane Austen playing cards for my kids (“Mr. Collins is the joker!” my daughter exclaimed gleefully).

But as usual, the best part of the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting, which took place this past weekend in Minneapolis, was the chance to meet fellow Janeites and wallow in our shared passion.

We argued over whether Mr. Collins is unfairly maligned, whether Anne De Bourgh is a survivor of rheumatic fever or a victim of anorexia, and whether the many Pride and Prejudice spinoffs that crowd bookstore shelves fill our need for more Jane Austen or just make us nostalgic for the original. I sang the praises of “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” to a tableful of brunch companions who’d never seen it.

And in the “Regency Room,” where authentic period items from a Janeite’s impressive collection were on display, I gazed in awe at a first edition of Frances Burney’s Camilla showing Jane Austen’s name on the subscription list – one of the few times Austen’s name appeared in print in her lifetime.

All weekend long, I signed copies of Among the Janeites – thanks for those sales, everyone! – including one destined for a preschooler named Elinor (after Elinor Dashwood, of course), who is briefly mentioned in the last chapter. Here’s hoping she’ll be engrossed in her own AGM conversations a couple of decades from now.

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