Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 29 2015 01:00PM

Look! Down there in the barrel! It’s a fish! Hand me my rifle!

Yes, I know I should stop trashing Bustle’s near-daily stream of Jane Austen listicles. And in my defense, I believe it’s been a full eight months since I last did so, which evinces self-restraint of Elinor Dashwood proportions.

Whatever Bustle’s catchy headline du jour -- “17 Things Only Jane Austen Lovers Truly Understand”! “14 Love Lessons From Jane Austen”! “8 Truly Feminist Lessons From Jane Austen”! -- every one of its lists recycles pretty much the same Hallmark-ready Words To Live By, allegedly drawn from Austen: Be yourself. Follow your heart. Stand up for yourself. Don’t judge by first impressions. Be honest with your friends. Etc.

This stuff sets my eyes a-rolling, for a number of reasons (though probably fewer than seventeen). I hate the way these lists flatten fully rounded works of literature into annotated self-help manuals, squeezing out all the narrative nuance and complex characterization. I note that Jane Austen always comes out of these efforts sounding more like a twenty-first-century chick dishing over a latte than like an Anglican clergyman’s daughter born in the eighteenth century. Call her Bustle Jane Austen, or BuJA for short.

Compiling these Lesson Lists seems a particularly foolhardy task when it comes to a writer as subtle and slippery as Austen, whose every Lesson can be matched with a Counter-Lesson, sometimes from the very same book. Bustle’s latest featurette, “10 Lessons From Jane Austen on How to be a Badass,” throws the shortcomings of this silly project into all-too-sharp relief.

“Be yourself without worrying about what others think!” urges BuJA, who supposedly created the irreverent, uncowed Elizabeth Bennet in order to underline this very point. Except that Marianne Dashwood also goes around bucking convention and gets a broken heart and a near-fatal illness for her pains.

“Stick to your beliefs!” says BuJA – pointing to such belief-stickers as Fanny Price and both Dashwood sisters, who, despite their “opposing personalities. . . make decisions based on what they think is right, staying true to their personal morals.” Except that it’s pretty clear from Sense and Sensibility that Marianne is wrong about what she thinks is right. As is Elizabeth Bennet, who sticks to her beliefs about Wickham’s fundamental goodness right up until she finds out he’s fundamentally a callous seducer.

“Have confidence in your personal strengths!” exhorts BuJA, citing the example of Emma Woodhouse, whose lack of traditional female accomplishments is no big deal, since “her confidence in her own strengths is the key to her success.” Umm – did BuJA read RealJA’s book? In which Emma Woodhouse’s lack of accomplishments is evidence of her laziness, and her blind self-confidence is unforgettably skewered as “a disposition to think rather too well of herself”? Apparently not, since BuJa soon presses Emma’s I’m-never-getting-married line – the thoughtless bravado of a rich, sheltered young woman who doesn’t know her own heart – into service as an exemplar of “Just because something is right for others doesn’t mean it’s right for you.”

Not that RealJA is opposed to having self-confidence or choosing your own path. Anne Elliot might have fit with that know-your-own-strengths lesson, and Fanny Price is a pretty good exemplar of the what’s-right-for-you-is-wrong-for-me line. That’s what I mean about examples and counter-examples. Austen does believe in all those rah-rah Girl Power lines – except when she doesn’t. Because she’s writing about real life, which is messy, contextual and rarely governed by hard-and-fast rules.

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, Jun 8 2015 01:00PM

Jane Austen wrote daily, revised her work, recycled material from unused drafts, negotiated with publishers both directly and through an agent, corrected her proofs, read reviews, made changes for later editions, and kept track of her royalties. In other words, she was a committed professional writer.

This might seem obvious were it not for the energy with which her brother and her nephew tried, in the decades after her death, to promote a very different image – of Austen as a cheery amateur storyteller who dabbled charmingly with no thought of fame or fortune. No doubt they meant well, these Austen men. They wanted to keep the reading public from seeing their beloved relative as ambitious – and thus, in nineteenth-century terms, unwomanly.

But what did Austen herself think of ambition? Did she see it as a vice, a virtue, or something more ambiguous – a human impulse that could be deployed for both good and bad ends?

These were the question opened up most entertainingly this past Saturday by writer and critic Sarah Emsley, who spoke at a luncheon meeting I attended, sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania region of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Emsley argued that while Austen condemns characters like Mary Crawford and Isabella Thorpe for aspiring to raise themselves through mercenary marriages, she rewards those characters who hold quieter, more modest ambitions – people like Edward Ferrars and Elizabeth Bennet, who aim primarily to achieve their own vision of love and happiness.

Along the way, Emsley considered Christian, Aristotelian and Johnsonian definitions of ambition; touched on the reasons that ambition has traditionally inspired mixed feelings; and noted the ambitions that Austen arouses in her readers, including a desire to read more deeply and to think more carefully about how to live their lives.

Emsley says her ideas remain a work in progress, but she’s off to a good start. I look forward to seeing her intellectual ambitions rewarded with publication (along with love and happiness, of course).

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 2 2015 02:00PM

Elizabeth Bennet – vivacious, witty, charming and good-hearted – has many fans. Add to the list Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, wife of Britain’s Prince Charles and likely next queen of England.

Last week, as she helped inaugurate the new offices of First News, a UK children’s newspaper, Camilla was asked what literary character she would most like to be. Her first answer was Winnie the Pooh (apparently, she has a thing for honey), but her second was Lizzy Bennet.

“The only question is whether Prince Charles would be her Darcy,” added the Daily Mail reporter assigned to this ground-breaking royal story.

This is a tough one. Let us enumerate Charles’ Darcy-like qualities. Mega-millions? Check. Fabulous mansion(s), complete with well-stocked family library and impressive portrait gallery? Check. Posh background and top-notch education? Check. Irresistible sexual magnetism? Umm. . .

I must confess that what first drew my attention to this story was the Daily Mail’s rather misleading headline, “I’d love to be a Jane Austen heroine, admits Camilla.” To me, a woman who has infinite amounts of money, privilege and leisure time, and is married to a man with same, is already living the life of the most cosseted Austen heroine imaginable – Emma Woodhouse on steroids. What’s left to wish for? Just that irresistible sexual magnetism, I guess.

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.

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