Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2020 02:00PM

On March 2, I reported the happy news that a theatrical adaptation of Emma – written by Kate Hamill, the actor/playwright whose madcap versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have been widely produced – would premiere in April at Minneapolis’ venerable Guthrie Theater.

Well, you can guess how that turned out.

But all is not lost for fans of Hamill’s Austen: A costumed reading of this new Emma – online, of course -- will take place over the next two weekends. The show is sponsored by Shakespeare & Company, which usually produces summer theater in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts.

Emma will be performed – live, apparently – at 7 pm (Eastern time) on December 26-27 and January 2-3. Although all four performances are free, you have to register ahead of time to get the link; it’s not clear to me whether the performances will be available for time-shifted viewing or must be watched as they occur, although I assume the latter.

Either way, an early peek at Hamill’s latest literary adaptation is an unexpected and tasty New Year’s treat.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 26 2020 02:00PM

Like many of us in the Age of COVID, I’ll be hosting an unusually small Thanksgiving party tonight – just the four members of my immediate family. With only ourselves to please, we’re taking radical measures. We will not (gasp!) be serving turkey. Instead, we will be serving goose. (Wish me luck.)

Naturally, this project evokes a key question: Are there geese in Jane Austen’s novels?*

I’m happy to report that the answer is yes, in both Mansfield Park and Emma. For today’s purposes, let us turn to this early conversation between sweet, guileless Harriet Smith and her new friend, Emma Woodhouse:

“[Emma] particularly led Harriet to talk more of Mr. Martin, -- and there was evidently no dislike to it. Harriet was very ready to speak of the share he had had in their moonlight walks and merry evening games; and dwelt a good deal upon his being so very good-humoured and obliging. ‘He had gone three miles round one day, in order to bring her some walnuts, because she had said how fond she was of them . . . . And when she had come away, Mrs. Martin was so very kind as to send Mrs. Goddard a beautiful goose: the finest goose Mrs. Goddard had ever seen. Mrs. Goddard had dressed it on a Sunday, and asked all the three teachers, Miss Nash, and Miss Prince, and Miss Richardson, to sup with her.’ ” (Emma, ch. 4)

In passing, I will note the sly Austenian joke in having the none-too-bright Harriet exult at the gift of a bird whose name is synonymous with foolishness. As I embark upon the adventure of cooking a goose (literally), here’s hoping that joke won’t end up being on me.

* There are turkeys, as I established in a past Thanksgiving Day blog post.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 23 2020 02:00PM

Fifty-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Although Jane Austen was a professional writer who spent six years working with two different publishers, little of her surviving correspondence concerns business affairs; she left most such matters to her brother Henry.

Among the handful of exceptions, however, is the letter Austen wrote to publisher John Murray exactly 205 years ago today (#126 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) – and that letter exists precisely because Henry, several weeks into a serious illness, was still too compromised to act on his sister's behalf.

Austen had been visiting Henry in London that autumn when he fell ill; as Janeites will recall, it was Henry’s doctor who facilitated Austen’s introduction to the Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, who passed along to Austen the offer-she-couldn’t-refuse: permission to dedicate her forthcoming novel, Emma, to her most powerful fan, the future George IV.

By late November, more than a month into her London stay, Austen, like so many writers before and since, was dismayed at what seemed to be unaccountable delays in publishing her latest book. In an effort to speed along the process – and at Henry’s suggestion, as she explained a few days later in a letter to her sister, Cassandra -- she decided to pull the only string at her disposal.

“Is it likely that the Printers will be influenced to greater Dispatch & Punctuality by knowing that the Work is to be dedicated, by Permission, to the Prince Regent?” Austen asked Murray. “If you can make that circumstance operate, I shall be very glad.”

It seems unlikely that this royal news alert had much effect – as Austen told Cassandra soon after, the delay was apparently attributable not to dilatory printers but to a delayed paper delivery – but in any case, the story had a happy ending. On December 23, 1815, exactly one month after Austen’s letter to Murray, the novel finally appeared, and it was – well, it was Emma.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2020 02:00PM

Less than a year ago, a rich person with excellent taste snapped up a complete set of Jane Austen first editions at a New York auction. If you want to take a shot at acquiring the same coveted Janeite prize, you have until 7 pm (Eastern) tonight.

That’s when Skinner Auctioneers will close the bidding in its online auction of rare books, maps, and manuscripts. Among the items for sale is a set of first editions of all Austen’s novels – sixteen handsomely bound volumes once owned by Mary Orne Bowditch (1883-1971), a sculptor from a prominent Massachusetts family.

Skinner estimates that the set – three-volume editions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, plus four volumes containing the posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion -- will bring in $20,000 to $30,000; earlier this week, the bidding had reached only $16,000.

To me, those numbers seem oddly low, considering that the editions sold in February went for more than $240,000, with Pride and Prejudice alone bringing in more than $100,000. Still, I’m no bibliographer: Perhaps a reader with greater expertise can explain why the new set is apparently less valuable.

Less valuable in monetary terms, that is. I’m sure we Austen fans can agree that any first edition – let alone all of them – is priceless.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2020 01:00PM

By now, it’s no surprise to find Jane Austen’s name surfacing in discussions of Britain’s unsavory imperial history: The debate over the significance of Austen’s glancing references to West Indian slavery has raged for decades.

Nor should it be a surprise to see Austen press-ganged into service, however unfairly, as a symbol of uncritical nostalgia for nineteenth-century country house life. Still, I couldn’t help bristling when her name surfaced in a recent Guardian story about the impact of the worldwide anti-racism protests on the National Trust, the British non-profit that preserves and curates hundreds of stately homes.

Apparently, the National Trust plans a stepped-up effort to highlight its properties’ ties to slavery and colonialism. Although the issue has been on the agenda at least since the 2007 bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, “it would be fair to say we haven’t made the progress that we should have done since then,” John Orna-Ornstein, the trust’s director of culture and engagement, told the newspaper. “The Black Lives Matter movement has made us realize that we need to go much faster,” he added.

The initiative is surely a welcome development that, if done well, should enrich and complicate tourists’ experience of National Trust properties. But how does Jane Austen fit into this picture? Where did she stand on comparable issues in her own time?

It’s a complex question with no definitive answer: Although we know from her letters that Austen admired the abolitionist writer Thomas Clarkson, her references to slavery in Emma and Mansfield Park are oblique enough to leave us guessing about the precise contours of her beliefs.

In our era, marked by a profusion of Jane Austen adaptations filmed in the ornate parlors and manicured gardens of very beautiful National Trust properties, nuance is easily elided, however. And thus it is that the Guardian can quote Katie Donington, a historian of the transatlantic slave trade, speculating about whether the popular perception of the country house will militate against efforts to reckon with its unsavory hidden history.

“Is it scones and tea and a bit of Jane Austen-type fantasy?” she asked the newspaper. “Or does it engage with the hard political and economic realities of where some of that wealth came from?”

It’s possible that Donington is a dedicated follower of the literary critic Edward Said, who argued decades ago that Austen was conveniently blind to the horrific human suffering that underwrote her own society. But more likely her comment is yet another example of the way that Jane Austen screen adaptations, with their beautiful costumes and buildings and actors, have come to stand for all things Jane Austen – no matter how much that overlooks Austen’s own engagement with hard political and economic realities.

When contemporary screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels are the (implied or overt) topic of discussion, the conversation is about us, the twenty-first-century viewers, not her, the nineteenth-century novelist. So could we leave poor Jane Austen out of it?

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