Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 14 2017 02:00PM

The year marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death is almost over, but one more major Austen anniversary lies ahead of us: 2018 is the two hundredth year since the posthumous joint publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.*


Writer, critic, and blogger Sarah Emsley, who has already curated eclectic and insightful blog series for the bicentenaries of Mansfield Park and Emma, will launch a new one on Saturday, Austen’s 242nd birthday. Running over the next six months, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” will include posts from dozens of Austen readers, some academic and some not, analyzing different aspects of these two very different novels.


My contribution is running at the very end, in June, since I’m writing about Captain Wentworth’s letter, perhaps my single favorite passage in all of Jane Austen. Don’t ask me how I snagged this prize; Sarah didn’t even make me arm-wrestle for it.


Emsley has a star-studded Janeite Rolodex; the contributors to her past series have exposed me to new information and ideas about everything from Austen’s religious beliefs to Regency cooking. I’m looking forward to learning more about the novels that bookended Austen’s writing career.



* “What? I’m confused! I thought those books were published in December of 1817!”

Yes, Virginia, they were, but the title page says 1818, so we’re allowed to keep celebrating all next year.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 11 2017 02:00PM

Twenty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s an occupational hazard of the writing life that people will not infrequently approach you to suggest you take their dictation. “You’re a writer?” new acquaintances used to say to my father, a published novelist. “I have a great idea for a story! Could I tell it to you, and then you’d just write it up?”


How delightful to discover that even the great Jane Austen encountered this form of condescension cloaked in admiration.


In November of 1815, as Janeites will recall, James Stanier Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, learned of Austen’s presence in London from a doctor treating her brother Henry. Clarke and the Prince were both Austen fans, and Clarke invited her to tour Carlton House, the Prince’s London residence, and to dedicate her forthcoming novel, Emma, to the royal personage.


A few days later, Austen followed up with a question about the dedication, and in his reply Clarke took the opportunity to gift her with his own fabulous idea for a novel -- the story of a clergyman “who should pass his time between the metropolis & the Country. . . Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature—no man’s Enemy but his own.” [Letter #125(A) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence]. A clergyman, in other words, rather like Clarke himself.


Poor Jane Austen. Here’s a kind, well-meaning doofus with connections to a powerful potential patron, and he wants her to write up his earnest, didactic, tedious little idea. Obviously, she’s not going to oblige him. But how to put him off without causing offense?


In the letter she wrote to Clarke exactly 202 years ago today [#132(D)], Austen walks this tightrope with aplomb, combining a generous helping of flattery with a slice of half-serious self-deprecation and leavening the mixture with a pinch of sly wit.


“I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a Clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note,” Austen explains. “But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the Character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s Conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing—or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations & allusions which a Woman, who like me, knows only her own Mother-tongue & has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving.—A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient & Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who wd do any justice to your Clergyman—And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”


It’s a little hard to buy the idea that the woman who had already created Henry Tilney, Mr. Collins, Dr. Grant, Edmund Bertram, and Mr. Elton felt herself unequal to portraying a clergyman, or that the writer of some of the best dialogue in English longed to stud her books with learned quotations from science, philosophy, and literature. To a contemporary reader – or, indeed, to anyone familiar with the management of the fragile male ego – it’s pretty obvious what Austen’s up to here.


Clarke, however, apparently didn’t notice: In his reply, he offered a few more plot suggestions and urged her to “continue to write, & make all your friends send Sketches to help you.” [#132(A)] Perish the thought.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 27 2017 02:00PM

The rabbit guy, it turns out, loved Jane Austen.


Last week, the Guardian reported that the large and valuable library of the late Richard Adams, author of the beloved sort-of-but-not-really-a-children’s-book Watership Down, will be auctioned on December 14.


Among the covetable gems of Adams’ collection is a complete set of Jane Austen first editions. A browse through the online catalogue, however, turns up many more mouthwatering tidbits for book lovers: first editions of Dickens, Coleridge, Wordsworth and George Eliot; a Shakespeare Second Folio; contemporary classics signed by their authors. . . (Find the catalogue here; the Austen books are on pages 36-7.)


Adams was a voracious reader from childhood, long before he aspired to a writing career of his own -- Watership Down, the allegorical and sometimes bloody saga of a group of plucky rabbits in search of a safe home, was published in 1972, when Adams was over fifty. The extraordinary international success of that book and those that followed gave him the money to pursue serious book-collecting.


Although as far as I can recall, her novels are a bunny-free zone, Austen apparently had a special place in Adams’ heart: the auction catalogue quotes from his autobiography, in which he describes his first reading of Emma, when he was a twenty-two-year-old soldier in World War II, as “like a revelation.” The same novel, a perennial favorite, was also one of the last books he read before his death last year, at ninety-six.


“With his undergraduate studies interrupted by war, he found the works of Jane Austen, and particularly Emma, a solace and mainstay – as did thousands of soldiers both before and after him,” his daughter, Juliet Johnson, writes in a touching introduction to the auction catalogue. “And so it went on all his life. To Richard, books were a consolation that broadened your horizons, told you truths about things most people in your life would brush under the carpet or have no experience of, and comfort you when things were bleak.”


The vastness of Adams’ collection apparently surprised his family, and Johnson sounds a wistful note that will resonate with anyone who has liquidated a loved one’s cherished, painstakingly assembled possessions. “It is sad to see so much of it go,” she writes, “but my father would no doubt have taken comfort from his beloved Thomas Hardy, and perhaps have been pleased that after his death these great books will pass to others who will love and treasure them.”


The auction house has valued Adams’ Austen collection at £60,000-£80,000 ($79,000-$106,000). Wanna bet that it will sell for a lot more of the green stuff?


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 23 2017 02:00PM

Thanksgiving Day is upon us once again, and once again it’s time to search the works of Jane Austen – who, as an Englishwoman who never left England, had no personal Thanksgiving experience – for mentions of holiday foods.


Blog readers will recall that Austen’s novels refer to turkeys twice and potatoes once. I’m happy to report that the tally for pie, a crucial holiday staple in my house, stands at a chart-topping three!


Well, sort of.


The Brits, it’s worth recalling, define “pie” rather expansively, and Austen is no different. During the Musgroves’ riotous family Christmas in chapter 14 of Persuasion, we happen upon “tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies”; as plans come together for the summer visit to Box Hill, in Emma, “Mrs. Elton was growing impatient to name the day, and settle with Mr. Weston as to pigeon-pies and cold lamb.”


It’s unlikely that these meat-based pies – sometimes served cold (**shudder**) -- are what most Americans will place on their Thanksgiving table today. Even my British husband is content with the traditional pumpkin and pecan and has never asked me to substitute the abomination known as the Cornish pasty.


More apropos, for today’s purposes, is this snippet of dialogue between Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth, who is desperately trying – and failing -- to get her mother to talk about something Not Embarrassing during her visit to the Bingleys at Netherfield.


"Did Charlotte dine with you?" Elizabeth asks in chapter 9 of Pride and Prejudice.


"No, she would go home,” [Mrs. Bennet replies]. “I fancy she was wanted about the mince-pies. For my part, Mr. Bingley, I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up differently. But everybody is to judge for themselves, and the Lucases are very good sort of girls, I assure you. It is a pity they are not handsome! Not that I think Charlotte so very plain -- but then she is our particular friend."


Mince pies, though primarily a Christmas tradition, seem a bit more relevant to today’s holiday than brawn and pigeon. Also on point: Embarrassing relatives. Here’s hoping that your table is long on pie and short on embarrassment today.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2017 02:00PM

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


Only six of Jane Austen’s letters to her oldest niece, Fanny Knight, survive, but for Janeites mining for links between Austen’s work and Austen’s life, that tiny correspondence is chock-full of golden nuggets.


Scarcely seventeen years separated aunt from niece, and Fanny seems to have enjoyed parsing her romantic dilemmas with this sympathetic and interested older confidante, in a pre-telephonic version of “And then he said. . . . And then I said. . . . And then he said. . . .”


Austen’s letters to Fanny fall into two groups: two letters written in November 1814, when Fanny was twenty-one and Austen thirty-eight; and three more written some two and a half years later, in early 1817, when Fanny was twenty-four and the forty-one-year-old Austen had only months to live. (The sixth letter, which contains a few verses of doggerel, was written years earlier, when Fanny was a child.)


The letter Austen finished writing exactly 203 years ago today -- #109 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- is the first of two in which Aunt Jane addresses Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for the young clergyman John Plumptre. (I blogged about the second of these letters here.)


To me, what’s most interesting about Letter #109 is the way that Austen’s reactions to Fanny resonate with incidents or dialogue in her work. Apparently, Fanny has visited Plumptre’s home, hoping to stimulate her waning passion by a view of his things. Austen can’t help giggling at the idea. “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!--Such a circumstance ought to be in print,” she writes. And little more than a year later, with the publication of Emma, the world was introduced to Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” – a worn-out pencil stub and an extra bit of court plaister, saved as stimuli to romantic nostalgia. Was Fanny’s dirty shaving rag an inspiration for Harriet’s treasure trove? Impossible to say – but tempting to speculate.


The letter contains an even more explicit echo of Austen’s fiction. After cataloguing the worthy Mr. Plumptre’s many merits, Austen nevertheless advises Fanny to consult her own feelings: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen writes.


Was Jane Austen channeling, consciously or unconsciously, the gentle, optimistic Jane Bennet -- in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice, published the year before -- who, confronted with the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy, cries, “Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection”? Impossible to know – but tempting to speculate.


In their insistence on marital love, both Janes are speaking to young women for whom the prudential and the romantic need not conflict: for the fictional Lizzy, because she has fallen in love with a wealthy man, and for the real-life Fanny, because she is herself an heiress. But Austen’s advice also echoes a far darker passage in her work – a snippet of dialogue in the early pages of her fragment The Watsons, in which the idealistic Emma Watson and her older, less naïve sister Elizabeth discuss the search for a husband.


“I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,” exclaims Emma, who has grown up with a wealthy aunt and only recently returned to her struggling birth family.


“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school,” Elizabeth replies. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have.”


Austen undoubtedly took Fanny’s romantic woes seriously, but she must have realized that the stakes were far lower for a young woman who, even if she stayed single, would never have to face the hard work and genteel poverty of teacher or governess. And perhaps that is why, amid her genuine concern for the feelings of Fanny and the unfortunate Mr. Plumptre, Austen’s wry, unromantic common sense cannot help but assert itself.


Fanny has encouraged her suitor, and therefore pain awaits him if she changes her mind, Austen acknowledges. But not that much pain. “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up,” she writes, “but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.”


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