Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 14 2019 02:00PM

Valentine’s Day, the celebration of lovers, dates back to the Middle Ages. Yet Jane Austen – often described as the mother of the romance novel, albeit by people who haven’t read her very carefully -- never mentions today’s most romantic of all holidays.


Or does she?


At least as far back as R.W. Chapman, the legendary editor who brought out the first scholarly editions of Austen’s work in the 1920s and -30s, Janeites have scoured Austen’s novels for hints to the dates on which events are supposed to be taking place.


Sometimes these are explicitly provided, as when Mr. Bingley reminds Elizabeth Bennet that the Netherfield ball took place on November 26. More often, however, they must be inferred from subtler clues that link a particular novel’s chronology to the almanacs for specific calendar years.


In 1986, the Austen scholar Jo Modert noted that if we take Emma – published at the end of 1815 – to be set in 1813-14, then internal clues indicate that its major events correlate with church holidays. Modert’s sleuthing uncovered fascinating evidence of Austen’s cleverness -- for instance, the fact that it is Shrove Tuesday, traditionally the religious holiday on which Christian believers were supposed to confess their sins, when Frank Churchill nearly tells Emma about his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax.


But the best known, and most delightful, of Modert’s discoveries is Austen’s hidden reference to Valentine’s Day – which, it turns out, marks the arrival of the piano that Frank secretly sends to Jane. And as the crafty Frank tells Emma in chapter 26, “Your reasonings carry my judgment along with them entirely . . . . now I can see [the gift] in no other light than as an offering of love."


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2019 02:00PM

Literary critics turn up in the most unexpected places.


Last November, the Maryland Zoo, in Baltimore, asked the public whether this year’s crop of African penguin chicks should be named for shades of color, types of pasta, or literary characters. Literary characters won, and earlier this month the zoo announced names for the first four of its recent hatchlings.


Three of them – Zorro, Gatsby and Coraline – need not detain us here. No doubt those chicks will grow up into perfectly adequate penguins.


The fourth, however, has been named Knightley.



Knightley the penguin


No doubt you, like me, are wondering why the zookeepers of Baltimore feel that, when you contemplate Austen’s large gallery of characters, the hero of Emma is the one who says Penguin.


Alas, because the zoo has provided no explanation for its literary exegesis, we can only speculate. Perhaps it’s because Mr. Knightley looks good in formalwear. (“His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body's eyes” – ch. 38). Or because, like the monogamous African penguin, he’s a one-woman man. (“There is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell” – ch. 42). Or because, like the members of this species, in which males and females share equally in egg-incubation duties, he’s good with kids. (“He was soon led on to. . . take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity” – ch. 12).


Whatever the reason, I’m sure we Janeites can all agree that this name sets a high bar for its avian owner. He’s not a happy-go-lucky Bingley, a brooding Brandon, or even a kindly Croft. He evokes one of Jane Austen’s most grownup characters: responsible, mature, ethically rigorous, a good neighbor, a careful estate manager.


It’s a lot for one small penguin to live up to.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 7 2019 02:00PM

Over the weekend, I went to see Clueless: The Musical. It made me miss Clueless: The Movie. Which was probably not the intended effect.


The original, immortal Clueless – the 1995 Amy Heckerling movie that updated the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills – is witty, charming, energetic and sweet. The new Off-Broadway show is . . . energetic.


We get duplicates of the characters, costumes and much of the plot of the original, along with ‘90s-vintage pop songs featuring new lyrics by Heckerling, but the result feels strained, as if everyone is trying a bit too hard. The light touch that makes the movie such a pleasure is entirely absent. Remarkably, it turns out that it’s possible to watch (a version of) Clueless without laughing.


The hard-working performers aren’t to blame, though we saw the show sans its semi-big star, Disney Channel actress Dove Cameron, who has been getting lots of social-media hate for missing performances over health concerns. Those on stage were certainly . . . energetic, but they mostly seemed to be imitating their cinematic predecessors, rather than making the roles their own.


Would a fan better versed than I in ‘90s pop have recognized more of the songs and thereby enjoyed their transformation more? Maybe. Instead, I found myself wishing that Heckerling had just hired a decent composer and created some catchy original music, instead of rehashing the sometimes mediocre hits of decades past.


The whole experience left me even more skeptical than I already was about the Clueless movie remake that’s supposedly on Hollywood’s agenda. Tempted to mess with perfection? Yeah – no. Just don’t.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2018 02:00PM

Nineteen is a number much on our collective minds today, as we prepare to usher in 2019, the last year of the second decade of the twenty-first century.


Accordingly, I went looking for nineteens in Jane Austen -- and I found eleven references, in ten different passages spread over four of the completed novels. (Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are nineteen-free zones.) With the exception of one throwaway Mansfield Park reference to “nineteen times out of twenty,” Austen’s nineteens are an interesting bunch – at any rate, significant enough to provide fodder for discussion while awaiting the Times Square ball drop.


For Jane Austen, nineteen is both too young and old enough: her nineteen-year-olds are variously mature and naïve, sensible and foolish. For Austen – and for us? -- nineteen is a transitional age, a waystation between childhood and adulthood.


In Mansfield Park, “eighteen or nineteen” is the age at which Mary Crawford expects girls to retain a certain innocent shyness, even if they are officially “out” in the marriage market. “One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to everything—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before,” Mary tells the Bertram brothers (ch. 5).


Yet some nineteen-year-olds are perfectly competent, it seems: Although Emma Woodhouse, at nearly twenty-one, still has much to learn, “at eighteen or nineteen [Jane Fairfax] was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself” (Emma, ch. 20).


The nineteen-year-olds of Persuasion are old enough to fall in love for keeps -- like Anne Elliot, who is nineteen when she accepts, and then refuses, Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal. But they are also young enough to mistake infatuation for the real thing -- like Louisa Musgrove, who, interestingly, is also nineteen when her charms temporarily turn the same man’s head, perhaps because he is unconsciously trying to recapture his youthful romance. And the novel contains a third naïve nineteen-year-old -- Mrs. Smith, who is nineteen when she meets, and initially likes, the duplicitous Mr. Elliot. “At nineteen, you know, one does not think very seriously,” she tells Anne (ch. 21).


Well, some nineteen-year-olds don’t: At the start of Sense and Sensibility, Austen tells us, Elinor Dashwood already “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother” (ch. 1). Like Persuasion, however, S&S features three significant nineteen-year-olds: in addition to the Elinor of the novel’s opening, there are the Edward Ferrars of four years earlier, whose “youthful infatuation of nineteen” has unhappily bound him to Lucy Steele (ch. 23), and the newlywed Marianne Dashwood of the novel’s end, who “found herself, at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (ch. 50).


Austen’s nineteen-year-olds are old enough to experience deep and sincere emotions, yet young enough to make dreadful errors of judgment. Some of them are ready to give counsel, while others trustingly follow the counsel of others. They stand on a threshold, looking backward to the consequence-free choices of childhood and ahead to the responsibilities of adulthood, with one foot in each place. Rather like us, tonight, as we leave 2018 behind and look ahead to what will come.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2018 02:00PM

Tomorrow is Christmas, the day on which a larger-than-life personage employing semi-equine transport suddenly appears in our homes, bringing good things for the good and not-so-good things for the naughty.


You may think Jane Austen didn’t have this covered. But you would be wrong.


Yes, it’s true that Christmas comes up only once in a while in Austen’s work, and seldom as an occasion of joy and revelry.


Of the three novels that refer to the holiday, only Persuasion gives us a cheerful family scene. The Christmas section of Mansfield Park highlights Mary Crawford’s inability to enjoy tranquil home pleasures, and as for the fiasco of Emma’s Christmas Eve party. . .


Austen’s proliferation of unhappy, or entirely absent, Yuletides isn’t all that surprising: As Austen scholar Devoney Looser recently explained, for Regency folk, the holiday was a relatively low-key affair, lacking the stockings-trees-and-adorable-children froufrou that was popularized by the Victorians and that still informs our modern conception of the season.


But there is at least one Austen work in which the Christmas season is indeed heralded by the arrival of a larger-than-life personage employing equine transport and, arguably, calling down appropriate rewards and punishments upon the good and the not-so-good. My text is drawn from Lady Susan, Letter 3, as Catherine Vernon writes to her mother, Lady De Courcy:


“My dear Mother

I am very sorry to tell you that it will not be in our power to keep our promise of spending our Christmas with you; and we are prevented that happiness by a circumstance which is not likely to make us any amends. Lady Susan . . . has declared her intention of visiting us almost immediately.”


True, as far as we can tell from Austen's text, the carriage that takes Lady Susan to Churchill, the Vernons’ home, is drawn by horses, not reindeer, and arrives at the front door, not on the roof. And honesty compels me to admit that, apart from one further passing reference, Christmas is never mentioned again in the course of the novella. But aside from all that. . .


Oh, fine: I’ll concede that casting the poisonous Lady Susan as Santa Claus may be something of a stretch. But think about it: an estranged relative turns up unexpectedly in a small town, disrupting family holiday plans and sparking romantic entanglements? Obviously, Lady Susan is the latest Jane-Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie -- and written by Jane Austen herself, no less. Just add hot chocolate and stir.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter