Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2015 02:00PM

Looking for a good place to curl up with your battered copy of Emma, celebrating its bicentennial in two weeks?


If you happen to be in the frozen north, you could stop by the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Jane Austen Reading Room, an interactive exhibit “loosely inspired” by the library at Chawton House, where Austen’s brother Edward Knight lived. (It’s on through June 26, and museum admission is free.)


Mia’s ongoing “Living Rooms” initiative transforms galleries usually outfitted in the style of particular historical periods into sites for exploration and discussion. The Austen exhibit is located in the Queen Anne Room and the (more accurately Austenian) Georgian drawing room.


On display, as far as I can tell from the website, are various items intended to evoke Austen’s life: a pedestal table like the one she wrote on in Chawton cottage and a reproduction of her portable travel desk. Alongside these are items suggesting moments in Emma: an easel (for Harriet Smith’s portrait), an Indian shawl (to protect hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse from drafts), an abandoned word game (blunder!).


Visitors can open up the travel desk and leaf through its contents – alas, it’s unlikely they’ll stumble across a previously undiscovered Austen manuscript – or pick up an Austen or Austen-inspired novel from the convenient stack and sink into a bright-yellow armchair. (Is that color really Georgian? Looks kind of synthetic from here. . .)


All in all, a pleasant way to escape the December chill. If you’ve been, please tell us about it!


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 9 2015 02:00PM

It’s not exactly news that we Janeites feel very, very strongly about Jane Austen’s characters. Like, more strongly than we do about most real people. But I was reminded of this fact recently by my own visceral reaction to an article, via the British digital-TV company UKTV, headlined, “Which Austen Couples Would Last?”


Predictably, the piece finds Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet to be a perfect long-term match (“They didn't just fancy each other - they came to genuinely like and admire each other”), and it also gives good odds to Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney, and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars.


Unsurprisingly, though incorrectly, the author is equally certain that Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon are doomed. “Marianne will be hankering for another pretty boy soon enough,” s/he writes, ignoring Jane Austen’s authoritative verdict: “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.”


I’ll grant you that the phrase “in time” has given many of us a pang, as we imagine Marianne initially embarking on marriage without the passion she had expected to feel. But hankering for another pretty boy? Puh-leeze. The point of the book is that she’s learned something. She’s grown up. She’s moved beyond the pretty-boy stage.


Missing the point again, the piece gives us this verdict on Emma and Mr. Knightley: “There's no denying he's good for Emma. . . . But the fact is that Emma, despite playing Cupid for others, never really showed much of a romantic yearning for anyone herself. And there's definitely the sense that she's settling for Mr Knightley simply because getting married is the ‘thing to do’, rather than because she's been overwhelmed by passion. Long-term chances: So-so, but he definitely likes her more than she likes him.”


Um, read the book much? Emma has no social or financial need for marriage. She has already announced to Harriet that she isn’t going to get married merely because it’s the thing to do. She changes her mind precisely because she suddenly realizes who stands at the center of her life, and always has: “Till now that she was threatened with its loss, Emma had never known how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection. Satisfied that it was so, and feeling it her due, she had enjoyed it without reflection; and only in the dread of being supplanted, found how inexpressibly important it had been.”


Personally, I’d say that the intense language of that passage – threat, loss, dread, inexpressible importance -- evinces passionate attachment. Emma’s moral growth and maturation demand that she come to understand her own heart. That's the point of the book. If he likes her more than she likes him, then what has she learned?


Still, my annoyance at the running down of the romantic prospects of these people – sorry, these fictional characters – really hit overdrive when I came to the section on Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth: “They've spent so many years remembering and romanticizing each other, how can they be trusted with their feelings now?. . . Long-term prospects: Dodgy.”


Excuse me? Jane Austen tells us exactly why they can be trusted with their feelings now: “More tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.” And you – you random blogger – dare to question this relationship? I think not.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2015 01:00PM

Another day, another artificially constructed list of literary favorites on which Jane Austen ranks high. Today’s entry is the “Top 15 of the Nation’s Favourite Classic Literary Heroines” – the nation in question being Great Britain, as you can tell from the spelling.


Seems that 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, the studio’s DVD distribution arm, wanted some free publicity for its upcoming DVD release of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the recent film adaptation of Hardy’s novel. So it commissioned a no doubt rigorous and statistically bulletproof survey of one thousand British adults and asked them who their favorite literary heroines were.


Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Far From the Madding Crowd, clocked in at #13. I love the novel, and she’s a great character, but something about this result seems curious to me. Maybe I have a suspicious mind.


Needless to say, however, I suspend all such skepticism when it comes to Jane Austen’s sterling success as one of only three authors to get two heroines onto the list: Emma Woodhouse, at #15, and Elizabeth Bennet, at #1. (Woo hoo!) The other two authors, in case you’re wondering, are Tolkien (Arwen, #7; Galadriel, #10) and Hardy (Tess, #8, joins Bathsheba).


Silly and unscientific though it probably is, the list nevertheless reminds us of a fundamental truth: readers have a great fondness for ruthless, cruel, manipulative people, at least when they are safely trapped between book covers. Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights), Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby) and Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) may be the protagonists (or co-protagonists) of their respective novels, but heroines? Only if your definition is expansive.


No wonder Jane Austen was wrong in saying that Emma was a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like.” Turns out we adore these vivid, larger-than-life women with their dramatic, outsize flaws.


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.


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