Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 19 2016 01:00PM

When I was a girl – yes, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth – I was a dab hand at needlepoint. I stitched plastic canvas into keepsake boxes and picture frames and bookmarks. I made my mother a coupon-case to carry while she shopped at the grocery store. I worked samplers for my cousins’ weddings.

I’ve barely picked up a needle in decades – these days I lack the time and, truth be told, the eyesight – but I’m still captivated by beautiful needlework (so elegant! So delicate! So unbelievably time-consuming!) Hence my delight in a five-minute video released last week by Chawton House Library, highlighting its display of modern needlework based on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century patterns.

The needlework display, known as “The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off,” accompanies a library exhibit commemorating the bicentennial of the publication of Emma. The stitch-off got its accidental start last November, when University of Kent English professor Jennie Batchelor acquired a 1796 edition of The Lady’s Magazine, the Good Housekeeping of its day, which happened to include an embroidery pattern.

Enthusiastic embroiderers latched onto Batchelor’s blogs and tweets about her find, volunteering to work the pattern themselves. Eventually, ten Lady’s Magazine patterns were made available online, and an international embroidery bee was launched.

Judging from Batchelor’s blog and Chawton House Library’s video, the results were breathtaking. Some participants recreated the patterns with scrupulous historical accuracy; some stitched modern interpretations. The display includes reticules, shoe uppers and a kissing ball, among a wealth of other items.

(What does any of this have to do with Jane Austen? Well, we know from her nephew’s 1870 memoir that she was a talented needlewoman, and she would certainly have read The Lady’s Magazine. That’s good enough for me.)

Alas, the Stitch Off display, and the Emma exhibit, close on Sunday, so if you happen to be in England, now’s the time to drop by.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 25 2016 01:00PM

I am, of course, aware that online listicles with titles like “22 Places in the UK That Are a Must-See for Jane Austen Fans” are silly clickbait to which I should pay no mind. However, I am constitutionally incapable of passing such pieces by without a teensy-weensy bit of grumbling.

So let’s get on with it.

Buzzfeed’s twenty-two-item list includes three places with rock-solid connections to Jane Austen’s life: Chawton cottage (#1), where she spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels; Chawton House (#2), one of her brother Edward’s properties, which she often visited; and Winchester Cathedral (#3), where she is buried.

Then there are three places with legit links to the novels: Chatsworth House (#10), which Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit during their holiday trip in Pride and Prejudice; Box Hill (#16), where Emma insults Miss Bates; and the Bath Assembly Rooms (#22), where Catherine Morland meets Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

Throw in a couple sites with rather more tangential relationships to the life, the work or both: Saltram House (#12), whose one-time mistress, the Countess of Morley, was a fan of Austen’s writing; and Stoneleigh Abbey (#19), which Austen is known to have visited and whose chapel is likely to have served as the inspiration for the Sotherton chapel in Mansfield Park.

Heck, I’m in a forgiving mood, so I’ll even grant that the Jane Austen Centre in Bath (#4), although an entirely artificial creation for tourists, belongs on the list, given that Austen did spend several unhappy years living in the city.

But thirteen of the twenty-two places on the list – nearly two-thirds – are stately homes and/or picturesque villages known to Austen lovers only as locations where Austen movies were shot.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have been to some of these places, and they are delightful. If you want to visit them, don’t let me stand in your way. (Although I really can’t imagine making a special trip to Newby Hall -- #20 – merely because the execrable Billie Piper Mansfield Park was shot there. Maybe that’s just me.)

But here’s my point. If you’re compiling a list of places in the UK for Austen fans to visit, it seems a tad perverse to take up nearly two-thirds of your list with movie locations while omitting a bunch of places with real Austen connections: places like St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, where Austen’s father was the rector for the first twenty-five years of her life; the Vyne, where Austen attended a ball or three; Godmersham Park, where Jane and Cassandra often stayed with Edward’s family; Goodnestone Park and House, the home of Edward’s in-laws, where the Austen sisters also visited; Lyme Regis, where key scenes in Persuasion take place; or the British Library, where Austen’s portable writing desk is on display.

Yes, I will grant you that Steventon is hard to get to, Godmersham House is closed to the public, and Goodnestone costs a small fortune to rent for a night. But such minor logistical considerations never stopped a real fan.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 22 2016 01:00PM

Discussing Jane Austen with fellow fans is one of the delights of Janeite life. If I lived closer to Philly, I would definitely have joined a program that concludes this Wednesday: weekly Austen discussions at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, known for its rare book collection.

The first three meetings focused on Emma, while the upcoming session – held from 6-7:45 pm – covers Lady Susan and other early works. Sign-up for the entire four-week session began in May and cost $250, so I’m not clear on whether it’s possible to drop in just for the last meeting.

In any event, if re-reading Lady Susan whets your appetite for further discussion, the Rosenbach is also hosting an August 26 conversation and book-signing with Whit Stillman, who directed Love and Friendship, the recent film adaptation of Austen’s novella.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2016 01:00PM

Like her characters Marianne Dashwood and Jane Fairfax, Jane Austen was, we are told, a committed amateur pianist.

“In her youth she had received some instruction on the pianoforte; and at Chawton she practised daily, chiefly before breakfast,” her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote in his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen. “In the evening she would sometimes sing, to her own accompaniment, some simple old songs, the words and airs of which, now never heard, still linger in my memory.”

At least eighteen Austen family music books survive, some of them containing pieces copied out by hand, including by Austen herself. Now, thanks to the efforts of the University of Southampton in England, the nearly six hundred pieces in the Austens’ collection are available online in digital facsimiles.

“The books present a vivid picture of domestic musical culture in England in the years around 1800, furnishing valuable insights on music making in the homes of gentry families as well as essential contextualisation for musical episodes in Austen’s fiction,” writes Southampton music professor Jeanice Brooks in her introduction to the digital archive. (A decade ago, a member of the Alabama chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America created a site dedicated to Austen's music, but without the benefit of direct access to the Austen music books.)

Although the Southampton archive seems to have become available late last year, I first learned about it from a recent blog post in which Brooks further discusses the significance of the collection. (As an extra treat, the post includes an audio file of piano variations on “Robin Adair,” the love song that Jane Fairfax plays in Chapter 28 of Emma.)

Alas, I’m no musician, so I can’t evaluate what Austen’s musical choices tell us about her taste or proficiency. But it’s heartening, just six years after the launch of a similar web archive devoted to Austen’s fiction manuscripts, to see more and more Austen primary sources becoming available to a wide audience of scholars, whether amateur or professional.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 20 2016 01:00PM

I’m not a big fan of cute animal pictures on the internet, but hey – when cute animal pictures with a Jane Austen connection show up on the internet, it’s clear what the only possible response can be: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

And so I direct your attention to these pictures of a litter of six kittens – does it get any cuter? – born last month at an animal shelter in Bath, England, and named after three couples from Emma: Harriet and Robert, Jane and Frank, and Emma and George. (What – no Augusta and Philip?)

Apparently, the shelter’s naming choices were inspired by an upcoming local theater production of Emma. Although a spokesman for the Bath Cats and Dogs Home pointed out to the local paper that the story “revolves around Emma’s attempts at matchmaking,” he missed an opportunity to draw a witty parallel to the shelter’s effort to match the kitties with suitable homes.

I have now filled that lacuna, as I hope you’ve all noticed. Consider this my small contribution to the online cute-animal-picture discourse. Just trying to do my part.

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