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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.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 16 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen anticipates current events in Hollywood:


Northanger Abbey, ch. 15:

“ ‘Did you ever hear the old song ‘Going to One Wedding Brings on Another?’ I say, you will come to Belle’s wedding, I hope. . . . And then you know’ — twisting himself about and forcing a foolish laugh — ‘I say, then you know, we may try the truth of this same old song. . . . But I have a notion, Miss Morland, you and I think pretty much alike upon most matters.’ ”


Emma, ch. 15:

“. . . scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up -- her hand seized -- her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping -- fearing -- adoring -- ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible. . . .


“ ‘Charming Miss Woodhouse! allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me.’ ”


Pride and Prejudice, ch. 19:

"I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favor; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long. . . .


"When I do myself the honor of speaking to you next on this subject, I shall hope to receive a more favorable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character. . .


"You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. . . . in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small, that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females."


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 20 2017 01:00PM

Given the ubiquity of comic books based on Jane Austen’s novels, I suppose it’s not surprising that we’ve now moved on to Version 2.0: comic books based on spinoffs and adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.


And so it is that we will soon have a comic book based on Clueless, the justly beloved 1995 film that updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. In a further meta twist, the comic book will be cowritten by Amber Benson, a one-time actress (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who, as a teenager, auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in the movie.


Rather than retelling the story of the film, the comic book version imagines how the characters from Clueless would cope with senior year at Bronson Alcott High School. It’s not clear from the Boom! Studios press release how many books are planned for the series, but the first one debuts in August.


As I’ve written before, I’m not entirely on board with the Jane Austen comic book thing, but the pop-culture sensibility of Clueless seems like a perfect fit.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 12 2017 02:00PM

These days, the quintessentially English Jane Austen is, as I recently found occasion to note, a citizen of the world. And she seems to have a special affinity for one particular part of that world: the Indian subcontinent, where some of her recurrent themes -- family pressure, gender inequity, and the tension between love and economics -- have especially strong contemporary resonance.


As far as I’m aware, India is the only country outside the Anglo-American sphere whose film industry has adapted three different Austen novels for the screen: Sense and Sensibility (reborn as 2000’s interesting and moving Kandukondain Kandukondain, or I Have Found It); Pride and Prejudice (2004’s slight but fun Bride and Prejudice); and Emma (2010’s execrable Aisha).


A blog called The Ladies Finger recently reported on the growth of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. (And I’m not calling your attention to this post merely because it includes a complimentary shout-out to Among the Janeites. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)


The latest evidence of the southeast Asian Austen affinity is a roundup earlier this month, in the online version of the Indian business newspaper Mint, pegged to this year’s commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death.


The piece strings together an array of short-ish responses to Austen’s work, some clever and some less so, contributed by various literary types: authors, journalists, publishers, the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. My favorite is the account by writer, critic and translator Rakhshanda Jalil of first reading Pride and Prejudice at the urging of her mother and then, years later, giving her daughter the same book.


Along the way, Jalil found Austenian resonances in the Urdu literature she read, despite the differences of language, culture and context.


“That an 18th century English writer should cast such a long shadow and find echoes in such a disparate literary culture,” Jalil writes, “is a reminder that fine writing rises above its time and circumstance and has the enduring ability to merge the small and the personal with the larger and the universal.”


Jalil’s words go a long way toward explaining why Austen has fans across the globe. Indeed, her formulation could serve as a definition of what it means to call a work of literature a classic.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 20 2016 01:00PM

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to Washington, D.C., to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s thirty-eighth Annual General Meeting, known to all as the AGM. As usual, my reaction can be summed up in a single word: squeeee!


This will be my ninth AGM – and, curiously enough, the third I’ve attended that focuses on Emma, which celebrates its publication bicentennial this year. (Thus our theme: “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.”)


JASNA’s weekend-long AGMs are always delightful mixtures of the serious (lectures by distinguished Austen scholars); the not-so-serious (craft workshops, Austen-related retail therapy); and the purely social (reunions with those Janeite friends you only see at conferences). It’s the only place I feel completely unironic wearing my Jane Austen earrings, my Jane Austen pendant, my Jane Austen wristwatch and my Regency feathered headdress, all of them purchased at previous AGMs.


This year I’ve got my eye on a session with the creators of the adorable Cozy Classics board books (Emma in twelve words!), and I’m counting on spending one morning visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library’s much-praised exhibition “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” Plus, I just may engage in a bit of additional retail therapy. Because you can never have too many Jane Austen earrings.


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