Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2015 01:00PM

Jane Austen wrote daily, revised her work, recycled material from unused drafts, negotiated with publishers both directly and through an agent, corrected her proofs, read reviews, made changes for later editions, and kept track of her royalties. In other words, she was a committed professional writer.

This might seem obvious were it not for the energy with which her brother and her nephew tried, in the decades after her death, to promote a very different image – of Austen as a cheery amateur storyteller who dabbled charmingly with no thought of fame or fortune. No doubt they meant well, these Austen men. They wanted to keep the reading public from seeing their beloved relative as ambitious – and thus, in nineteenth-century terms, unwomanly.

But what did Austen herself think of ambition? Did she see it as a vice, a virtue, or something more ambiguous – a human impulse that could be deployed for both good and bad ends?

These were the question opened up most entertainingly this past Saturday by writer and critic Sarah Emsley, who spoke at a luncheon meeting I attended, sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania region of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Emsley argued that while Austen condemns characters like Mary Crawford and Isabella Thorpe for aspiring to raise themselves through mercenary marriages, she rewards those characters who hold quieter, more modest ambitions – people like Edward Ferrars and Elizabeth Bennet, who aim primarily to achieve their own vision of love and happiness.

Along the way, Emsley considered Christian, Aristotelian and Johnsonian definitions of ambition; touched on the reasons that ambition has traditionally inspired mixed feelings; and noted the ambitions that Austen arouses in her readers, including a desire to read more deeply and to think more carefully about how to live their lives.

Emsley says her ideas remain a work in progress, but she’s off to a good start. I look forward to seeing her intellectual ambitions rewarded with publication (along with love and happiness, of course).

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 13 2014 01:00PM

I’m back home after four whirlwind days at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting – held this year in Montreal – which focused on the tantalizing, fascinating Mansfield Park, as fresh today as when it was published exactly two centuries ago.

JASNA AGMs encompass many pleasures: seeing old friends and making new ones; admiring Regency gowns that seem to grow more elaborate and beautiful each year; and cruising the Emporium for the latest Austeniana (this year’s find: the Jane Austen-shaped cookie cutter!)

But at its heart the AGM is a weekend-long conversation about the author we all love, and every year I hear something that makes me think about Austen in a new way.

Herewith just eight of the countless provocative, touching, hilarious or enlightening somethings I heard at this year’s AGM:

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 9 2014 01:00PM

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to Montreal, for this year’s JASNA AGM. Although I’ve attended the last five AGMs (plus two in the twenty-six years before that), the thrill of hanging out with fellow Janeites for a weekend’s wallowing in our shared enthusiasm never wears off.

I’m especially excited to attend an AGM about Mansfield Park – although JASNA has done the book on three previous occasions, I’ve missed all those meetings. Mansfield Park is so controversial that an entire session has been scheduled on “The Fanny Wars” – the love-hate relationship that Janeites have with the book’s heroine. (Mousy or powerful? Virtuous or manipulative? Christian saint or passive-aggressive princess? You decide. . .)

I’m also looking forward to meeting some Janeites I’ve only encountered online, including Sarah Emsley, whose “Invitation to Mansfield Park” blog series has been delighting us since the book’s bicentennial in May.

Although I won’t be joining the official book-signing, which is reserved for conference speakers, I’d be very happy to sign your copy of Among the Janeites if you too plan to be in Montreal this weekend. You’ll have no trouble finding me if you hang out at the Emporium – somehow, I always seem to end up back there, buying a few more books and souvenirs for the groaning shelves back home.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 10 2014 01:00PM

The writer and blogger Sarah Emsley is two months into “An Invitation to Mansfield Park,” her year-long series of weekly guest posts celebrating the novel’s bicentennial. My contribution goes up tomorrow: I’ll be talking about the famous episode in Chapter 10 when Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford slip through the gate at Sotherton together.

The series so far has been a fascinating and eclectic mix of responses to selected passages in the novel -- a bracingly democratic embrace of all kinds of Jane Austen fans. Along with a number of literary critics parsing Austen’s words and setting her work in historical context, we’ve heard from a medical doctor discussing the gluttony of Dr. Grant and a minister’s wife responding to Mary Crawford’s disdain for the clergy.

In the weeks ahead, dozens more guest posters – among them, bloggers, scholars, journalists, and authors of Austen spinoff fiction – will weigh in. I encourage you to drop by (and not just tomorrow).

By Deborah Yaffe, May 8 2014 01:00PM

Tomorrow is Mansfield Park’s two hundredth birthday, and what’s a birthday without a party? Our host is the writer and blogger Sarah Emsley, who has planned her blog’s celebration, “An Invitation to Mansfield Park,” around a series of weekly guest posts by forty-two Janeites – bloggers, scholars, journalists and authors of Austen spinoff fiction.

Each post will comment on an excerpt from the novel, and the contributions will run in the order of the excerpts--starting tomorrow with Lyn Bennett, Dalhousie University English professor, on the novel’s opening paragraph. (My contribution, on an episode in Chapter 10, will run this summer.)

It’s going to be fascinating to discover everyone’s take on this most fascinating and complicated of Austen novels. I hope you’ll take Sarah up on her “Invitation to Mansfield Park” – what’s a party without lots of guests?

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