Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 2 2017 02:00PM

Those of us who first encountered Jane Austen on the page of a book without illustrations -- rather than on a movie screen -- probably created our own mental images of her characters. Did we imagine them art deco or impressionist, manga-style or collaged, super-realistic or highly abstract?


Now’s your chance to find out what other people’s mental Austen looks like: Yesterday, the Guardian ran a fascinating slide show featuring images by the twenty-three artists who are finalists for the job of illustrating the Folio Society’s forthcoming edition of Mansfield Park. The winner will be announced later this month.


The artists hail from ten different countries, and their work varies radically in style, tone and medium. Many of the illustrations -- of Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, Lovers' Vows and broken hearts -- are quite lovely, but few seem to me to perfectly capture Austen’s voice, especially her humor. Perhaps that's not what such illustrations ought to do. Perhaps I’ve just imprinted on the famous Brock and Thomson images, even though I don’t like them very much.


Or perhaps I’m just wedded to the pictures in my head.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 3 2016 02:00PM

Eleventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters


Henry Austen, the fourth-oldest of Jane Austen’s seven siblings, is often described as her favorite brother. (For a helpful account, see this 1984 article by J. David Grey, one of the founders of the Jane Austen Society of North America.)


Four and a half years older than Jane, Henry was handsome, funny, charming and clever. As an Oxford undergraduate, he contributed to The Loiterer, the weekly publication founded by the oldest Austen brother, James, and after receiving his degree, Henry joined the Oxfordshire militia, adopting the dashing profession that so dazzled the youngest Bennet sisters.


But although Henry seems to have been blessed with infinite reserves of optimism, the arc of his life suggests that, despite all his talents, he never quite lived up to his early promise. By the time of Jane’s death, Henry, then age 46, was on his third profession: after rising to the rank of captain, he left the militia, failed as a banker and finally joined the church, briefly taking over his father’s old job as rector of Steventon. Although he married twice, once to his glamorous first cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, he fathered no children.


Whatever Henry’s professional failings, however, Janeites owe him an immense debt of gratitude, for he gave his brilliant younger sister valuable help in the publication of her books, often acting as her de facto literary agent. He was also a reader whose opinion she valued, as we can see in the letter Austen finished exactly 202 years ago today (#97 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of her correspondence).


With the publication of Mansfield Park just two months away, Henry is escorting Jane to London and reading the manuscript on the way, apparently for the first time. “Henry’s approbation hitherto is even equal to my wishes; he says it is very different from the other two, but does not appear to think it at all inferior,” Jane writes to their sister, Cassandra, back home in Chawton, betraying some of the anxiety that writers always feel when someone new reads their work. “He has only married Mrs. R. I am afraid he has gone through the most entertaining part.---He took to Lady B. & Mrs. N. most kindly, & gives great praise to the drawing of the Characters. He understands them all, likes Fanny & I think foresees how it will all be. . . . he admires H. Crawford—I mean properly—as a clever, pleasant Man.”


At least as reported by his eager writer-sister, Henry’s comments suggest a shrewd appreciation for her work. He seems to have sensed the new depth and complexity that she achieved in MP, still her most controversial book, and Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Henry Crawford are, indeed, among her greatest creations.


I’d love to know what, exactly, Austen meant by “proper” admiration for Henry Crawford, though. Was Henry Austen commenting on the undoubted brilliance of the characterization, or was he saying that Crawford would make an entertaining dinner companion? If the latter, did he change his mind when Crawford set out to make a hole in Fanny Price’s heart? And did Henry Austen wonder, even for a moment, whether his sister had meant anything in giving her most equivocal male character the name of her brilliant, helpful, unsteady older brother? Alas, we’ll never know.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 5 2015 01:00PM

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for awhile may stop here. You’ve heard what I’m going to say: They’re misquoting Jane Austen again, and I’m sick of it.


Those of you who are new to my ranting, however – read on. You need to know this stuff so that you too can be driven insane by the collective idiocy of the Internet.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 10 2015 01:00PM

Jane Austen has been a semi-regular presence in the New York Times Book Review’s weekly “By the Book” feature, in which noted authors talk about the books they like best.


But this week’s column, featuring acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, may be the first in which Austen has been prescribed as executive reading material.


Asked which book she would require the president to read, Le Guin answers, “Poor man. Something as far as possible from Washington, D.C., and noisy self-righteous jackassery. Mansfield Park, maybe?”


Though I take Le Guin’s point – Mansfield Park is a novel that values quiet, steadfast virtue over the loud self-promotion that seems de rigueur in political circles – her suggestion got me thinking along completely different lines: Mansfield Park goes to Washington! What an Austen fanfic that could be! The novel is filled with morally questionable characters who would fit perfectly in a story set in the halls of the Capitol.


Let’s see: Fanny Price is a Jimmy Stewart-type idealist whose blue-collar upbringing in a down-at-heel Long Island town leaves her feeling out of place amid the Ivy League graduates she encounters as a staffer in the office of Sir Thomas Bertram, a pompous, silver-haired senator who has chaired the same second-tier subcommittee on national park policy for decades.


She’s pursued by Henry Crawford, the junior senator from Sir Thomas’ state, a born politician who conceals his ruthless pursuit of self-interest under a smothering blanket of charm. Mary Crawford, adept at behind-the-scenes manipulation, manages Henry’s next campaign. Edmund Bertram is an inner-city high school teacher whose students are rallying to close the trash plant polluting their neighborhood. Meanwhile, the polluters have hired the bustling, sycophantic Mrs. Norris to lobby for their disreputable cause. A big set piece involves preparations for a skit to be performed at the annual Gridiron Club dinner.


OK, some details remain to be worked out, but you see? Practically writes itself.


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.


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