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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 25 2017 02:00PM

For those of us with school-age children, Christmas week provides a delightful break from the rhythms of the academic calendar: No rising before dawn to meet the school bus, no rushing to squeeze homework in before bedtime, no anxious balancing of multiple extracurricular commitments. Heaven!


But of course, not everyone welcomes peaceful leisure-time – as Jane Austen reminds us in one of the few Christmastime sequences in her novels.


At Mansfield Park, the feverish excitement and romantic maneuvering surrounding the December 22 ball dissipates the next day, as William and Edmund leave on business (seafaring for William, ordination for Edmund). After some Christmas Eve chitchat about the festivities with Mrs. Grant and Mary Crawford, Fanny Price settles contentedly into her usual routines. Mary? Not so much.


“The week which passed so quietly and peaceably at the great house in Mansfield had a very different character at the Parsonage,” Austen tells us in chapter 29. “To the young lady, at least, in each family, it brought very different feelings. What was tranquility and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary.”


Indeed, by New Year’s Day, Mary can no longer stand the company of her own thoughts, and the regrets, worries, and jealousies about Edmund that they bring. She’s off to Mansfield Park to grill Fanny about why her cousin has extended his visit with his friend Mr. Owen.


“Was his letter a long one? Does he give you much account of what he is doing? Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for? . . . How many Miss Owens are there? . . . Are they musical?” she babbles. “. . . . But it is very foolish to ask questions about any young ladies—about any three sisters just grown up; for one knows, without being told, exactly what they are: all very accomplished and pleasing, and one very pretty. There is a beauty in every family; it is a regular thing. Two play on the pianoforte, and one on the harp; and all sing, or would sing if they were taught, or sing all the better for not being taught; or something like it.”


Mary just can’t stop herself; she seems helpless to stem the characteristic flow of witty banter – made suddenly brittle by the sincere emotion that she’s half-ashamed of and can barely acknowledge even to herself. And how does Fanny respond to all this accidentally self-revealing blather?


“ 'I know nothing of the Miss Owens,' said Fanny calmly."


To quote my kids – “Burn!” And they call this woman a doormat! I don't think so. But here’s wishing you a Christmas week full of tranquility and comfort.


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.


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