Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 5 2015 02:00PM

Cyberspace is teeming with smart and interesting Janeites I've never heard of, and this past weekend I stumbled across yet another: Ron Lit, a grad student in English, who posts weekly book videos on YouTube and (on Twitter, where she’s @CatLadyPizza) calls herself a “queer feminist Janeite.”


She seems to have done videos on many of Jane Austen’s novels, plus an episode called “Who’s Your Jane Austen?” which offers a fast, sensible and entertaining take on the varied responses to Austen. (My favorite line: “Fanny Price ends up with the first mansplainer.”)


Neatly summing up the way that Austen’s three-dimensional heroines differ from the cardboard women of so much male-centered art, Ron Lit says, “What Austen’s novels really say to me is you don’t have to be a type. You can be you, and you can be the best version of you.”


A good thought for a new year. . .



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, Sep 4 2014 01:00PM

Not being a math type, I have never spent much time trying to calculate the contemporary equivalents of the sums mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels: Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year, Emma Woodhouse’s £30,000 dowry, etc.


So I turned with interest to a recent Telegraph story assessing “the modern-day fortunes of Jane Austen's fictional heroes,” wherein we learn that “Mr Darcy's annual income of £10,000 in around 1803 would be worth £796,000 per year today” – in American terms, roughly $1.3 million.


Although by most standards, that’s a more than comfortable income, the story goes on to point out the inherent complications of these historical calculations. Two hundred years ago, labor was cheap and manufactured goods weren’t: the financially stressed Price family can still afford to employ a servant, while despite the wealth of Mansfield Park, Fanny is expected to mend her own clothes. Today, it’s the opposite: we toss aside our ripped clothing because we can get a new T-shirt for $10, but we fix our own meals because it’s too expensive to hire a cook.


The Telegraph piece tries to manage these differences by employing a concept called “prestige value,” which supposedly takes account of how the amounts Austen mentions stack up against Britain’s per capita GDP in the early nineteenth century. But the results strike me as bizarrely out of whack with the social world Austen portrays.


According to the Telegraph’s “prestige value” calculations, the Dashwood sisters and their mother are living on $730,000 a year at Barton Cottage. Captain Wentworth’s prize money works out to $36.6 million, and Emma Woodhouse’s dowry is the equivalent of nearly $44 million. Even Catherine Morland brings $4.4 million into her marriage.


Such numbers would put all these characters, even the strapped Dashwoods and the modest Morlands, well into the top few percentage points of the current U.S. income or wealth distributions.


I know that Regency England was a place of great inequality, where the many people whose lives Austen doesn’t chronicle lived in sometimes abject poverty. But still these numbers seem wildly overstated to me. The Dashwoods, too poor to accept Willoughby’s gift of a horse, aren’t living the lives of a family with $730,000. Emma, though a local queen bee, isn’t dwelling in the hedge-fund stratosphere.


Yes, Mr. Darcy seems to have Kennedy-style wealth in the world the Bennets inhabit. But Captain Wentworth? A guy with $36.6 million would surely be fending off the advances of more than the Musgrove girls.


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