Deborah Yaffe

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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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