Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.

“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”

And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”

Welcome to the club, Martha.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 11 2017 01:00PM

In Austen studies, originality is hard to come by. The primary sources – novels, letters, family reminiscences, unfinished work – are relatively sparse, and everyone from amateur enthusiasts to dedicated scholars has pored over them for a century or more. Austen criticism crams the shelves of every academic library, and some two dozen biographers have done their best to recreate Austen’s life and times. Read a few of these Lives of Jane Austen and you’ll soon feel a creeping sense of familiarity.

In that context, it’s hard to know quite what to make of a plagiarism kerfuffle that the British press has ginned up this week.

In one corner: Paula Byrne, author of the well-regarded 2013 biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. In the opposite corner: Lucy Worsley, author of the new biography Jane Austen At Home, due out next week in the UK and this summer in the US.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 10 2015 01:00PM

In 1951, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Soviet spies burrowed deep into the British Foreign Office, realized they were on the brink of detection and arrest. According to Andrew Lownie’s new biography of Burgess, excerpted last week in the Daily Mail, they made hurried plans to flee by boat to France.

“Burgess went out and hired a car, bought a suitcase and raincoat and went home to pack,” Lownie writes. “Into the case went a tweed suit, a dinner jacket and the collected novels of Jane Austen.”

Guy Burgess was a liar and a traitor, but apparently he had good taste in literature: Lownie notes that Burgess had once neutralized a charge of soliciting sex in a rail station men’s room by telling the judge “he’d been inside the cubicle reading George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch.”

Burgess’ apparent attachment to Austen is a reminder that the current female-dominated state of Janeite fandom is a relatively recent development: as Claudia L. Johnson and Claire Harman have noted, the tough-minded, sarcastic Austen used to be seen as a special favorite of male readers, a sort of Raymond Chandler of the marriage plot.

Alas, the denouement of the Burgess/Maclean Austen story isn’t what we Janeites might wish. Just as I was beginning to paint a half-charming, half-sinister mental picture of the two moles, en route to Moscow by way of Paris, Switzerland and Prague, filling their downtime by catching up on the doings of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Lownie told me that, once across the English Channel, “Burgess and Maclean went ashore, leaving their luggage in their cabins” and caught a taxi to Brittany.

Presumably, the Austen was left behind with the tweed and the tuxedo -- just another relic of an England betrayed and abandoned.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 4 2013 05:31PM

Maggie Sullivan's AustenBlog, though relatively quiet over the past year or so, has been a go-to source for news about Jane Austen and pop culture since 2004. When I first began thinking about writing a book on Jane Austen fans, I was partly inspired by Sullivan's incisive critique of Claire Harman's Jane's Fame, which, the review noted, treated contemporary Austen fandom in little depth.

"It would have been really interesting to have One Of Us, a Janeite who is “not afraid to be seen wallowing” as Ms. Harman put it, write an overview of the State of the Fandom, even a constructively critical one," Sullivan wrote. I quoted that line in my book proposal.

So it's very satisfying to report that AustenBlog finds Among the Janeites to be "the most thoroughly enjoyable Austen-related book we’ve read in some time." I've been reading AustenBlog daily for years now, and this accolade means a lot to me.

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