Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 23 2020 01:00PM

The havoc that pandemic lockdown has wreaked on an array of arts and cultural organizations is old news by now. Janeites have seen a number of beloved annual events canceled, postponed, or moved online, and last month, the premier Austen site – Jane Austen’s House, aka Chawton Cottage, the home in Hampshire, England, where the author spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – made a desperate crowdfunding appeal to stave off closure.


Perhaps it was the success of that campaign, which to date has raised more than £20,000 (about $25,000) above its initial goal of £75,000 (nearly $95,000), that inspired the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, to launch its own fundraising effort. The Centre’s appeal has a more modest goal of £15,000 (nearly $19,000) and, with a few more days to go, it’s still short of its target. Donate enough, and you can get a year of free admission to the Centre, plus goodies like cream teas and champagne in the Centre's tea room.


The Centre’s woes are all too familiar: It relies on the income generated by its 150,000 yearly visitors, and with lockdown, that income has vanished. Without an infusion of cash, the director told a local news outlet, the Centre may have to lay off staff, potentially including Martin Salter, the Regency-costumed greeter who has become known as “the most photographed man in Britain.”


I’m of two minds about this fundraiser. The Jane Austen Centre, which opened in 1999, is a small and, to my taste, rather touristy museum that contains not a single genuine Austen artifact and is located in a building that Jane Austen never lived in. Its demise would not represent a significant loss to literary history.


On the other hand, as the comments of donors to the appeal attest, many Janeites love the place, its gift shop, and the annual Jane Austen Festival that it sponsors each fall, which draws an international crowd of fans, many in Regency costume. (The twentieth iteration of the festival, originally scheduled for September, was canceled two months ago.)


On the third hand, no one wants to see a thriving small business fall victim to the coronavirus: We’re seeing too much of that already. So go ahead: There’s no harm in donating, especially if you have a hankering for cream tea.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 2 2019 01:00PM

When I visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, in July 2011, Martin Salter had the day off.


At the time, I didn’t know what I was missing. But since then I have learned that a Janeite who visits Bath without meeting Salter is a pathetic loser who should turn in her library card and stay home knitting sweaters for her cats.


Salter dresses in a homemade Regency ensemble for his job as the Jane Austen Centre’s official greeter, and after twelve years posing for selfies with tourists, he is often called “the most-photographed man in Britain.”


Judging from a recent interview with the BBC World Service’s Outlook series, which features human-interest stories from around the world, Salter is also a charming fellow with a sly sense of humor and an appealing West Country burr.


Apparently, his outfit – hat, cravat, waistcoat, greatcoat, and truly enormous sideburns – is meant to evoke Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. [Of course, Jane Austen never tells us anything about Mr. Bennet’s appearance. It’s surely not coincidence that the person the costumed and be-sideburned Salter really evokes is Benjamin Whitrow (scroll down here), who played Mr. Bennet in the BBC’s iconic 1995 TV adaptation of P&P.]


Although Salter didn’t start out as an Austen fan, his observations on her wit and psychological realism are sound. More so than those of the BBC reporter, who lamentably describes Our Jane as “the UK’s legendary writer of romance.” Maybe Salter could have given him some pointers.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 4 2019 01:00PM

Remember back in elementary school, when one kid would get an awesome new toy or a cool pair of shoes, and then everybody had to have their own? Today’s equivalent of Beanie Babies, rainbow looms, and sneakers that light up seems to be Jane Austen statues.


In 2017, you’ll recall, Basingstoke commemorated the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, who never lived there, by erecting a life-size bronze in the town center. Then, a year later, nearby Chawton, where Austen actually did live, followed suit with its own smaller version of the same statue.


And now comes word that Bath, where Austen spent the years 1801 to 1806, plans to join the club. The local Jane Austen Centre is apparently talking with city officials about the best location for another life-size bronze, to be based on a waxwork image of Austen “said to be the closest-ever likeness to the author,” according to a report on local-news website SomersetLive.


Bath’s right to an Austen statue is equivocal: On the one hand, she lived there for a substantial period of time, and she set portions of two of her novels there. On the other hand, most biographers think she disliked the place, and her writing output slowed to a trickle during her years there.


As for that waxwork, a 2014 image created by forensic artist Melissa Dring, it owes its reputation for extreme accuracy entirely to the Jane Austen Centre, which commissioned it. Not everyone is equally convinced, and, as I’ve often noted, every claim about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of an Austen image is entirely theoretical, because no one knows what Jane Austen actually looked like.


It’s hard to shake the feeling that the push for a statue in Bath is less about honoring Austen than about publicizing the Jane Austen Centre, which is, depending on your point of view, either a charming introduction to Austen’s life and times, or a kitschy tourist trap.


Still, the centre is putting a feminist gloss on its efforts. "Not only will it be good to honor Austen the author, it will also be good to go a little way to redress the fact that less than 3 per cent of all statues in the UK are of historical, non-royal women,” says managing director Paul Crossey. (At the current rate, 3 percent of all statues in the UK will soon be statues of Jane Austen.)


The enthusiasm for a Bath statue comes barely a month after Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, scotched its plans for yet another Austen statue, in the face of public criticism. I guess that makes the Winchester public the equivalent of the mom who insists that your regular sneakers still have a lot of wear in them and she’s not going to shell out $50 for the ones with the flashing lights. There’s a mom like that in every class.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 10 2019 02:00PM

Last Thursday, James McAvoy, the excellent Scottish actor who played Jane Austen’s crush Tom Lefroy in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, paid a visit to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, where he Instagrammed a semi-incognito selfie from the gift shop.


You know it’s a slow Jane Austen news week when you’re reduced to discussing an actor from a bad Austen biopic visiting a faux Austen tourist attraction.


I know, I know: Many, many Janeites love this movie and this museum. I am a killjoy. Toss a blanket over my head and ignore me.


New Year’s Resolution: Stop being a killjoy.

**deep breath**

I will try to do better. Here goes:


If you’re a fan of Becoming Jane – which, based on exactly zero evidence, posits Lefroy as the Big Romance Who Inspired Pride and Prejudice Because Jane Austen Couldn’t Have Just Imagined It – then curl up with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy another viewing! If you love the Jane Austen Centre -- which houses artifacts Austen did not own in a building where she did not live -- please buy another ticket and wallow to your heart’s content! I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours! As Tom Lefroy probably didn't say!


Well, it’s only January. I still have time to get this no-killjoy thing right.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2018 01:00PM

One of the most useful sentences Jane Austen ever wrote is surely this one: “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” (It’s from a March 1817 letter to her niece Fanny Knight -- #155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.)


I think of this line when I come across portrayals of Austen as a purveyor of upbeat, light-hearted escapism, rather than what I take to be her more nuanced and shadowed, albeit still comic, version of reality. So my heart sank a couple of weeks ago when the newsletter of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, turned its attention to a newly popular literary genre that publishers have christened “Up Lit,” because it features “uplifting stories about kindness and community.”


“As we were finding out about this new genre,” the newsletter chirped, “we couldn’t help but feel that a good number of its defining aspects – kindness, compassion, unlikely friendships, broken people who become fixed – are all features of Jane’s novels that we particularly enjoy.”


I’ve got nothing against kindness and compassion – some of my favorite books, not to mention people, endorse these qualities -- but my entire being revolts against the suggestion that Austen’s novels feature a set of saccharine thematics invented by a marketing department. You might even say that this characterization makes me sick. Also wicked.


At the very least, it sets me combing my memory for all the aspects of Austen’s novels that don’t amount to easy uplift. Like, for example, the way that scheming Lucy Ferrars ends up with more money than steadfast Elinor Dashwood. Or the way that misbehaving men from George Wickham to General Tilney to Mr. Elliot face essentially no repercussions for their misbehavior. Or the way that sexually transgressive women (the two Elizas, Maria Rushworth) are tossed aside like worn-out socks.


Of course it’s true that the central characters in Austen’s novels grow morally and emotionally and end up with the people they love (or, like Marianne Dashwood, learn to love the people they end up with). But these wish-fulfilling denouements occur against a social backdrop that is, when you think about it, kind of awful: socially and economically stratified, rife with sexual double standards, and unforgiving to those who go astray. Not, in other words, all that uplifting.


To be fair, the newsletter points out that Up Lit is “not all sweetness and light,” quoting an author saying, of her own bestselling novel, “It’s about facing devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness and then saying: ‘But there is still this.’ ”


Perhaps, then, it’s all a matter of emphasis: Looked at one way, Austen’s novels – or, more accurately, the movie versions of Austen’s novels -- could perhaps be crammed into the Up Lit template. But these pictures of perfection don’t resemble the Austen I love.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter