Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 27 2018 01:00PM

When you’re off to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual conference, and the theme of that conference is Persuasion, it’s irresistible to quote the following exchange from the novel, the last one Austen finished before her death:


"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

"You are mistaken," said he gently; "that is not good company; that is the best.” (ch. 16)


And the best company is what I’m expecting over the next four days. JASNA’s annual general meeting, or AGM, is invariably a great time, with thought-provoking lectures, beautiful period costumes, energetic Regency dancing, excellent Austen-themed shopping, and quirky special sessions. (I’ve been looking forward to the “Cheese Tour of Jane Austen’s England” for two years.) But the highlight is the chance to talk Austen with fellow devotees.


Although Kansas City, where the conference is being held, is reputedly a pleasant locale, it’s quite possible that I will never leave the hotel, except for the occasional lunch. The cheese, and the conversation, will tide me over nicely.



By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 10 2018 01:00PM

Poor never-married Jane Austen: Lacking nuptials, she never got a bachelorette party, either.


Strange, then – not to say strangely hilarious – to see Austen cited as a key reason for the proliferation of risqué bachelorette parties in Bath, England.


According to the UK news-and-entertainment website Somerset Live, Bath’s Jane Austen connections, along with its architecture, location, and quintessential Britishness, are likely responsible for the increase in Bath-based “hen dos,” as the British call them. The only evidence for this increase cited in the story is a rise in the bookings of the featured company, Butlers in the Buff.


Yes, nothing says “Jane Austen” quite like handsome young male waitstaff clad in tiny aprons that do not cover their bottoms.


No doubt it is unfair of me to speculate that the sole purpose of this story was to provide an excuse for running photos of, by my count, three shapely male posteriors – or six, if you scroll through the photo gallery. Probably this story represents a serious effort to come to grips, as it were, with an important economic development issue.


The Bath hen do is not a new phenomenon: Readers of Among the Janeites may recall that during my trip to Bath on the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2011 tour, I happened across a cordial fellow who dressed up as Mr. Darcy and staged glass-blowing demonstrations for brides-to-be and their friends.


Although the juxtaposition of Austen's no-sex-till-marriage ethos and today's you-go-girl embrace of female lust is headspinning, to say the least, perhaps the pairing isn't as incongruous as it seems. See, glass-blower Darcy made clear that he was not a stripper, and “Ben,” the long-time Butler in the Buff interviewed by Somerset Live, says that he, too, does not remove his clothing, such as it is.


“Ben believes most women are no longer interested in the vulgarity of a stripper experience - especially in Bath,” the story notes. “Ben reckons women at Bath hen dos are ‘classier on the whole.’ ”


Seeing as they’re Jane Austen fans and all,


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2018 01:00PM

Thanks to her four reproductively prolific brothers – James, Edward, Frank and Charles produced an impressive total of thirty-three sons and daughters, all but five of whom lived into adulthood – the never-married Jane Austen has many, many collateral descendants.


Some of these nieces, nephews and many-times-great iterations thereof have capitalized on their Austen connections. Frank’s daughter Catherine Hubback was the first person to publish Jane Austen fanfic – a completion of the unfinished Watsons manuscript; James’ son, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote the first biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


Later generations published the first collection of Jane Austen’s letters (Edward’s grandson Lord Brabourne); wrote chronicles of the family’s history (Frank’s grandson John Hubback and great-granddaughter Edith Hubback Brown, and James’ grandson and great-grandson William and Richard Austen-Leigh); and helped found the Jane Austen Society of North America (James’ great-great-granddaughter Joan Austen-Leigh).


Last week brought news of the death of another such Austen descendant: ninety-nine-year-old Diana Shervington, a great-great-granddaughter of Edward, who spent the last third of her long life in Lyme Regis, one of England’s most Austen-evocative places. Shervington, a homemaker and potter whose two Austen-descended grandmothers were sisters (yes, that means her parents were first cousins), led an interesting life, judging from the obituaries (see here and here). Check out the tale of her wartime romance with the man who became her husband. Talk about a meet-cute!


Although Shervington’s sister-grandmothers had never known Jane Austen, they knew older relatives who had, and they shared these second-hand memories. And during Shervington’s childhood, her parents spent years at Chawton House, Edward’s former home, caring for an elderly relation who in turn left Shervington some of her Austen relics.


When the late-nineties Austen craze hit, Shervington gained Janeite semi-fame by donating some of those heirlooms to Lyme’s museum and showing others off during talks she gave to visiting Austen fans. Whether her particular brand of reminiscence was to your taste or not – I confess to being in the “not” camp, but nil nisi bonum and all that – it’s sad to see the snapping of another tenuous link to the real Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 7 2018 01:00PM

As a fan of not only Jane Austen but also the Jane Austen Society of North America (member since 1981), I was pleased to see JASNA pop up in an unexpected context recently: as a practitioner of exemplary PR.


“Most recently, I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) and have reveled in the refinement of its messaging,” Janeite Laura Hale Brockway, a writer and editor from Texas, recently noted in the online newsletter PR Daily. “In a world of fake news, spam, and ham-handed marketing techniques, receiving their messages is like feeling the sun on your face on a cold day.”


Brockway goes on to praise JASNA for its welcome letter, its donation thank-you, and its crisis communications, which unfortunately got a workout recently when the registration system for September’s Annual General Meeting in Kansas City crashed on the first day it opened. (Luckily, my registration was processed before the problems cropped up, which is of course all that matters.)


I share Brockway’s admiration for JASNA’s literate and gracious approach. Although, really, Jane Austen demands no less.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 22 2018 01:00PM

For generations of teenagers, including me, reading the young-adult novels of S.E. Hinton – classics like The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now – has been a beloved rite of passage. Hinton published her first book in 1967, while still a teenager herself, and her raw honesty about the intense emotions of adolescence has never lost its freshness.


Didn’t know she was a Janeite, though, until earlier this week, when the coordinator of my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America pointed out a recent Hinton tweet on the subject of Austen-inspired fanfic. (Not a complimentary tweet, either – but more of that in a moment.)


A quick Google search brought me a number of interviews (including this one, from 2005) in which Hinton cops to rereading Austen annually and especially admiring how she uses dialogue to reveal character. Apparently, Emma is Hinton’s favorite.


Hinton has expressed mixed feelings about fanfic based on her own books – she doesn’t read it, usually doesn’t mind it, but can’t help wincing at some of the premises -- but apparently she’s less forgiving about JAFF.


The conversation began on March 4, when Hinton noted, via tweet, that the keepers of Margaret Mitchell’s estate were planning to hire a writer to craft a sequel to Gone with the Wind, in hopes of keeping the copyright alive.


“The concept of public domain is that, after a reasonable period of time to allow a creator to profit from a work, that works [sic] ultimately belongs to everyone,” replied a tweeter called HeatherN. “I think that’s beautiful.”


Hinton begged to differ. “I think it's a crime,” she tweeted back. “The first time (many years ago) I realized people could rip off Jane Austen I was physically ill.”


I’ve read some really, really bad JAFF in my time – don’t get me started! -- so I can sympathize. It’s hard for fans to accept Darcys and Annes and Elizabeths behaving in ways violently at odds with their Austen-created personalities, since these people barely seem fictional to us. It’s like hearing someone insult your sister; you bristle instinctively. Jane Austen's characters seem to belong to each of us alone; it's hard to share.


Still, I’m puzzled by this notion that JAFF writers “rip off” Jane Austen. Hinton doesn’t seem to be talking about a financial ripoff here, although we can all regret that Austen never got to share in the riches her work has helped generate for others.


No, Hinton is talking about a deeper kind of violation. Partly, I think, she sees a violation of Austen's rights of property in her own imaginative creations, and of course I can understand why a living author would find it painful to see the characters she's created and loved appropriated by others. Indeed, we have copyright laws to deal with the profit-making aspect of this situation. But a dead author? She's beyond feeling this pain.


Partly, also, Hinton seems to be suggesting that the existence of JAFF hurts Austen's readers, somehow tainting their experience of her books. And here's where I really don't get it. Austen’s six masterpieces remain forever accessible and unsullied, no matter how many wannabes rewrite, update or sequelize her stories. These books are interpretations, responses, homages – sometimes delightful, sometimes inept – but they can’t touch Austen. She’s still there – and thank goodness for that.


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