Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 20 2016 01:00PM

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to Washington, D.C., to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s thirty-eighth Annual General Meeting, known to all as the AGM. As usual, my reaction can be summed up in a single word: squeeee!

This will be my ninth AGM – and, curiously enough, the third I’ve attended that focuses on Emma, which celebrates its publication bicentennial this year. (Thus our theme: “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.”)

JASNA’s weekend-long AGMs are always delightful mixtures of the serious (lectures by distinguished Austen scholars); the not-so-serious (craft workshops, Austen-related retail therapy); and the purely social (reunions with those Janeite friends you only see at conferences). It’s the only place I feel completely unironic wearing my Jane Austen earrings, my Jane Austen pendant, my Jane Austen wristwatch and my Regency feathered headdress, all of them purchased at previous AGMs.

This year I’ve got my eye on a session with the creators of the adorable Cozy Classics board books (Emma in twelve words!), and I’m counting on spending one morning visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library’s much-praised exhibition “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” Plus, I just may engage in a bit of additional retail therapy. Because you can never have too many Jane Austen earrings.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 6 2016 01:00PM

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to see a very enjoyable and ingenious stage production of Sense and Sensibility, performed in New York by the off-Broadway Bedlam theater company. After a spring vacation of sorts, performances resume next week, and WCSI, a Fox Radio station, recently interviewed playwright Kate Hamill, who also plays Marianne Dashwood.

In the interview, Hamill talks about how she began writing plays after realizing, as she lived on ramen noodles while making the rounds of New York auditions, how few stage roles were written by and for women, even though women make up the majority of theatergoers.

Hamill’s S&S emphasizes the funny side of Austen, and the price is some loss of emotional intensity. But the comedy is highly entertaining. Much Austen dialogue, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is preserved. Furniture and props are mounted on casters and shoved into position from one end of the stage to the other – including in a memorable dinner-party scene in which actors simultaneously playing two different characters careen from one end of the table to the other without missing a beat. The undisguised artifice of the staging plays like a wry commentary on the artificiality of the manners on display.

The play has scored excellent reviews, including from many Janeites. “Those are my people,” Hamill tells her interviewer, Jane Metzler. “I’m very pleased that the Austenites like it. When I was first working on this, I thought, ‘If I don’t do this right, they’ll come after me with pitchforks.’ ” (Oh, honey – you were always safe. There’s so much Austen-related dreck out there that we can’t take the time to give everyone the pitchfork treatment.)

Hamill’s play, with a different cast but the same director, will be staged at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. this fall; a Sunday matinee is one of the special events on offer during the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. And in the interview, Hamill announces good news for Janeites: apparently she’s already working on adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 14 2016 01:00PM

The Eastern Pennsylvania Region of the Jane Austen Society of North America is, as my inbox can attest, a busy and ambitious group. Their annual calendar includes a mix of lectures, discussions and field trips – usually with food involved, which can never be a bad thing.

This coming Saturday in Philadelphia, the region will host its third biannual Jane Austen Day, a daylong mini-JASNA conference, complete with speakers, discussion and a gift emporium filled with Jane Austen-related books and merchandise. This year’s program, on the theme of “Emma: 200 Years of Perfection,” features four distinguished scholars from Princeton, Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania and University College London.

I greatly enjoyed my first Jane Austen Day, in 2014, but alas, I cannot attend this year. If you’re going, however, do post a report!

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 21 2015 01:00PM

One of the many pleasures of researching Among the Janeites was the chance it gave me to meet fellow Austen fans from across the country and, during the trip to England that I recount in Chapter 2, those from overseas.

So I read with interest this item, which made the UK news earlier this month, reporting the retirement of Karen Rudd, the property manager of Mompesson House in Salisbury. Readers of ATJ will remember that Rudd welcomed our JASNA group to this beautiful eighteenth-century house, which stood in for Mrs. Jennings’ London home in the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility.

Rudd was a delightfully forthright hostess, telling funny stories about the shooting of the film and, when I interviewed her, speaking perceptively about Austen’s appeal. ”People don’t realize what an ardent feminist she was,” Rudd told me. “She railed against the whole ridiculous nonsense of primogeniture. And that’s what she’s writing about. It’s not nibbling a biscuit with a cup of tea with other ladies whilst talking about the weather.”

Plus Rudd has a thing for Mr. Knightley, and who among us can disagree with that?

Rudd is stepping down after twenty-five years on the job. I hope her retirement brings her many opportunities to reread Emma. Perhaps with a cup of tea and a biscuit at her elbow.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2015 01:00PM

Jane Austen wrote daily, revised her work, recycled material from unused drafts, negotiated with publishers both directly and through an agent, corrected her proofs, read reviews, made changes for later editions, and kept track of her royalties. In other words, she was a committed professional writer.

This might seem obvious were it not for the energy with which her brother and her nephew tried, in the decades after her death, to promote a very different image – of Austen as a cheery amateur storyteller who dabbled charmingly with no thought of fame or fortune. No doubt they meant well, these Austen men. They wanted to keep the reading public from seeing their beloved relative as ambitious – and thus, in nineteenth-century terms, unwomanly.

But what did Austen herself think of ambition? Did she see it as a vice, a virtue, or something more ambiguous – a human impulse that could be deployed for both good and bad ends?

These were the question opened up most entertainingly this past Saturday by writer and critic Sarah Emsley, who spoke at a luncheon meeting I attended, sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania region of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Emsley argued that while Austen condemns characters like Mary Crawford and Isabella Thorpe for aspiring to raise themselves through mercenary marriages, she rewards those characters who hold quieter, more modest ambitions – people like Edward Ferrars and Elizabeth Bennet, who aim primarily to achieve their own vision of love and happiness.

Along the way, Emsley considered Christian, Aristotelian and Johnsonian definitions of ambition; touched on the reasons that ambition has traditionally inspired mixed feelings; and noted the ambitions that Austen arouses in her readers, including a desire to read more deeply and to think more carefully about how to live their lives.

Emsley says her ideas remain a work in progress, but she’s off to a good start. I look forward to seeing her intellectual ambitions rewarded with publication (along with love and happiness, of course).

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