Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 31 2019 01:00PM

I really should cease being surprised by how indiscriminately purveyors of goods and services slap the name “Jane Austen” onto items with virtually no link to her life or work. And yet, I still shook my head last month when I learned of the Austen Coat, now available from the British clothing company Boden.

The coat, which retails for £220 (about $276), comes in fetching shades of navy and red, with two interchangeable faux-fur collars, one in navy and one in leopard print. The leopard, according to Boden’s website, is for those days when you want to “channel your inner Lydia Bennett (sic).” (So wearing a flamboyant coat collar is the 2019 equivalent of risking social death for a lusty interlude with a hottie in a militia uniform?)

To be fair, it’s not just Our Jane who is getting the Boden Non Sequitur treatment. The Austen Coat is part of a new line of thirty coats dedicated to “remarkable historical British women who dared to be different,” Boden explains. “Because being brave never goes out of style.”

There’s a suede-and-shearling number inspired by archaeologist Gertrude Bell, a wool-blend duffle with Paddington Bear-style toggles that is named for Emily Brontë, and a velvet blazer, available in solids or flamboyant prints, that is styled after Virginia Woolf’s lover, the daring novelist and garden designer Vita Sackville-West.

The Austen Coat, Boden tells us, riffs on pseudonymous publication: “She may have had to hide her true identity, but there's no concealing her sparkling wit and unforgettable characters (Mr Darcy, anyone?)” According to the digital version of Woman & Home, a British magazine for women over forty, the leopard-print collar represents the true, writerly Austen concealed beneath the façade of proper ladyhood. Or something like that.

Although it’s all pretty ridiculous, I can’t stop puzzling over the significance of the price points. The Jane Austen coat appears to fall somewhere in the middle of the line – more expensive than the Mary Wollstonecraft puffer coat (£175) or the Emily Brontë duffle (£180), but less than the double-breasted Fanny Burney (£250) or the longline Margot Fonteyn (£275). And what does it tell us that the wool-blend Ada Lovelace is already marked down by thirty percent?

Are computer-science pioneers less valuable than famous ballerinas? Do we price over-the-top emotion on the Yorkshire moors at a lower rate than Regency stiff upper lips? Surely Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of us all, deserves better?

What’s that you say? Maybe I’m overthinking this? Perhaps – but it seems I’m not the only one.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 26 2019 01:00PM

It’s been clear for a while now that Jane Austen has evolved from revered writer into lifestyle brand: FamousJane, bringing you Classy Romance With A Dollop of Smarts since 1811. In case any of us were still wondering how fully that evolution had progressed, however, last week’s tidbits of Austen news (at least the non-Sanditon-related ones) should make everything clear:

* We already knew about the Austen-themed soap, toothpaste, lip balm, body lotion, and perfume. (Because nothing says “pioneer of the novel” like scented hygiene products.) So the latest entrant in this crowded category -- Jane Austen fingernail polish – fits right in.

The new Jane Austen Collection, from a company with the unintentionally hilarious name of Live Love Polish, includes six different sparkly, shimmery shades with Austenesque monikers.

Sense and Sensibility is a deep purple that morphs into a lighter purple and then into beige, depending on the temperature. My Dear Cassandra is a semi-restrained bluish-gray. First Impressions, according to the companion video, is another temperature-sensitive polish that incorporates “subtle holographic micro-flakes.”

I don’t know about you, but “subtle holographic micro-flakes” is not a phrase that immediately leaps to mind when I think of Jane Austen. But in the world of Lifestyle Brand Jane, any actual connection between the writer and the product is beside the point.

* Hot on the heels of news about Ivanka Trump’s Austen appreciation comes word that another leggy blonde with a social media following may also be an Austen reader: Gwyneth Paltrow’s book curator mentions Our Jane among the always-popular classics his clients are interested in having on their shelves.

Yes, I know: I too missed the memo about how “book curator” is an actual job you can get paid for.

But enough of this mourning over roads not taken. Back to Town & Country’s recent interview with “a long-time bibliophile and collector” by the almost impossibly WASP-y name of Thatcher Wine who “sourc[es] rare, out-of-print books to build beautiful libraries based on interest, author, and even color for his clients,” Paltrow among them.

Wine’s company, Juniper Books, creates custom book jackets so that you can coordinate the spines of your books with the décor of your home. “Someone can have the complete works of Jane Austen, but in a certain Pantone chip color that matches the rest of the room,” he explains.

(Personally, I find the hodgepodge of uncoordinated spines, and the vast diversity of human imagination that this hodgepodge represents, to be one of the joys of a personal library. But, then, I’m willing to bet I’m not the kind of person Wine works for.)

Wine doesn’t say in so many words that Austen’s works were among the “five or six hundred” (!) books that he acquired for Paltrow when she moved into a remodeled home in Los Angeles a few years ago and realized that her bookshelves just weren’t full enough. (This is not a problem I’ve faced anywhere I’ve ever lived.)

But he does say that among his curatorial choices was “a selection of classics” that the Paltrow kids might enjoy as they grew up, and given that their mother starred in a famous film version of Emma way back when, I think it’s a safe bet that Austen made the cut.

And so there you have it: Jane Austen, approved (probably) by the founder of Goop. If that’s not a sign that Austen's brand has arrived, I don’t know what is.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 11 2019 03:07PM

Jane Austen is popular, but is she pop?

This pressing question presented itself irresistibly when, just in time for Valentine’s Day, I happened across a gift-recommendation listicle on the women’s-magazine-ish site

The piece -- “15 Galentine’s Day Gifts for Your Pop Culture-Loving Crew” – offers a corrective to the relationship-focused view of the holiday, suggesting that you spend February 14 appreciating family and platonic friends, instead of significant others. The list, author Samantha Puc promises, offers great choices for “your pop-culture savvy besties . . . . some of the best pop culture-related gifts money can buy.”

The choices include books, DVDs, jewelry, and assorted decorative or semi-useful accessories and appurtenances. Most are themed to a you-go-girl canon: female-centric television shows (Friends, Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City), female-centric blockbuster movies (Wonder Woman), progressive female political figures (Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama).

Smack in the middle of the list – right after the Gertrude Stein beer mug and the Frida Kahlo candle, and just ahead of the Mad Men desk doodad -- is Jane Austen bath soap, which Puc recommends as “the perfect accompaniment to a pop culture-themed night of self-care.”

As someone who wrote a whole book about Jane Austen’s curious dual life as both classic author and ubiquitous brand, I’m used to seeing Austen merchandise lumped in with Leslie Knope greeting cards and Carrie Fisher tote bags. All those beloved Austen movies and mini-series have spawned a generation of consumers who met Our Jane first (or only) on a screen.

And yet I still find it a bit startling to see Austen described as primarily -- even solely -- a pop-culture figure. Unlike Lorelei Gilmore or Peggy Olson, Austen also means something outside the world of TV shows and social media memes. If you were organizing an Eng.Lit.-themed night of self-care, her scented soap would be at home there too, along with the Shakespeare bath oils (“for the Ophelia in your life”), the Emily Bronte heather-mixture potpourri, and the Sylvia Plath cookie sheets. (I made all those up, by the way, so don’t waste your time Googling.)

I’m not complaining, exactly – just looking on with a certain measure of bemusement as a literary giant who became a pop icon is transmuted, through the magic of the Internet, into a pop icon who maybe also wrote some books.

Although, frankly, it’s not as if Jane Austen is the oddest of the oddballs in this supposed pop-culture brew. I mean, I ask you – Gertrude Stein? Talk about no there there! When did her movie come out?

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 1 2018 02:00PM

Do Jane Austen’s characters keep bars of soap handy for washing? This is one of the many details of Regency life that Austen does not discuss. My electronic search found not a single mention of the word “soap” in any of the finished novels.

Presumably, contemporary readers knew what hygiene habits were typical for the gentry class that populates her novels. Modern readers must rely on historical research, such as the account in this helpful blog post, which suggests that, in Austen’s era, bar soap was an expensive item, more accessible to the upper classes than to the poor.

Or we can just throw history to the winds and patronize our preferred purveyor of “Jane Austen soap” – i.e., attractively colored, scented and packaged bars labeled with Austen-inspired names. Think Jane Austen candles, and you’ll get the idea.

Judging from Google and Etsy, this niche market has practically spawned a cottage industry. There’s lavender-scented Jane Austen Bath Soap – “Suds and Sensibility,” the label reads. Don’t like lavender? Perhaps you would prefer Earl Grey, green tea, or sweet honeysuckle.

Tired of buying your Jane Austen soap from establishments that promiscuously mingle Austen-themed products with those based on the works of other writers, from Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelley to J.K. Rowling and Diana Gabaldon? Then there’s Northanger Soapworks (“handmade soap for the Jane Austen addict”), whose offerings include a tobacco-and-black-tea-scented soap called Captain Wentworth’s Constancy and an orange-scented soap named after Mary Bennet and decorated with a lace pattern.

Some of these soaps look good enough to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re that desperate for Austen-themed hygiene, stick with the Jane Austen toothpaste.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 8 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen and sex: By now, you’ve heard all the arguments.

1. She’s a sex-free zone, where female modesty and male decorum are prized and celebrated. (And thank goodness for that.)

2. She’s a simmering cauldron of veiled sexual references, from Lydia Bennet’s ripped petticoat to Mary Crawford’s accomplished horseback riding. (The Regency was earthy; it’s the Victorians who were repressed prudes.)

3. She’s the ur-romance novelist, whose Elizabeth and Darcy would certainly have had a super-hot married life. (See under: seventy percent of Jane Austen fanfic.)

4. She’s the anti-romance novelist, who keeps pairing her heroines off with condescending father figures. (Sleep with Edmund Bertram? Ick! No, thank you!)

Clearly, what’s been missing from this discussion is a truly delightful piece of merchandise whose existence I learned of only recently: the Austen-themed condom. Turns out that for this year’s fourth annual Independent Bookstore Day, an April event celebrating places that are not Amazon or Barnes & Noble, participating retailers could lay in a stock of “literary condoms” – perfect for the reader in your bed.

Judging from the order form (scroll down for condom reference), only two designs were available this year: the Dickensian “Great Expectations” (no pressure!); and the Austen-themed “Give Me That Darcy,” in a package adorned with a cartoon of a pants-less Regency gentleman using his top hat in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. But Instagram evidence suggests that the line created last year by the San Francisco store The Booksmith also included two other designs: the Alice-inspired “Eat Me”; and “Dive Deep,” illustrated with a picture of a lasciviously grinning Great White Whale, clearly based on Moby Dick. (Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.)

The romantic possibilities here are obvious. We all have tests for our prospective partners – movies or books or songs that s/he must like, or it’s a dealbreaker. Now we can move that conversation to an even more intimate stage: can’t sleep with someone who fails to identify the literary reference on the condom package.

Alas, it doesn’t look like these adorably naughty items are available for purchase by the general public, except through indie booksellers stocking them for the celebration. Just for the record, though, the wholesale price was $47.88 for a package of twelve, or $3.99 per prophylactic. As a boring married person, I haven’t bought condoms in so long that I have no idea if this is a bargain or not. And whatever your views on Jane Austen and sex, I doubt she would have known, either.

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