Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen seems to have spent as little time as possible in the kitchen, leaving the cooking to the women she lived with and the servants they supervised.


And, frankly, that’s a good thing: As Mr. Darcy might have said, Austen employed her time much better. “Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb,” she wrote in an 1816 letter (#145 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of the correspondence), apropos of her I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it astonishment at Jane West, a contemporary who churned out novels, poems, and conduct books while running a household and raising three sons.


Given Austen’s complete lack of interest in culinary chores, it’s bemusing to find her name attached to a high-end kitchen line (“simple and refined. . . a sense of space and openness. . . . solid maple with a smooth painted finish. . .”) advertised by a Dublin company, Nolan Kitchens. “A kitchen for people who would rather write than cook”? No, it’s probably just as well they didn’t choose that slogan, although for Janeites, the illustrative Austen quote they did select isn’t much better: “There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,” a typically vapid and dishonest remark from Emma’s Mrs. Elton, who is forever casting about for entertainment – a dinner, a strawberry-picking expedition, an exploring party -- that will get her out of the house.


Of course, literary-minded kitchen remodelers with a good-size budget – Nolan’s “signature kitchens” run to €18,000-€25,000 (about $21,000-$29,000) -- aren’t limited to the Austen line: Nolan Kitchens also offers designs named for Hemingway and “Brontë” (possibly Charlotte, since the quote on that page is attributed to her, although I’m told that Brontë proficients suspect she didn’t actually write it). Those who want something completely different can choose kitchen designs alleged to recall Newton, Hepburn (Audrey, not Katharine), or a mysterious “Harvey,” whose page is adorned with a quote from Steve Jobs. (William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood? Seems an unfortunate association for a room filled with knives. . .)


Obviously, these names have been selected because of their aura of all things classy and upscale: “Austen” becomes shorthand for the manicured gardens and drawing-rooms on display in filmed adaptations of her novels, just as “Hepburn” implies chic cosmopolitanism and “Hemingway” suggests rugged masculinity (bullfighting next to the Sub-Zero!)


Still, as usual with these randomly Austen-themed products, I’m at a loss to understand why one set of tiled backsplashes, marble countertops, and custom cabinetry should be understood to evoke novels of manners, while another set recalls, say, the discovery of gravity or the Yorkshire moors. It’s all joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb to me.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 13 2020 01:00PM

In case you were wondering how high the bar for Janeite gift-giving could be set, wonder no longer: Josh Jordan, a twenty-nine-year-old graphic designer from the UK, has bested the competition so thoroughly that everyone else might as well go home.


Jordan’s girlfriend of two years, Sophie Jackson, is such a rabid Janeite that a few years ago, she and a friend hosted a podcast, The Bennet Edit, that featured discussion of virtually every screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


What do you give someone like that for a second-anniversary gift? Jordan created a Jane Austen Monopoly set, featuring locations from the novels (Pemberley claims the Boardwalk spot, natch), stables subbing for railroads, 3-D-printed cottages and mansions in place of houses and hotels, and a host of other charming details. The whole set fits inside an old wooden writing box restored by Jordan’s father.


Jordan himself is not a Janeite – indeed, he hasn’t read any of the novels, he told a local reporter – so he relied on online research to figure out which locations to include and how to price them. He even managed to maintain the surprise while quarantining with Jackson in a single room at his grandparents’ home.


Needless to say, Jane Austen Twitter was overcome with admiration, not to mention covetousness, the moment Jackson posted pictures of her gift. In between urging her to marry the guy already, many commenters suggested that he patent his game and mass-produce it for sale.


Sadly, those pesky intellectual property laws likely make this impossible, since Hasbro owns and licenses Monopoly’s trademarks, and I suspect that Janeites, passionate though we are, don’t constitute a large enough market to make this project worth Hasbro’s while. But I can’t wait to see what Jordan comes up with for a third-anniversary gift.


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 SheKnows.com.


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?


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