Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2020 02:00PM

A year ago, I confidently predicted a 2020 filled with the usual array of Austen events: “Teas, balls, fairs, festivals, conferences, discussions, lectures, and walking tours celebrating Austen and the Regency.”

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the universe does not smile upon confident predictions.

As it happens, 2020 marked the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, which inaugurated institutionalized Janeite fandom, and in many ways, the Austen fan community rose to the occasion presented by this awful year, striving to create virtual community with an outpouring of creativity and enthusiasm.

While in-person events were scuttled, online alternatives proliferated: the Louisville Austen festival migrated to YouTube, the Jane Austen Society of North America convened on the web, and events that might ordinarily have been local – like an Australian AustenCon and an Arizona conference on fandom – suddenly went international.

While the major Austen pilgrimage sites were shuttered for much of the year, sustaining serious financial damage along the way, they found opportunities to bring their programming to a worldwide virtual audience, with Chawton House sponsoring online conferences and a newly rebranded Jane Austen’s House creating a panoramic online tour and a special Christmas treat.

While live theater went dark, you could stream any number of Austen adaptations, from a much-praised play based on The Watsons to a Zoom-enabled update of Pride and Prejudice to the new Emma from playwright Kate Hamill.

And the cinematic Austen universe only expanded, from the pre-pandemic U.S. broadcast of the Sanditon miniseries, to the theatrical and (post-pandemic) streaming release of Autumn de Wilde’s new Emma, to the debut of Modern Persuasion.

Best of all, those six great novels sat on our shelves, always available for a reread. They were our constant reminder that even during the worst of years, art endures, bringing us escape, perspective, and consolation amid loneliness and grief.

In that spirit, as this year finally ends -- and not a minute too soon! -- let's give Jane Austen the last word, from chapter 19 of Sense and Sensibility.

"Remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by everybody at times, whatever be their education or state," Mrs. Dashwood tells the mysteriously melancholy Edward Ferrars. "Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope."

Here’s hoping for a better 2021.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2020 02:00PM

It’s a tough year for traditional Christmas celebrations. The eight maids are a-milking in masks. The ten lords are a-leaping six feet apart. All those swans, partridges, and turtledoves seem like a recipe for deafening background noise during Zoom meetings. And piping pipers? Probably a bad idea, in light of that super-spreader choir rehearsal back in March.

Luckily, Jane Austen’s House in Hampshire, England, has come up with an alternative to the customary twelve days of Christmas: an online, Austen-themed journey through Regency holiday traditions, from Yule logs to family theatricals. It’s the latest example of online Austen programming in a year that has seen a lot of it – festivals, plays, trivia quizzes, and more.

The latest program, The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Jane Austen Special for 2020, features brief excerpts from Austen’s novels and letters, read by Emma Thompson, the British national treasure whom Janeites remember fondly as the Oscar-winning screenwriter and Oscar-nominated star of the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

With the UK’s latest coronavirus lockdown just concluded, the lucky few who can pay a non-virtual visit to this most hallowed of Janeite shrines -- the place where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels -- will get to listen to Thompson’s audio as they stroll through the house.

The rest of us will have to make do with clicking through the museum’s presentation, where you can listen to a pianist’s rendition of a Christmas carol from the Austen family music collection, view a sampling of illustrations from various Austen novels, watch a video of a country dance, and hear Thompson read Martha Lloyd’s recipe for lemon mince pies. If you feel a bout of culinary inspiration coming on, you can also create an Austen-themed gingerbread cookie and contribute a photo of it to an online gallery.

Like so much this year, it’s a compromise: For most of us, the 2020 holiday season is unlikely to be the cheeriest we’ve known. Take a couple of Emma Thompsons and call me on January 2.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 26 2020 01:00PM

Pandemic life has made clear, at least to me, that online interactions are no substitute for the in-real-life kind. Still, it’s heartening to see artists and cultural organizations seizing the opportunity to create high-quality virtual experiences for those of us who don’t have better choices right now.

The latest example of this lemonade-out-of-lemons approach is “Jane Austen’s House From Home,” a menu of online experiences designed to introduce visitors to Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.

Back in June, the cottage – now a museum of Austen’s life -- staged an ultra-successful crowdfunding appeal, raising more than £97,000 (over $126,000) in a campaign that had initially sought only £75,000. Donations poured in after the museum warned that its long-term viability was at risk after months of pandemic-induced closure.

Chawton is open again, but travel restrictions and social-distancing rules mean that fewer people can visit. Starting last week, however, the museum can come to you, via a nifty 360-degree virtual tour that takes you through every room in the cottage and lets you zoom in on everything from the floorboards to the ceiling rafters, as well as a slew of treasured artifacts – Austen’s writing desk, say, or the topaz cross that was a gift from one of her sailor brothers. If you've been to Chawton, the tour will bring back warm memories of that magical place, and if you're a newbie, it's bound to whet your appetite. Plus, there's a bonus: For once, the cottage is empty! No tourists jostling for elbow room in front of the famous Austen quilt!

The “From Home” site also features a children’s audio tour of the cottage and its grounds, purportedly narrated by the museum’s black and white cat, who quotes liberally from the Juvenilia. (Who knew cats had such great taste in literature?) And you can visit two virtual exhibitions, one on Austen’s letters and one featuring items related to Austen’s teenage years.

No, it’s not the same as being there. But for now, it’s what we’ve got, and it’s quite a bit better than nothing.

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, Jul 9 2020 01:00PM

A thousand years ago – or, actually, back in January – the big Janeite news of 2020 was shaping up to be the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, the world’s first official Austen fan club.

Since then, of course, we’ve had to contend with the virus-induced closings of major Austen sites, along with concomitant fiscal pressures; and the virus-impelled cancelations of Austen events, partly mitigated by new online programming designed to fill the gaps.

But it’s still been eighty years since that day in May 1940 when an intrepid band of Janeites convened in Alton, Hampshire. Their mission: raising money to buy and preserve Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House, the place where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.

Despite the unsatisfactory circumstances in which we now find ourselves, a birthday celebration (online, of course) is planned: On July 11, Chawton House, the Austen-linked mansion down the road from the cottage, is sponsoring an afternoon of lectures and discussion about Chawton, the JAS, and the global phenomenon of Austen appreciation.

The event, which will run from 2 to 5:30 pm British time, is free, and videos of the proceedings will be available later on Chawton House’s YouTube channel. It’s an apt way to celebrate the beginnings of a worldwide community of Austen fans -- even if we have to supply our own cake and champagne.

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