Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, May 18 2017 01:00PM

Forty-one is a tragic number for Janeites – the all-too-young age at which Jane Austen left this world exactly two centuries ago, at the height of her artistic powers. So it seems a tad ghoulish for Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton to have selected that number as the theme of its nine-month-long bicentenary exhibition, “Jane Austen in 41 Objects.”

Still, this is merely a quibble, since the exhibition itself – at least as far as I can tell from its online presence – seems endearing and delightful. Each week, the museum’s website features one object, accompanied by a blog post explaining its significance in Austen’s life and/or the museum’s collection. Some of the objects will be on display all year – the exhibition, which began in March, ends on December 15, the day before Austen’s 242nd birthday – and others only for a portion of that time.

Doled out at the rate of one per week, the objects featured so far have ranged from the familiar (Austen’s writing desk, the topaz crosses her sailor brother Charles sent his sisters) to the more obscure (a muslin shawl Austen may have embroidered, a needle case she gave to one of her nieces). Bloggers have included university scholars and museum staff.

All in all, it’s yet another entry on the growing list of enviable Austen bicentenary events occurring in sadly distant locales. Pretty soon, I suspect, the items on that list will number more than forty-one.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 3 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s books feature plenty of quietly competent women going about their work with minimal fuss – and, sometimes, minimal appreciation from others. Think of Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Fanny Price – even Miss Bates and Charlotte Lucas.

So it seems appropriate that my Jane Austen Google alert should recently have reminded me of two such real-life women whose work helped bring Jane Austen the celebrity she now enjoys.

--In a recent edition of the Review of English Studies (abstract available here; full text requires payment), Austen scholar Janine Barchas explores the life and work of Katharine Metcalfe (1887-1978), the editor of the first scholarly edition of Pride and Prejudice, published by Oxford University Press in 1912.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the first scholarly editions of Austen’s work began appearing a decade later, under the stewardship of the magisterial R.W. Chapman. That’s the story we Janeites have always heard – the “Chapman editions” were standard reference points for Austen quoting. (Still are, in some precincts.)

A classic story of a woman done out of the credit rightfully due her by an interloping male? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that: Chapman became Metcalfe’s husband in 1913.

Hmm. Mr. Collins, anyone?

--A belated obituary that appeared last month offered fascinating details about the life of Jean Bowden, who served from 1984 to 1994 as the curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum (aka Chawton cottage) where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.

Bowden, who died in January at the age of 86, was known to me as the author of a column about the doings at Chawton that appeared regularly in the newsletter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. In her accounts of the museum’s newest acquisitions and the latest plants to bloom in the garden, Bowden came across as a charming, slightly fusty English spinster of the tea-drinking, cat-owning variety.

Turns out, however, that earlier in her career she had administered the orchid collection at the magnificent Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. She was the first woman to go on a Kew-sponsored specimen-collecting trip – four months in Nigeria – and later published a book about a little-known British botanist. And all this before presiding over significant restoration and refurbishment at Chawton cottage, that beloved Janeite pilgrimage site.

It seems apt, somehow, that these lesser-known women should have helped nurture the flame of Austen’s fame, even as noisier folks, some of them male, got more of the credit. Jane Austen would recognize the phenomenon.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 2 2017 02:00PM

The curators of Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton are hard at work freshening the place up for this year’s commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death. The latest renovation: new wallpaper.

Or, depending how you look at it, old wallpaper. According to its latest blog post, the museum has recently installed replica wallpaper in three different patterns, based on early nineteenth-century fragments discovered in random corners of the house where Austen lived from 1809 until her death in 1817.

The replicas were created by a company that specializes in historic and reproduction wallpapers – I’m tempted to say “only in England,” but perhaps this is a bigger niche than I imagine – using the hand block printing techniques employed in Austen’s era. Apparently, there’s evidence that the frugal and not-exactly-affluent Austens bought a discounted, flawed version of one of the wallpapers and installed it upside down to conceal the mistakes in the pattern

For us contemporary Janeites, however, the most interesting line in the museum’s blog post comes at the end: “Both designs, as well as a third. . . are available for purchase via the museum shop.” *

Yes, a new avenue of Janeite consumerism has opened up. You already own the Jane Austen Action Figure, the mugs, the tote bags, the fridge magnets, the temporary tattoos – even the air freshener and the toothpaste. Now it’s time to redecorate the den.

* Not all the shop’s stock is listed online yet, and the wallpapers seem to be among the missing items. But you can catch a glimpse of the patterns here, decorating the cover of a journal.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 2 2017 02:00PM

Happy new year, Janeites! For us fans of Jane Austen, 2017 is a big year, the biggest since – well, since 2013, when we celebrated the bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, still Austen’s most popular work.

This year, we have an altogether more melancholy occasion to mark – the two hundredth anniversary of Austen’s death, on July 18, 1817, at the all-too-young age of forty-one. (Depending how you count, it may also be the bicentenary of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in a three-volume set that appeared in December 1817 with a title-page publication date of 1818.)

Across the planet, and especially in Austen’s home country of England, Austen fans will celebrate her life and mourn her death at balls, exhibits, lectures, conferences and festivals. Our shelves will creak under the weight of Austen-related books published to coincide with the anniversary. And in Britain, wallets will fill up with Austen-embellished currency. We may even get to see a new Austen movie.

An unscientific, and undoubtedly incomplete, sampling of what’s ahead:

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 8 2016 02:00PM

As every homeowner knows, the passage of time can wreak havoc on even the best-constructed building. Paint peels, window frames warp, roofs start to leak – it’s common. And when your home is a couple of centuries old, it’s inevitable.

So it’s no surprise that Chawton cottage, the iconic Hampshire house where Jane Austen wrote or revised all her novels, is in need of some fixing up. And given that next year is the bicentenary of Austen’s death – and therefore, in our anniversary-obsessed culture, the occasion for all manner of festivals, commemorations, publications and the like – it’s no surprise that the trustees of the cottage, now a museum of Austen's life, are using the momentous date as the excuse for a bit of fixer-upper fundraising.

The Jane’s Fund campaign, which launched last month, aims to raise £250,000 ($318,000) toward “vital building repairs. . .required to ensure that the fabric of the house does not deteriorate further,” explains the web site of Jane Austen’s House Museum. “Exterior and interior work will secure the house now and protect it for future generations. In addition, there is an exciting plan to refurbish each of the House’s rooms to bring visitors closer to Austen’s life and works than ever before.”

Those lucky folks who can afford to donate £1,000 ($1,280) or more (don’t look at me!) will get a private tour of the house, free from the encroachments of pesky fellow Janeites. No word on whether dinner with Colin Firth is on offer in exchange for an even bigger gift.

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