Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2018 01:00PM

One of the most useful sentences Jane Austen ever wrote is surely this one: “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” (It’s from a March 1817 letter to her niece Fanny Knight -- #155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.)


I think of this line when I come across portrayals of Austen as a purveyor of upbeat, light-hearted escapism, rather than what I take to be her more nuanced and shadowed, albeit still comic, version of reality. So my heart sank a couple of weeks ago when the newsletter of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, turned its attention to a newly popular literary genre that publishers have christened “Up Lit,” because it features “uplifting stories about kindness and community.”


“As we were finding out about this new genre,” the newsletter chirped, “we couldn’t help but feel that a good number of its defining aspects – kindness, compassion, unlikely friendships, broken people who become fixed – are all features of Jane’s novels that we particularly enjoy.”


I’ve got nothing against kindness and compassion – some of my favorite books, not to mention people, endorse these qualities -- but my entire being revolts against the suggestion that Austen’s novels feature a set of saccharine thematics invented by a marketing department. You might even say that this characterization makes me sick. Also wicked.


At the very least, it sets me combing my memory for all the aspects of Austen’s novels that don’t amount to easy uplift. Like, for example, the way that scheming Lucy Ferrars ends up with more money than steadfast Elinor Dashwood. Or the way that misbehaving men from George Wickham to General Tilney to Mr. Elliot face essentially no repercussions for their misbehavior. Or the way that sexually transgressive women (the two Elizas, Maria Rushworth) are tossed aside like worn-out socks.


Of course it’s true that the central characters in Austen’s novels grow morally and emotionally and end up with the people they love (or, like Marianne Dashwood, learn to love the people they end up with). But these wish-fulfilling denouements occur against a social backdrop that is, when you think about it, kind of awful: socially and economically stratified, rife with sexual double standards, and unforgiving to those who go astray. Not, in other words, all that uplifting.


To be fair, the newsletter points out that Up Lit is “not all sweetness and light,” quoting an author saying, of her own bestselling novel, “It’s about facing devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness and then saying: ‘But there is still this.’ ”


Perhaps, then, it’s all a matter of emphasis: Looked at one way, Austen’s novels – or, more accurately, the movie versions of Austen’s novels -- could perhaps be crammed into the Up Lit template. But these pictures of perfection don’t resemble the Austen I love.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 8 2018 02:00PM

Thirty-first in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen had spent her day productively.


“Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter finished exactly 204 years ago today (#98 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.”


To put myself in the correct frame of mind for this blog, I have read The Corsair and mended a pillowcase, since there’s little call for petticoats in my house. (Unlike Austen, I still have a long to-do list, but I did try.)


Byron is a great poet, but The Corsair -- which was published in February 1814, a month before Austen read it -- is not my cup of tea. Yes, the verse is miraculously supple and natural, but you can’t say the same of the story, what with its obscurely-tortured-yet-devastatingly-attractive pirate-hero, its selflessly virtuous heroine, and its homicidal anti-heroine-cum-harem-slave. Apparently, men too can write bad romance-novel plots.


Nevertheless, reading The Corsair – for the first time! My education has been sadly neglected – points up the comedy in Austen’s sentence. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Byron’s swashbuckling saga than the domestic chore of mending underwear. Coupling the two has the salutary effect of puncturing Byron’s pretensions, though Austen may also be poking fun at the lack of drama in her own life.


Meanwhile, as I plied my needle, like so many centuries of women before me, I found myself reflecting -- as perhaps Austen did, too -- on the bankruptcy of the madonna-whore dichotomy into which Byron so neatly fits his female characters.


Of course, Austen’s books contain their fair share of flawed men and good, or not-so-good, women. In case we need reminding that she took a subtler approach than The Corsair, later in the letter Austen reports on her brother’s response to her soon-to-be-published new novel, the story of a virtuous woman who withstands the blandishments of a plausible but problematic suitor.


“Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better,” she tells Cassandra. “He is in the 3d vol.—I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end;--he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 29 2018 02:00PM

Thirtieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen was brimming over with the joy that only an author can fully appreciate: the thrill of holding in her hands a book that she had written.


“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London,” Jane reported to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter written exactly 205 years ago today (#79 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Cassandra was away on a visit to their eldest brother, James, and during her absence the first copy of the newly published Pride and Prejudice had arrived in Chawton.


Already, Austen was anticipating and assessing the responses to her novel. A neighbor to whom the Austens had read the book aloud – without revealing who had written it -- “really does seem to admire Elizabeth,” Austen wrote. “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”


(And who can blame her? If you can’t love Elizabeth Bennet – well, I won’t say that you’re incapable of literary appreciation, but some might.)


Like all writers, Austen also finds herself wishing she’d had one more pass at her manuscript: “There are a few Typical errors--& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear,” she notes. “But ‘I do not write for such dull Elves’ ‘As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’ ”


In context, it’s clear that Austen’s paraphrase of Walter Scott’s poem Marmion is not a global comment on how her work should be read by discerning readers; it’s just a clever, throwaway self-reassurance that her occasional lapses won’t detract from her storytelling.


Still, that hasn’t stopped more than one critic from appropriating the “dull elves” remark as an all-purpose slur on those who purportedly fail to understand Austen’s true meaning, whatever the critic takes that meaning to be. Ingenuity, indeed.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 11 2017 02:00PM

Twenty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s an occupational hazard of the writing life that people will not infrequently approach you to suggest you take their dictation. “You’re a writer?” new acquaintances used to say to my father, a published novelist. “I have a great idea for a story! Could I tell it to you, and then you’d just write it up?”


How delightful to discover that even the great Jane Austen encountered this form of condescension cloaked in admiration.


In November of 1815, as Janeites will recall, James Stanier Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, learned of Austen’s presence in London from a doctor treating her brother Henry. Clarke and the Prince were both Austen fans, and Clarke invited her to tour Carlton House, the Prince’s London residence, and to dedicate her forthcoming novel, Emma, to the royal personage.


A few days later, Austen followed up with a question about the dedication, and in his reply Clarke took the opportunity to gift her with his own fabulous idea for a novel -- the story of a clergyman “who should pass his time between the metropolis & the Country. . . Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature—no man’s Enemy but his own.” [Letter #125(A) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence]. A clergyman, in other words, rather like Clarke himself.


Poor Jane Austen. Here’s a kind, well-meaning doofus with connections to a powerful potential patron, and he wants her to write up his earnest, didactic, tedious little idea. Obviously, she’s not going to oblige him. But how to put him off without causing offense?


In the letter she wrote to Clarke exactly 202 years ago today [#132(D)], Austen walks this tightrope with aplomb, combining a generous helping of flattery with a slice of half-serious self-deprecation and leavening the mixture with a pinch of sly wit.


“I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a Clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note,” Austen explains. “But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the Character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s Conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing—or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations & allusions which a Woman, who like me, knows only her own Mother-tongue & has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving.—A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient & Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who wd do any justice to your Clergyman—And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”


It’s a little hard to buy the idea that the woman who had already created Henry Tilney, Mr. Collins, Dr. Grant, Edmund Bertram, and Mr. Elton felt herself unequal to portraying a clergyman, or that the writer of some of the best dialogue in English longed to stud her books with learned quotations from science, philosophy, and literature. To a contemporary reader – or, indeed, to anyone familiar with the management of the fragile male ego – it’s pretty obvious what Austen’s up to here.


Clarke, however, apparently didn’t notice: In his reply, he offered a few more plot suggestions and urged her to “continue to write, & make all your friends send Sketches to help you.” [#132(A)] Perish the thought.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2017 02:00PM

Twenty-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Only six of Jane Austen’s letters to her oldest niece, Fanny Knight, survive, but for Janeites mining for links between Austen’s work and Austen’s life, that tiny correspondence is chock-full of golden nuggets.


Scarcely seventeen years separated aunt from niece, and Fanny seems to have enjoyed parsing her romantic dilemmas with this sympathetic and interested older confidante, in a pre-telephonic version of “And then he said. . . . And then I said. . . . And then he said. . . .”


Austen’s letters to Fanny fall into two groups: two letters written in November 1814, when Fanny was twenty-one and Austen thirty-eight; and three more written some two and a half years later, in early 1817, when Fanny was twenty-four and the forty-one-year-old Austen had only months to live. (The sixth letter, which contains a few verses of doggerel, was written years earlier, when Fanny was a child.)


The letter Austen finished writing exactly 203 years ago today -- #109 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- is the first of two in which Aunt Jane addresses Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for the young clergyman John Plumptre. (I blogged about the second of these letters here.)


To me, what’s most interesting about Letter #109 is the way that Austen’s reactions to Fanny resonate with incidents or dialogue in her work. Apparently, Fanny has visited Plumptre’s home, hoping to stimulate her waning passion by a view of his things. Austen can’t help giggling at the idea. “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!--Such a circumstance ought to be in print,” she writes. And little more than a year later, with the publication of Emma, the world was introduced to Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” – a worn-out pencil stub and an extra bit of court plaister, saved as stimuli to romantic nostalgia. Was Fanny’s dirty shaving rag an inspiration for Harriet’s treasure trove? Impossible to say – but tempting to speculate.


The letter contains an even more explicit echo of Austen’s fiction. After cataloguing the worthy Mr. Plumptre’s many merits, Austen nevertheless advises Fanny to consult her own feelings: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen writes.


Was Jane Austen channeling, consciously or unconsciously, the gentle, optimistic Jane Bennet -- in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice, published the year before -- who, confronted with the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy, cries, “Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection”? Impossible to know – but tempting to speculate.


In their insistence on marital love, both Janes are speaking to young women for whom the prudential and the romantic need not conflict: for the fictional Lizzy, because she has fallen in love with a wealthy man, and for the real-life Fanny, because she is herself an heiress. But Austen’s advice also echoes a far darker passage in her work – a snippet of dialogue in the early pages of her fragment The Watsons, in which the idealistic Emma Watson and her older, less naïve sister Elizabeth discuss the search for a husband.


“I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,” exclaims Emma, who has grown up with a wealthy aunt and only recently returned to her struggling birth family.


“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school,” Elizabeth replies. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have.”


Austen undoubtedly took Fanny’s romantic woes seriously, but she must have realized that the stakes were far lower for a young woman who, even if she stayed single, would never have to face the hard work and genteel poverty of teacher or governess. And perhaps that is why, amid her genuine concern for the feelings of Fanny and the unfortunate Mr. Plumptre, Austen’s wry, unromantic common sense cannot help but assert itself.


Fanny has encouraged her suitor, and therefore pain awaits him if she changes her mind, Austen acknowledges. But not that much pain. “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up,” she writes, “but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.”


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