Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 2 2019 01:00PM

All the talk these days about the decline of the humanities can be pretty depressing for us English-major types, who persist in believing that literature and the arts are just as important as computers and . . . numbers and . . . stuff. No STEM without flowers! (OK, maybe another slogan. Suggestions welcome.)

In that context, it’s refreshing to learn that the mechanical engineer recently named the first female chancellor of the Arizona campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which trains its students for careers in aviation and aerospace, is a Janeite.

According to an interview in the local newspaper, Swedish-born Anette Karlsson “is a fan of Jane Austen novels. Her three favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.”

Can’t quarrel with her taste, but alas, the interviewer does not probe further for the kinds of details inquiring Janeites want to know. Age at first reading? Favorite characters? Team Elinor or Team Marianne? No way to tell.

For now, we’ll just have to settle for the comforting knowledge that even in a hotbed of STEM, the humanities still live: Someone responsible for training future pilots and aerospace engineers also likes to curl up with a good book.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 23 2018 01:00PM

These days, it’s de rigueur in some circles to think of Jane Austen as a closet lefty: subversive social satirist, anti-slavery ideologue, radical feminist critic of the patriarchy. But a recent mini-tsunami of news about Austen fans with decidedly more conservative orientations is a healthy reminder that the Janeite faith has no political litmus test.

Exhibit A: Nerves of steel. . . and the heart of a Janeite?

Tammie Jo Shults is the preternaturally calm and competent pilot who successfully landed Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 last week, after a catastrophic accident that took out an engine and killed a passenger. Apparently, she also has a fondness for Our Jane.

Or so we can infer from a Dallas Morning News article that quotes longtime friend Staci Thompson as saying that she and Shults – a former Navy fighter pilot and devout Baptist -- “still get together to watch Hallmark films and Jane Austen movies.”

OK, the movies are not the books. And I’m not thrilled to have anything Austen – even filmed adaptations – closely linked to Hallmark films, which have a justified reputation for treacly mediocrity. But it’s not surprising to find that a woman who pioneered in a male-dominated field by being twice as good as the guys may have an affinity for a writer who did the same thing.

Exhibit B: Wet shirts and waterboarding?

Gina Haspel, the first female nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is not a popular choice on the left, where her involvement in the post-9/11 torture of terrorism suspects is seen as a fatal taint. But according to the New York Times, the CIA is enthusiastically pushing her candidacy, preferring a known quantity with a long agency career over whatever political partisan they might get otherwise.

To humanize her, CBS News reports, “The CIA has been slowly and systematically pulling back the curtain on Haspel, releasing limited information about the contours of her career and a smattering of her interests, describing her as a polyglot Johnny Cash fan who reads Jane Austen novels.”

I’ve heard plenty of Janeites talk about Austen as an antidote to the chaos and ugliness of the modern world, a vehicle of escape into a kinder, gentler time. It’s not a vision of Austen I necessarily embrace – but if anyone needed such an escape, I’d imagine it would have been a CIA officer overseeing a torture site.

Exhibit C: Caroline Bingley for First Lady?

The Episcopal priest who spoke at former First Lady Barbara Bush’s funeral over the weekend undoubtedly meant well when he sought to connect Bush’s favorite book (Pride and Prejudice! Who knew?) with her famous literacy campaign.

If only he’d had a Janeite – maybe even Bush herself – to help him out before he decided to rely on that line that turns up whenever you Google for Austen quotes about books: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”

Yes, it’s true: A Janeite’s funeral included approving mention of Caroline Bingley. The mind reels.

Luckily, the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr. recovered with a touching picture of the famously straight-talking Bush in heaven, taking full advantage of an opportunity we’d all like to have: “My guess is she’s already hunted down Jane Austen and has said, ‘Well, how did things turn out with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet?’ ” Levenson said. “Or, knowing Barbara as we all do, she may be telling Jane how things should have turned out.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 22 2018 01:00PM

For generations of teenagers, including me, reading the young-adult novels of S.E. Hinton – classics like The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now – has been a beloved rite of passage. Hinton published her first book in 1967, while still a teenager herself, and her raw honesty about the intense emotions of adolescence has never lost its freshness.

Didn’t know she was a Janeite, though, until earlier this week, when the coordinator of my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America pointed out a recent Hinton tweet on the subject of Austen-inspired fanfic. (Not a complimentary tweet, either – but more of that in a moment.)

A quick Google search brought me a number of interviews (including this one, from 2005) in which Hinton cops to rereading Austen annually and especially admiring how she uses dialogue to reveal character. Apparently, Emma is Hinton’s favorite.

Hinton has expressed mixed feelings about fanfic based on her own books – she doesn’t read it, usually doesn’t mind it, but can’t help wincing at some of the premises -- but apparently she’s less forgiving about JAFF.

The conversation began on March 4, when Hinton noted, via tweet, that the keepers of Margaret Mitchell’s estate were planning to hire a writer to craft a sequel to Gone with the Wind, in hopes of keeping the copyright alive.

“The concept of public domain is that, after a reasonable period of time to allow a creator to profit from a work, that works [sic] ultimately belongs to everyone,” replied a tweeter called HeatherN. “I think that’s beautiful.”

Hinton begged to differ. “I think it's a crime,” she tweeted back. “The first time (many years ago) I realized people could rip off Jane Austen I was physically ill.”

I’ve read some really, really bad JAFF in my time – don’t get me started! -- so I can sympathize. It’s hard for fans to accept Darcys and Annes and Elizabeths behaving in ways violently at odds with their Austen-created personalities, since these people barely seem fictional to us. It’s like hearing someone insult your sister; you bristle instinctively. Jane Austen's characters seem to belong to each of us alone; it's hard to share.

Still, I’m puzzled by this notion that JAFF writers “rip off” Jane Austen. Hinton doesn’t seem to be talking about a financial ripoff here, although we can all regret that Austen never got to share in the riches her work has helped generate for others.

No, Hinton is talking about a deeper kind of violation. Partly, I think, she sees a violation of Austen's rights of property in her own imaginative creations, and of course I can understand why a living author would find it painful to see the characters she's created and loved appropriated by others. Indeed, we have copyright laws to deal with the profit-making aspect of this situation. But a dead author? She's beyond feeling this pain.

Partly, also, Hinton seems to be suggesting that the existence of JAFF hurts Austen's readers, somehow tainting their experience of her books. And here's where I really don't get it. Austen’s six masterpieces remain forever accessible and unsullied, no matter how many wannabes rewrite, update or sequelize her stories. These books are interpretations, responses, homages – sometimes delightful, sometimes inept – but they can’t touch Austen. She’s still there – and thank goodness for that.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2017 01:00PM

“At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy,” the 20-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister in January 1796. “My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”

Even with no flirtatious suitor in the picture, it’s hard not to channel Jane Austen’s melancholy tears, for today – just six weeks after the bicentenary of Austen’s death -- the day is come that will see the end of the discussion boards at the Republic of Pemberley, the web’s largest Austen fan site for the past twenty years. Although the site’s static content – including the archive of original fan fiction and the compilation of well-researched posts on Austen’s life and times – will remain, evolving discussions among Janeite obsessives have been relocated to Pemberley’s Facebook group.

I was shocked and saddened when I learned the news earlier this month, via an announcement from Pemberley’s volunteer site manager, Myretta Robens, but the fiscal writing has been on the wall for some time now. Five years ago, a change in Google’s ad policy threatened the community’s survival. Three years ago, Pemberley downsized from its expansive original site to a more streamlined version. Last year, only a spate of last-minute contributions saved it from going dark.

When Robens, a New England technology manager, and Amy Bellinger, a Chicago freelance writer, founded Pemberley in May 1997, Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt Austenmania was at its height. By the time I wrote about it in Among the Janeites, years after I’d fallen in love with the place myself, Pemberley was getting five to ten million hits per month from 150,000 unique visitors hailing from 165 countries.

But times change. The Austen frenzy may have cooled – though you wouldn’t know it from the voluminous and enthusiastic coverage of last month’s bicentenary – and other forms of social media have siphoned off some of the community-building impulses that drew so many Janeites to the conversations at Pemberley.

Will Pemberley’s polite and literate ethos flourish on Facebook? Not everyone plans to find out: In the month since Robens announced the changes, a number of Pemberleans have given notice that they won’t be coming along to the new venue -- because of privacy concerns, disdain for Facebook’s corporate policies, or fear that Pemberley’s uniquely civilized form of discourse will be coarsened and corrupted in a more freewheeling social media space.

Although I’ve joined the Facebook group, I’m not acclimated yet. It still feels like a Dashwood-level comedown – renting a room in a noisy boarding house, when we’ve been accustomed to living in a quiet cottage of our own. But Facebook is free, and presumably moderating the discussions there will demand far less unpaid labor from the dedicated volunteers who have run Pemberley for so long.

As of last night, Pemberley’s discussion groups were still active. At the Pride & Prejudice board, posters were debating the likely quality of the planned new ITV adaptation of the novel. At the All Other Austen board, they were recommending Austen biographies and wondering about the size of Anne Elliot’s dowry. On Read & View, they were discussing Poldark, Dunkirk, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

It felt poignant to eavesdrop on all these conversations, knowing that they would fall silent so soon. The death of a community – or even its metamorphosis into a different kind of community -- isn’t quite like the death of a person, but it’s not entirely dissimilar, either. It’s still an ending, and endings are sad.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 30 2017 02:00PM

An intriguing tidbit popped up recently on my Jane Austen Google alert: Alejandra Carles-Tolra, a young Spanish photographer based in London, recently won a £10,000 prize that will allow her to create a photo essay about – us!

“Carles-Tolra proposed investigating how a group identity impacts on the individual via photographs of ‘Janeites’, a community formed around the world and works of Jane Austen,” the British Journal of Photography reports. Her project, along with those of the other two winners of the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards, will be exhibited in three locations around Britain starting next January.

In past years, Carles-Tolra, originally from Barcelona, has created photographic projects on motorbike riders, female rugby players, and college students enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), among other subjects.

What do Janeites and rugby players have in common? I can’t wait to find out. . .

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