Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 3 2020 09:00AM

The proliferation of face masks in every conceivable style, color, fabric, and design is either an encouraging sign of inexhaustible human creativity and entrepreneurship, or a really depressing indicator of how long the coronavirus is likely to be with us.


By now, it’s possible to buy luxury face masks in pastel-colored silk, or Disney Princess-themed face masks for small children, or slightly creepy face masks featuring your favorite breed of dog. So it should come as no surprise that if you’re looking for a Jane Austen-themed face mask, your choices are practically infinite.


A small sampling:


* Jane Austen quotes: The first line of Pride and Prejudice, the first line of Wentworth’s letter, the best line from Love and Freindship . . . But how will anyone read all this from six feet away?


Or perhaps you would prefer a quote that’s been ripped out of context? Step right up!


Or a misattributed movie quote? Yes, indeed! And again!


* Book cover: The famous 1894 peacock edition of Pride and Prejudice? Right here, on your face, in purple. Or in blue!


* Images of Austen: No, of course it probably doesn’t look like her, but whatever!


* Sanditon fan? They’ve got you covered. Plus a backup.


* Janeite pride: “Jane Austen Rocks”? Well, duh!


By Deborah Yaffe, May 4 2020 01:00PM

When Elinor Dashwood learns (as she thinks) that the love of her life, Edward Ferrars, has finally married his longtime fiancée, she is surprised at the intensity of her sense of loss.


“Elinor now found the difference between the expectation of an unpleasant event, however certain the mind may be told to consider it, and certainty itself,” Jane Austen tells us in chapter 48 of Sense and Sensibility. “She now found, that in spite of herself, she had always admitted a hope. . . . and she condemned her heart for the lurking flattery, which so much heightened the pain of the intelligence.”


For Janeites, last Tuesday brought our own painful Elinor moment: the arrival of a long-expected-yet-greatly-dreaded email from Liz Philosophos Cooper, the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, officially canceling JASNA’s Annual General Meeting. Scheduled for October 9-11 in Cleveland, the conference—“Jane Austen’s Juvenilia: Reason, Romanticism, and Revolution”—was to have centered on the short, boisterous burlesques that Austen wrote as a teenager.


It’s hard to argue with Cooper’s reasoning: It’s vanishingly unlikely that a COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available this fall; large gatherings risk spreading the virus; and JASNA’s AGM attendees skew toward the older end of the age spectrum, making them especially vulnerable to illness.


“It is impossible to hold our conference without undue risk to public health,” Cooper wrote in her message to JASNA members. “None of us wants to look back and wish that we had been more careful.”


Sigh. It’s all true, and anyone who’s been following the news must have known this was coming. And yet—what a sad difference certainty itself makes! See, this was going to be such a fun AGM! Novelty! (JASNA has held only one prior AGM on the juvenilia, and that was in 1987.) Hilarity! (The juvenilia are often laugh-out-loud funny.) Glory! (OK, that was a personal note. I was going to be co-presenting one of the breakout sessions, achieving a long-held goal.)


JASNA has held an autumn AGM in a different city every year, without fail, since the society’s founding in 1979, even pulling off a Seattle conference less than a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This year-without-an-AGM will set a sad precedent.


It’s likely that the canceled 2020 conference will be rescheduled, but with AGM locations already chosen for 2021 and 2022, that presumably can’t happen for at least three years. Still, it’s something to look forward to—which seems about as much expectation of certainty as we can get these days.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 22 2018 02:00PM

Thanksgiving Day may seem to be a holiday with no connection whatsoever to the works of Jane Austen. True, her major novels include the occasional reference to a holiday food – in past years, I’ve covered turkey, potatoes, and pie – but the pickings are pretty slim.


One Austen character, however, has a profound, if heretofore unrecognized, connection to the holiday. For at about the age of seventeen, Jane Austen created Charlotte Lutterell -- the patron saint of leftovers.


The unfinished Lesley Castle is one of the short, hilarious epistolary novels included in Jane Austen’s teenage writings, known as the Juvenilia. Three of its ten letters are written by Charlotte, a dedicated cook whose obsession with ensuring that no food goes to waste will seem sadly familiar to, ahem, any member of my family, especially over the next few days.


Charlotte has spent five weeks preparing a feast for her sister’s wedding, so imagine her horror when she learns from the prospective bride that the groom lies at the point of death after a horseback riding accident:


“ ‘Good God! (said I) you don’t say so? Why, what in the name of heaven will become of all the victuals! We shall never be able to eat it while it is good. However, we’ll call in the surgeon to help us. I shall be able to manage the sirloin myself, my mother will eat the soup, and you and the doctor must finish the rest.’ ” (Letter the Second)


Fortunately, Charlotte’s labors are not in vain: two weeks later, having left home to give her grieving sister a change of air, Charlotte informs her correspondent that all is well:


“I have the satisfaction of informing you that we have every reason to imagine our pantry is by this time nearly cleared, as we left particular orders with the servants to eat as hard as they possibly could, and to call in a couple of chairwomen to assist them. We brought a cold pigeon pie, a cold turkey, a cold tongue, and half a dozen jellies with us, which we were lucky enough with the help of our landlady, her husband, and their three children, to get rid of in less than two days after our arrival.” (Letter the Fourth)


Some may think that Charlotte is cold, unfeeling, and self-absorbed. Indeed, I suspect that Jane Austen herself thought so. I, however, think that poor Charlotte is unfairly maligned. What could be worse than watching cold turkey go to waste?


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 4 2017 01:00PM

Collecting copies of Jane Austen’s books is a popular Janeite pastime. The wealthy seek out rare and valuable first editions. The globe-trotting track down translations in every country they visit. The artistic look for beautiful, unusual, or completely silly cover designs.


And now we have word of a new miniature edition of Austen’s Juvenilia, packaged in an attractive floral cover. As a bonus, it comes with a Gucci handbag.


I admit it’s possible that the handbag, which retails for $3,500 to $7,500, depending on style and materials, is the main attraction for certain buyers. But I prefer to concentrate on the pocket-size Austen (pictured here – scroll down) that Gucci has thrown in at no extra charge.


Gucci seems to be on a bit of an Austen kick this year: back in February, the invitation to the company’s Milan fashion show came in the form of a vinyl record whose B side featured the rapper A$AP Rocky reading Captain Wentworth’s love letter to Anne Elliot. And during the show itself, models carried clutch purses designed to look like copies of Persuasion (pictured here -- scroll down).


Why Austen, you may ask? Gucci’s web site explains that the Juvenilia are “short stories written by English writer Jane Austen during her teenage years from 1787-1793, a time during which she was free from censorship or societal pressure. The creative chaos and the continuous contradictions which characterize the stories are the same pillars we witness in Gucci’s collections.”


This pitch sounds a bit like a (badly written and commercialized) version of the familiar thesis that Austen was able to express her true self only in her madcap adolescent writings and was later forced to tamp down her authentically anarchic spirit in order to get published.


Whatever you think of that view -- I'm not convinced, but never mind -- the main reason Austen was “free from censorship or societal pressure” while writing the Juvenilia is that, as far as we know, they were never read by anyone outside her family until long afte her death. Presumably, Gucci would prefer a bit more public exposure for its products.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 5 2015 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s juvenilia, the clever and hilarious short pieces she wrote between the ages of roughly eleven and eighteen, are far less well-known than her six mature masterpieces. But they’re well worth a read . . . and especially when that read costs about $1.22.


Or so the great British public seems to have concluded: according to the Guardian newspaper, a selection of Austen’s juvenilia, priced at 80 pence as part of a Penguin anniversary promotion, is the second-highest seller among the eighty Little Black Classics titles on offer, coming in right behind The Communist Manifesto.


(Let other pens dwell on the irony of Marx and Engels’ clarion call to the workers of the world barely edging out stories by a sharp-eyed chronicler of the leisured classes.)


With the aid of Amazon’s Look Inside the Book feature, I’ve determined that the Penguin edition, titled The Beautifull Cassandra, includes six items of Austen juvenilia: three stories, including the titular one, from Volume the First; and three comic letters from Volume the Second’s “Collection of Letters” and “Scraps.”


Austen’s juvenilia are vastly entertaining satires of the sentimental stories of her day, and her targets have barely dated, as any reader of romance novels can attest. I’m especially partial to a line from “Jack and Alice,” one of the stories in the Penguin volume, describing a protagonist so alluring that he practically begs for one of those cheesy, shirt-unbuttoned-to-the-navel covers: “Charles Adams was an amiable, accomplished and bewitching young Man; of so dazzling a beauty that none but Eagles could look him in the face.”


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