Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 20 2020 02:00PM

Fifty-second in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s no secret that Jane Austen held a jaundiced view of the frequent childbearing that so often accompanied marriage in her era. But the letter she began writing to her niece Fanny Knight exactly 203 years ago today (#151 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) contains one of her few suggestions for how to solve this problem.


“Good Mrs Deedes!” Austen wrote, referring to Fanny’s maternal aunt, who had recently given birth to a daughter, her eighteenth child in twenty-four years. “I hope she will get the better of this Marianne, & then I wd recommend to her & Mr D. the simple regimen of separate rooms.”


Austen’s Regency contemporaries were far less sexually reticent than their Victorian successors, but it’s still a bit startling to eavesdrop on Austen discussing sex so openly in a letter to an unmarried female relative. (Although, as a twenty-four-year-old with ten younger siblings, Fanny was presumably already well aware of how babies are made.) More striking, however, is what Austen’s acerbic recommendation to the Deedes family tells us about herself.


Austen almost certainly died a virgin, and although some of the relationships in her novels carry a sexual charge, her stories end before the strong friendships and mutual attraction of her heroes and heroines move into the bedroom. As a writer and as a woman, she never wrestled with the question of what role sex should play in a mature and happy marriage, or with the cost of giving it up.


Married at nineteen, Sophia Deedes – the older sister of Elizabeth Bridges Austen, wife of Austen’s brother Edward – was forty-four when Austen prescribed her “simple regimen of separate rooms.” Were the Deedeses a happy couple whose prolific childbearing grew out of mutual passion? Or did Sophia count ceiling tiles while doing her conjugal duty for England? We’ll never know.


But surely Jane Austen must have realized that not every woman, no matter how exhausted by childbearing, would prefer the safety of sexual abstinence to the risks and rewards of a physical relationship with her husband. Perhaps the limitations of Austen’s own experience, or her characteristic preference for head over heart, or her understandable anxiety about the health of her female friends and relatives, made her less than sensitive to the true complexity of the issue.


In any case, the Deedeses apparently didn’t adopt Austen’s prescription: Their nineteenth and final child was born the following year.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 9 2019 02:00PM

As the holidays approach, you may be bracing for the arrival of that winter perennial, the fruitcake -- baked months earlier, soaked in alcohol, and stashed in a cupboard until gift-giving time.


Here in my little corner of the Janeite universe, I’ve got a few well-preserved morsels of my own: incidental Austen mentions that I’ve been saving up all fall, waiting for the right moment to unwrap the cheesecloth and present them to you. Feel free to sip from a snifter of aromatic brandy as you read.


* Back in September, a Bangladeshi soap opera based on Pride and Prejudice aired its two hundredth (!) episode. The show, Man Obhiman, tells the story of two sisters whose “quest for love creates a series of complications in their lives.” (Doesn’t it always?)


The show airs six nights a week and has been running since January, so for all I know, it may well have passed its three hundredth episode by now. Meanwhile, Google’s Bengali translator isn’t up to the job of figuring out what the title means, so I welcome reader input.


* A young Missouri woman with a Pride and Prejudice obsession and an Austen tattoo – “most ardently,” inked on her right arm – hopes to earn a doctorate and teach literature in college. It’s news because the woman, Abigail Morrall, has a genetic illness called spinal muscular atrophy that seemed likely to kill her in childhood.


Recently, however, a new drug gave her renewed hope for the future, and now she looks forward to a full life. “My favorite place to be in this entire world is in a literature classroom at a university,” she told the University of Missouri’s crack PR team, which fed the story to a local TV station. Here’s hoping -- most ardently! -- that she gets to have the life she wants.


* From time to time, an obituary makes you bitterly regret the passing of a fabulous character you never had the chance to meet. Such was my reaction to the death earlier this year, at age 91, of Elizabeth Burchfield (née Elizabeth Austen Knight), a retired publicist for Oxford University Press and a descendant of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward.


Burchfield, a New Zealander who spent most of her long life in England, was a green-eyed, auburn-haired book-lover who married, in middle age, Robert Burchfield, described in the London Times’ obituary as a “renowned lexicographer and the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.”


“At a home in Oxfordshire filled with thousands of books, including their fine collection of works from New Zealand. . . . Bob and Elizabeth jousted with guests over words, their provenance and their pronunciation,” the article goes on to say.


Elizabeth gave her eight step-grandchildren books as gifts, employing a careful record-keeping system to ensure no one ever got a duplicate. Included with each gift was a Post-It note describing the book’s virtues.


And in old age “she wrote crisp letters to the press, invariably involving the usage of English,” the obituary notes. “In The Spectator in 2013, for instance, Elizabeth observed: ‘Sir: Dot Wordsworth writes about blazers and jackets. I was always led to believe that gentlemen wore coats; potatoes had jackets.’ ”


OK, they had me at “home filled with thousands of books,” but really – doesn’t she sound irresistible?



By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 24 2019 01:00PM

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


When Jane Austen sat down to write a letter to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 211 years ago today, her family was in the midst of transitions both tragic and auspicious.


Two weeks earlier, thirty-five-year-old Elizabeth Austen, the wife of the third-oldest Austen son, Edward, had died suddenly, twelve days after giving birth to her eleventh child. And soon after her death, Edward had offered his sisters and widowed mother the use of a cottage on his estate at Chawton in Hampshire – a secure home at last, after more than three years of journeying from one unsatisfactory temporary lodging to another.


Austen biographers have speculated that it was opposition from Elizabeth -- a gently-bred woman who, family lore suggests, was no fan of her husband’s less exalted relations -- that prevented Edward from offering the cottage sooner.


Whatever the truth – and it’s unobtainable at this distance – the Austen women’s move to Chawton cottage in the summer of 1809 was a boon for world literature. Finally granted peace and stability, Austen found the time and mental space to write or revise all six of her completed novels, publishing four of them before her own untimely death in 1817.


Both the tragic and the hopeful aspects of the family’s situation are on display in Austen’s letter (#60 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), written from Southampton, where the Austen women were living with the family of another Austen brother, Francis.


Cassandra was staying at Edward’s home at Godmersham, in Kent, helping to care for his suddenly motherless children; meanwhile, the two oldest of Edward’s sons, ages fourteen and twelve, had recently arrived in Southampton for a visit with their grandmother and aunt.


Austen describes her efforts to entertain the two bereaved boys, distracting them from their grief with endless cup-and-ball games and a visit to a ship under construction. She promises that the tailor is at work on their mourning clothes, reports how moved her teenaged nephew was by the Sunday sermon, and passes along condolences from friends.


And, discreetly, she plans for a happier future. “Of Chawton I think I can have nothing more to say, but that everything you say about it in the letter now before me will, I am sure, as soon as I am able to read it to her, make my mother consider the plan with more and more pleasure,” Austen writes.


Her tone is sober and restrained, filled with genuine concern for her abruptly widowed brother and his young children. And yet, she cannot help her moments of optimism about that new home she glimpses on the horizon. “We are all quite familiarised to the idea ourselves,” she writes. “What sort of a kitchen garden is there?”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 25 2019 01:00PM

The fascinating Reading with Austen project, a digital recreation of Edward Austen Knight’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent, got some further publicity last week via an article in the literary/historical journal Lapham’s Quarterly.


As blog readers will recall, Reading with Austen, which went live last fall, features publication information and, where available, digital images of the more than twelve hundred books listed in an 1818 catalogue of the Knight family library. We know Jane Austen spent time in the library during her visits to the family of her brother, who took the name Knight in honor of the wealthy relatives who adopted him.


Recreating the library’s holdings – more than a third of the books are currently on loan to Chawton House, the research library located in the Knight family’s second home, in Hampshire -- offers a window into the literary context that shaped Austen’s work.


“I think it gives us a picture of someone who has the capacity to be much more than this kind of closeted spinster in a bonnet,” Gillian Dow, Chawton House’s former executive director, told Lapham’s writer Rebecca Rego Barry.


Barry’s article situates the Reading with Austen project in the context of similar efforts to recreate, physically or digitally, the book collections of Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Edith Wharton. Meanwhile, efforts continue to find, digitize, and perhaps acquire the Knight library’s long-scattered volumes, the better to reconstruct the intellectual milieu that nurtured Jane Austen’s genius.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 22 2019 01:00PM


Seventy years ago this week, the premier Janeite pilgrimage site welcomed its first pilgrims.


On July 23, 1949, Chawton cottage, the house in the southern English county of Hampshire where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, opened to the public. Admission cost £1/6d, the equivalent of £2.34 (about $2.91) today.


Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is more than an Austen residence. It is the place where, after four years of unhappiness in Bath, followed by four more of stress and financial insecurity – eight years in which her literary output seems to have slowed to a trickle – Austen, at thirty-three, finally found the psychological breathing-space to write again.


Chawton cottage was in the gift of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, who inherited Chawton House, the nearby Elizabethan manor, and its accompanying estate from the Knights, the rich relatives who adopted him when he was a teenager. By the time Edward handed over the cottage, it was four years since his father’s death, and his mother and sisters, along with their old friend Martha Lloyd, had spent that time moving repeatedly in search of an affordable situation.


Whether Edward’s generosity was restrained by his wife, Elizabeth Bridges Austen, who was reportedly not a member of Jane Austen’s fan club (“A little talent went a long way with the Goodneston Bridgeses of that period; & much must have gone a long way too far,” Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy wrote decades later), remains speculation. It’s a fact, however, that Edward came through with his offer of housing within months of Elizabeth’s sudden death.


The move to Chawton cottage on July 7, 1809 – almost exactly 140 years before the opening of the museum – inaugurated an extraordinary burst of creativity. During her Chawton years, Austen revised the three novels she had drafted in her twenties (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) and wrote three new masterpieces (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion), at last finding publishers, and a reading public, for her life’s work.


To modern eyes, the “cottage,” with its amply proportioned rooms and spacious garden, seems rather too large for that sobriquet, if not quite as large as the palatial dwelling imagined by Robert Ferrars, on the occasion when Elinor Dashwood decided not to pay him “the compliment of rational opposition.” Indeed, by the time it came to the notice of the Austen enthusiasts who preserved it, Chawton cottage had spent a century divided into three apartments for employees of the Chawton estate.


In the 1940s, as England valiantly fought the Nazis, a small group of home-front Janeites fought to save Chawton cottage for the nation, founding the UK Jane Austen Society – the world’s first – to raise money for the purchase. Ultimately, the house was bought by a grieving father in memory of the son he had lost in the war.


This week, the museum will celebrate its anniversary in style: Tomorrow, the first seventy visitors will be admitted at the 1949 price, and on Saturday, a joyous birthday party will feature Regency dancing, Pimm’s cups, picnics in the garden, and, almost certainly, plenty of costumed Janeites.


More or less simultaneously, the museum will be wrapping up its successful appeal for £10,000 in donations toward the purchase of a once-lost fragment of an Austen letter – a reminder that today the museum is not just a Janeite tourist attraction but also an important scholarly resource.


I first visited Chawton cottage in 1982, at sixteen, more than a decade before Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt inaugurated contemporary Janemania, and I found the place magical, one of those rare literary shrines in which a beloved author’s presence seems palpable. My next visit, twenty-nine years later, during my research for Among the Janeites, felt less satisfactory: too much Firthian kitsch in the gift shop, too many tourists crowded into too small a place. (Myself among them, of course – but naturally I didn’t think of myself as just another tourist. One never does.)


Still, whatever the drawbacks of Austen’s modern, movie-driven celebrity, Chawton cottage deserves its self-declared status as “the most treasured Austen site in the world,” even if that extravagant boast does sound like the kind of thing Lady Catherine de Bourgh would say. Wandering through its rooms, a Janeite tuned to the right emotional frequency can still feel Austen's presence everywhere: in the tiny writing table on which she composed her novels, in the elegant quilt she helped to stitch, in the turquoise ring and topaz cross she wore.


Ultimately, Chawton cottage is the place that is most quintessentially Austen, where her life and her work came together and made her, if not the person she was, then at least the writer we know her to be. Seventy years on, it remains the one indispensable Austen shrine.


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