Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2017 01:00PM

When the whole world is gobbling down a giant ice cream sundae, it can be hard to come along and insist we all switch to spinach. But such is my task today, as I confront the latest Amazing! Austen! Revelation!

I speak of course of the news – I use that word advisedly – that Jane Austen’s eyeglasses show she died of arsenic poisoning.

This alleged new biographical fact came our way courtesy of last week’s blog post by British Library curator Sandra Tuppen, who was reporting on a new research project undertaken by library staff: the analysis of the prescription strength of three pairs of spectacles that the library owns and that may have belonged to Austen.

Optometrical analysis concluded that Austen was far-sighted (“long-sighted,” in British terminology) and that one of her glasses had a very strong prescription, much stronger than the other two. Cataracts can cause deteriorating eyesight; arsenic exposure can cause cataracts; Regency folk were routinely exposed to arsenic in medication, among other places; and at least one writer has speculated that the symptoms of Austen’s final illness suggest arsenic poisoning. Q.E.D.

Well, not quite Q.E.D: to be fair to Tuppen, she concludes only that the analysis of the eyeglasses “may indeed give further credence” to the arsenic-killed-Austen theory. Blame headline writers for cutting the qualifiers to get to the arsenic-sprinkled ice cream sundae of a good story.

By now – after all the real-Mr.-Darcy stories and the this-stately-home-was-the-model-for-Pemberley stories and the newly-discovered-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life stories – it’s probably pointless to note the six degrees of plausible-to-wild speculation required to get from A to B on this one. But I’ll give it a try nonetheless. I’m a dedicated player of Janeite Whac-a-Mole.

This story requires us to assume that:

1. These eyeglasses belonged to Jane Austen (and not someone else in her family);

2. They were prescribed by a physician who accurately measured Austen’s eye strength (and weren’t off-the-shelf purchases that might have been too strong);

3. They represent deteriorating eyesight (and not a choice to use stronger lenses for close-up work);

4. The deteriorating eyesight was caused by cataracts (and not just normal aging);

5. The cataracts were caused by arsenic exposure (and not something else);

6. The arsenic exposure was severe enough to kill (and wasn’t superseded by some other cause of death).

It all might be true. But we have virtually no evidence for any point except the first. Personally, I like my biographical facts to be, you know, factual. Spinachy, if you will. But hey – have another scoop of ice cream, if you prefer.

As a side note: You also can’t blame Tuppen for a further embellishment of this story -- the claim, apparently first made by Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye in the New York Times account of the brouhaha, that the British Library’s post says Austen “must have been almost blind by the end of her life,” a point Le Faye disputes by noting that Austen was handwriting letters until six weeks before her death.

In fact, Tuppen’s post makes no such claim – the word “blind” doesn’t even appear in it. Tuppen says only that Austen complained of “weak” eyes. Still, the blindness claim immediately struck me, because, as it happens, the very strong +5.0 prescription in the right-hand lens in one of the pairs of Austen eyeglasses is the same strength as the prescription in one of my eyes (the better one, believe it or not!) -- although, because I am nearsighted, my prescription is -5.0.

My vision is very bad: without my contact lenses, objects begin to look fuzzy to me at seven or eight inches away, and I can’t recognize even close friends at a distance of a couple of yards. Reading is impossible unless the book is practically glued to my nose, and God forbid that I should ever try to drive in that condition.

But I wouldn’t say I’m “almost blind” (or, as the Daily Mail describes Austen’s state, “almost totally blind.”) I can distinguish my surroundings. I don’t walk into walls. I don’t get lost on my way to the bathroom at night. And more to the point, I always wear my lenses, which correct my vision into reasonable adequacy. If Jane Austen’s eyes were anything like mine, I’d bet she, too, could manage just fine.* (And for the record: I don't have cataracts and no one is poisoning me with arsenic. At least as far as I know.)

So Jane Austen wasn't blind, or even close. But did she die of arsenic poisoning? We don’t know. We are no closer to knowing than we were before the glasses were tested. We have no direct evidence either way. Eat your spinach.

* Online vision simulators offer a rough sense of what the world looks like with various eye prescriptions. The near-sighted simulator is here and the far-sighted version is here.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 13 2017 01:00PM

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

Jane Austen: realist or romantic? Cynic or softie? You’ll find Janeites on both sides of that argument.

And maybe you’d even find Austen herself on both sides – or so we might conclude from the letter she wrote to her eldest niece, twenty-four-year-old Fanny Knight, exactly two hundred years ago today (#153 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

In all five surviving letters to Fanny, Aunt Jane offers some kind of commentary on Fanny’s affairs of the heart. More than two years earlier, as I wrote here, Fanny had sought advice about her fluctuating feelings for a young clergyman named John Plumptre, and in this letter, Austen is responding to Fanny’s account of the hot-and-cold attentions of a wealthy landowner named James Wildman.

Austen dispatches Mr. Wildman quickly – “By your description he cannot be in love with you, however he may try at it, & I could not wish the match unless there were a great deal of Love on his side,” she writes. Briefly, she digresses to discuss other acquaintances Fanny had apparently mentioned in her previous letter, including one whose recent death might have left her unmarried daughter in financial straits.

And then, as if by an irresistible association, Austen is back to the marriage question. “Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony,” she writes. For a Janeite, the line immediately evokes the many struggling single women of Austen’s fiction: the Dashwood family, in Sense and Sensibility, left unprovided for upon the patriarch’s death; Mrs. and Miss Bates of Emma, making ends meet on the charity of their neighbors; Anne Elliot’s widowed friend Mrs. Smith, in Persuasion, ill and alone in downmarket lodgings in Bath.

The prudential message seems clear: For women, marriage is less a romantic culmination than an insurance policy – or, as Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas might put it, “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness. . . their pleasantest preservative from want.”

But perhaps Austen hesitated to convey quite so harsh a message to her beloved niece, who was, after all, a well-educated young woman with a substantial fortune, thanks to her father’s adoption by the wealthy Knight family. For Austen immediately follows her ultra-pragmatic recommendation of marriage with a kinder, gentler bit of reassurance: “Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last; you will in the course of the next two or three years, meet with somebody more generally unexceptionable than anyone you have yet known, who will love you as warmly as ever He [Plumptre] did, & who will so completely attach you that you will feel you never really loved before.”

Perhaps Austen could tell that Fanny – by our standards still young, but by the standards of her own time aging rapidly through her marriageable years – was getting anxious about her prospects. And surely it couldn’t have escaped Fanny’s notice that the reassurances her aunt was offering were hardly supported by the evidence of that aunt’s own perpetual spinsterhood.

Austen knew from experience that not every woman has the luck to find both love and financial security in a single package. But though she was too much of a realist to overlook the necessary economic rationale for marriage, she was too much of a romantic to consider that rationale sufficient.

Still, as it happens, Aunt Jane’s reassuring advice was right: Three and a half years after this letter, Fanny married a baronet.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 9 2017 02:00PM

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

Jane Austen came from a large and close-knit tribe of siblings who remained intimately engaged with each other all their lives.* So Austen’s uncharitable description of her oldest brother, contained in a letter to their sister, Cassandra, finished exactly 210 years ago today, has intrigued biographers.

“I should not be surprised if we were to be visited by James again this week,” Jane wrote to Cassandra, then staying with their brother Edward in Kent. “I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give one more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself;--but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied from his Wife’s, & his time here is spent I think in walking about the House & banging the Doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water.” (Letter #50 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)

In “Brothers of the More Famous Jane,” a fascinating paper delivered at the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Maggie Lane calls this passage “the most negative thing that Jane Austen ever wrote about any of her family—or at least, that Cassandra allowed to stand when she cut up the letters” and argues that “it has colored all subsequent portraits of James.”

Noting his support for his sister’s writing and his deep affection for his children, Lane convincingly mitigates posterity’s harsh verdict on James Austen (1765-1819). More than a decade older than Jane, James followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming a clergyman and eventually taking over the living at Steventon in 1800, when the elder Austens retired to Bath. He was his mother’s favorite, an Oxford graduate and a lifelong writer of unpublished poetry – indeed, something of a literary man manqué.

His toughest critics believe that the biting Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility, in which a man allows his wife to talk him out of acting generously toward his widowed stepmother and younger half-sisters, is Jane Austen’s barely veiled account of how James and his second wife, Mary Lloyd Austen, behaved over the move to Steventon.

I’ve always been leery of this conclusion, as I so often am of biographical readings of Austen’s fiction, given the dearth of our information about Austen’s life and writing process. Sure, it’s possible that John and Fanny Dashwood are precise portraits of James and Mary Austen and that the bitterness of those scenes in S&S reflects Austen’s own feelings over her displacement from her childhood home. But it’s equally possible that Austen observed, interrogated and reshaped events, drawing inspiration from real life but heightening the emotions and exaggerating the behavior in the service of her story. This is what writers do.

So what should we make of Austen’s unflattering portrait of the middle-aged James as a dull and inconsiderate houseguest? I’m inclined to be cautious in assuming that this passage represents Jane Austen’s definitive verdict on her brother. Who among us has never felt irritated by a sibling? Who among us has never confided such irritation to an injudicious email? Two centuries from now, would we want our future biographers to conclude that irritation was the sum total of what we felt?

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2017 02:00PM

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

If Cassandra Austen had known how much speculation would be spawned by the letter her sister Jane wrote her exactly 221 years ago today, she would surely have consigned it to the flames, along with the uncounted others she burned before her death.

Instead, however, Cassandra preserved it, and as a result it became the earliest Jane Austen letter that has come down to us -- #1 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. I’ve always wondered if the outsize attention this letter has received owes something to that accidental position of prominence: The very first time we encounter the joyful, chatty voice of the twenty-year-old Jane Austen, she’s talking about her crush on a young man named Tom Lefroy.

“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved,” Austen writes to Cassandra, away in Berkshire visiting the family of her fiancé, Tom Fowle. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. . . . He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much, for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago. . . . After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr Tom Lefroy. . . . he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove – it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”

Obviously, she liked him. Apparently, he liked her back. A few days later they parted, never to meet again. And largely on the basis of this letter, plus references to Lefroy in two others, a cottage industry has arisen devoted to the proposition that Tom Lefroy, the Irish nephew of Austen’s friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, was the love of Austen’s life, the real-life model for Mr. Darcy, the reason she never married, the muse who inspired her greatest work. . . you name it.

In his 2003 book Becoming Jane Austen, the scholar Jon Spence claimed that Austen and Lefroy had a longer-lasting and more serious relationship than the few references in her letters suggest. The 2007 film Becoming Jane, inspired by Spence’s work, took that thesis and ran with it, positing a romance, a first kiss, a thwarted engagement, an abortive elopement, a selfless renunciation and a poignant late-life reunion.

Since I haven’t read Spence’s book, I can’t say how convincing his scholarship is, but there’s no question that the movie encouraged a generation of filmgoers to conclude that Jane Austen wrote those books of hers (“They’re romance novels, right?”) in wistful tribute to the first love she never got over. Loyal blog readers will recall that I am, shall we say, not charitably inclined toward this thesis, which rests largely on thinly documented speculation about the psychological state of someone who died two centuries ago.

I won’t go so far as to say that I wish Cassandra had tossed the Lefroy letter onto her bonfire. No, I treasure every scrap of Austen’s prose too much for that. But I wish the rest of us could stop speculating about Austen’s love life and go back to reading her books.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 29 2016 02:00PM

England is a wonderful country. Its history is rich, its democracy is a model for the world, its literature is second to none.

Its food – not so much.

And so it was with some trepidation that I undertook the last assignment in my self-imposed Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I’ve spent 2016 filling some of the holes in my Janeite education. This month’s assignment: cook a meal from The Jane Austen Cookbook, by Maggie Lane and Deirdre Le Faye. The book adapts and modernizes recipes from several Regency cookbooks, including that of Martha Lloyd, the Austen friend who lived at Chawton cottage with Jane, Cassandra and their mother.

Initially, I considered attempting a Regency supper of the kind described in Le Faye’s introductory pages: three courses with as many as five or ten dishes per course. Then I contemplated the acres of leftovers and thought better of that plan.

Instead, I decided to cook more or less the same amount of food I usually make for a family dinner, choosing recipes based directly on Martha Lloyd’s cookbook, since those are the most likely to have been eaten by Jane Austen herself.

Avoiding exotic ingredients unlikely to show up in a suburban supermarket – no Pigeon Pie or Pheasant à la Braise for me – I planned a menu that seemed both within my modest culinary capabilities and likely to pass muster with my family: for the main course, Jugged Steaks with Potatoes (p. 54); for a vegetable side dish, Fricassee of Turnips Pie (p. 45); and for dessert, Jaune Mange (p. 84) accompanied by Ratafia Cakes (p. 125).

The early signs were not good. Apprised of the menu, my teenage daughter decided to accompany a friend to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. I hadn’t served a single dish, and already I had lost a quarter of my customers.

Things did not improve from there. The remaining family members were unimpressed by the jugged steaks with potatoes, which cooked in beef broth for a long time at a low temperature, yielding – at least in my hands -- steak that was tough and potatoes that were mushy. The real problem, however, was the lack of any spice more exciting than salt or pepper.

Jugged Steaks with Potatoes

“It’s a classic bland, hearty English dish,” said my husband. (And since he grew up in Lancashire, he should know.) “Thank God for the Raj,” he added. The jugged steaks, we agreed, would have benefited from the magic of Indian spicing. Some cumin, turmeric and garlic could have worked wonders.

The fricassee of turnips pie – cooked turnips dressed with a cream sauce -- fared a bit better, though its pie-ness seemed more notional than real. Perfectly fine, if unexciting, we agreed.

Fricassee of Turnips Pie

I’d hoped for better things for dessert, which is usually my culinary ace in the hole, but my initial foray was a flop: the ratafia cakes, cookies made of ground almonds and egg whites, spread and flattened in the oven and were nearly impossible to peel unbroken off the baking sheet. “They look like macaroons someone stepped on,” my husband remarked uncharitably. “And they taste like macaroons someone stepped on,” my twenty-year-old son added. Ouch!

The one saving grace: the unfortunately named jaune mange, which my husband insisted on pronouncing, not in the correct French style, but as if its second word rhymed with “range.” I’m not usually a fan of gelatinous custardy desserts, but once unmolded and adorned with canned apricots, the dish, composed largely of wine, sugar and orange juice, looked rather lovely. Even better, its flavor proved to be a delicate and refreshing blend of alcohol and citrus.

Jaune Mange (left) and Ratafia Cakes

Jaune Mange again

“It’s just the right combination of tartness and sweetness, like Elizabeth Bennet,” my husband said, helpfully providing just the right quote for an Austen blogger.

On the whole, however, this foray into Regency cooking wasn’t a great success, with no dish earning a grade above B+ from my customers. I might make the jaune mange again, but the rest of the menu seems appropriately consigned to the dustheap of history.

“I think I like Jane Austen’s books better than her cooking,” my son concluded. “Frankly, I prefer Mansfield Park to this dinner. And that’s saying something.”

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