Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 12 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen, her brother Henry would have us believe, didn’t care about making money. “She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination,” Henry Austen wrote in 1817, in the biographical note appended to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. “Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.”


Austen herself was franker about her financial ambitions. “People are more ready to borrow & praise than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight four months after the publication of Mansfield Park. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” (Letter #114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


Conventional wisdom holds that poor Jane Austen earned barely a pittance from her work (Egad! She sold the copyright of perennial bestseller Pride and Prejudice for a mere £110!), and sometimes it does seem as if everyone has made money off her work except Austen herself. What Janeite – after perusing the groaning shelves of Austen paperbacks, streaming yet another filmed Austen adaptation, or buying the latest Austen-themed tote bag, fridge magnet, or coloring book -- hasn’t sighed over the unfairness of it all?


New research using Bank of England archives shows that the picture is a bit more complicated, however. In a piece published online earlier this month, independent scholar John Avery Jones, a retired judge, concluded that Austen earned a lifetime total of £631 pounds before tax, or £575 after tax, which he calculates is the equivalent of £45,000 (about $54,600) in today’s money.


Jones’ ingenious research draws on indexes of stock sales and prices, as well as contemporary income tax rates. Unlike earlier scholars, who based their calculations of Austen’s earnings on estimates of her proceeds from book sales, Jones looks at how much she was able to invest in “the Navy Fives” -- government securities sold to the Regency public at a discount, rather like today’s savings bonds.


Jane Austen’s career as a published writer lasted only six years, from the 1811 appearance of Sense and Sensibility until her death in 1817, and Jones’ calculations seem to cover the income only from the four books published during that span. Pro-rated across six years, Jones’ number works out to a yearly income of $9,100. It’s not a lot, certainly – and, as Jones notes, some of her contemporaries earned more from their writing.


But it’s enough to be proud of – and we know that Austen was. “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold,” she wrote to her brother Frank in September 1813 (Letter #86). “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 1 2019 01:00PM

The dog days of summer are approaching, and perhaps that’s why the amount of Stupid Jane Austen Stuff coming my way seems to have ramped up recently. The hot weather softens the brain, I guess, rendering journalists incapable of CHECKING THE ACCURACY of anything they post online about one of the world’s most famous authors.


Or so I conclude from the following:


1. Bad Quoting: For once, it’s not a movie quote masquerading as a book quote. It’s a book quote understood in a sense diametrically opposed to Austen’s intentions.


“Where would we be without our best friends?” the parenting website Romper asked last month. “It's hard to encapsulate all that your bestie means to you in a speedily written message, but worry not, these sentimental things to text your BFF on National Best Friends' Day will do just that.”


Topping the following thirteen-item list is a one-hundred-percent genuine quote from Northanger Abbey: “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”


Why this quote? Romper explains: “Jane just had a way with words, and if your friends are big bookworms like mine are, they'll likely know the quote.”


Better hope not, since these words come from the mouth of Isabella Thorpe, whose recipe for friendship is two parts cynical manipulation to one part insincere flattery. (Although, come to think of it, Isabella is exactly the kind of person who would text Hallmark-worthy sentiments to her #BFF #reallyyouare #loveyousomuchgirl for a fake holiday like this one.)


2. Bad History: A strikingly unusual four-bedroom house is for sale in Warwickshire, in south-central England. It’s an octagonal building located on the palatial grounds of a medieval abbey. It’s selling for £870,000 (about $1.1 million). The pictures make it look lovely. So far, so good.


Alas, however, the estate in question is Stoneleigh Abbey, which has a peripheral relationship to Jane Austen’s life and work. Thus giving us the following headline on a report about the sale of the octagonal house: “Inside the eight-sided home in Warwickshire that inspired one of Jane Austen’s novels.”


Sigh. Yes, it has often been theorized that Austen based Sotherton Court, the Rushworths’ grand home in Mansfield Park, and especially the family chapel where one crucial scene occurs, on Stoneleigh Abbey and its chapel. The eight-sided house, however, forms no part in this discussion. I’d call it an exaggeration to say that even Stoneleigh itself “inspired” the entire novel, but I’ll cut the headline writers a break . . .


. . . because at least they didn’t write the following, from a different publication’s report on the sale of the octagonal house: “Jane moved to the estate in 1806, before she became a successful novelist, when it was inherited by her mother’s cousin, Reverend Thomas Leigh. He brought Cassandra Austen, Jane’s mother, to live with him at the site as well as Jane and her sister, also called Cassandra. At the time the gardener on the estate was Humphry Repton, who later featured as a minor character in Austen’s third novel Mansfield Park.”


Extraordinary how much misinformation can be packed into a few short sentences. To wit:


--Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister visited Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 while staying for a short time with Reverend Leigh in the nearby village of Adlestrop. They “moved to” Stoneleigh only in the sense that I “moved to” Rhode Island during my four-day vacation there last summer.


--Humphry Repton was not a gardener. He was one of the most famous landscape designers of his era. He did, indeed, undertake improvements at Stoneleigh, but not until a year or two after the Austens’ visit.


--Repton is not a character, even a minor one, in Mansfield Park. He is mentioned briefly during a discussion in chapter 6 of possible improvements to Sotherton.


And to think! All of this is easily verifiable through a few quick Google searches!


3. Bad Biography: Although you have to be careful about what you Google, since you might end up getting your question answered on a site like Study.com, a purveyor of online courses, where I found the following answer to the question “Who was Jane Austen married to?”


“Jane Austen never married. She fell in love with her former neighbor, Tom Lefroy. They spent much time in each other's company, and it briefly looked as if they would marry. However, Tom Lefroy never proposed to Jane Austen, and their relationship eventually ended. For the rest of her life, Jane Austen set Tom up as the standard by which she judged all other suitors. None of them compared to him, so she refused to marry.”


**headdesk**


It’s not even that Tom Lefroy was a visitor to the neighborhood, not a neighbor; or that they actually spent only a handful of hours in each other’s company, not “much time”; or that the depth of Austen’s feelings for him and the reason(s) she never married are unknown, and unknowable. No, it’s the sentimental and purely speculative twaddle about Tom as “the standard by which she judged all other suitors” that really irks me. Repeat after me, children: Becoming Jane was fictionalized. Just because Anne Hathaway says it, that doesn’t make it true.


Suggestion for Study.com: Offer a course in finding accurate information on the Internet.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 21 2019 01:00PM

Today is Purim, the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, on which we eat a big meal, dress in silly costumes, read the Biblical book of Esther, bake triangular cookies, drink too much, and distribute charity to the poor – not necessarily in that order.


Living as she did in a far from multicultural corner of Christian England, Jane Austen never mentions Purim. Probably she’d never even heard of it. But the time is ripe for an Austenian Purim spiel, the comic speech or playlet that forms the centerpiece of many Purim celebrations.


A wealthy landowner with a taste for excessive drinking – a Mr. Grant type, clearly -- is married to either a sulky bitch (Julia Bertram) or a feminist truth-teller (Mary Crawford? Maria Rushworth?), depending upon your interpretation of the original. When she elopes with her dancing-master, he divorces her by act of Parliament and throws a lavish ball to pick a successor. Sweet, pliant Fanny Price piques his fancy, and they marry. When her well-intentioned but overbearing uncle (Sir Thomas) warns her that the village supply of cream cheese is on the point of exhaustion because of the depredations of a ravening villain (Mrs. Norris, natch), Fanny discovers her backbone. She persuades her husband to banish the villain to a distant house with no guest bedroom, and everyone lives happily ever after.


Perfect! Help yourself to an apricot Hamentashen. It's a Moor Park.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2018 02:00PM

Nineteen is a number much on our collective minds today, as we prepare to usher in 2019, the last year of the second decade of the twenty-first century.


Accordingly, I went looking for nineteens in Jane Austen -- and I found eleven references, in ten different passages spread over four of the completed novels. (Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are nineteen-free zones.) With the exception of one throwaway Mansfield Park reference to “nineteen times out of twenty,” Austen’s nineteens are an interesting bunch – at any rate, significant enough to provide fodder for discussion while awaiting the Times Square ball drop.


For Jane Austen, nineteen is both too young and old enough: her nineteen-year-olds are variously mature and naïve, sensible and foolish. For Austen – and for us? -- nineteen is a transitional age, a waystation between childhood and adulthood.


In Mansfield Park, “eighteen or nineteen” is the age at which Mary Crawford expects girls to retain a certain innocent shyness, even if they are officially “out” in the marriage market. “One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to everything—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before,” Mary tells the Bertram brothers (ch. 5).


Yet some nineteen-year-olds are perfectly competent, it seems: Although Emma Woodhouse, at nearly twenty-one, still has much to learn, “at eighteen or nineteen [Jane Fairfax] was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself” (Emma, ch. 20).


The nineteen-year-olds of Persuasion are old enough to fall in love for keeps -- like Anne Elliot, who is nineteen when she accepts, and then refuses, Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal. But they are also young enough to mistake infatuation for the real thing -- like Louisa Musgrove, who, interestingly, is also nineteen when her charms temporarily turn the same man’s head, perhaps because he is unconsciously trying to recapture his youthful romance. And the novel contains a third naïve nineteen-year-old -- Mrs. Smith, who is nineteen when she meets, and initially likes, the duplicitous Mr. Elliot. “At nineteen, you know, one does not think very seriously,” she tells Anne (ch. 21).


Well, some nineteen-year-olds don’t: At the start of Sense and Sensibility, Austen tells us, Elinor Dashwood already “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother” (ch. 1). Like Persuasion, however, S&S features three significant nineteen-year-olds: in addition to the Elinor of the novel’s opening, there are the Edward Ferrars of four years earlier, whose “youthful infatuation of nineteen” has unhappily bound him to Lucy Steele (ch. 23), and the newlywed Marianne Dashwood of the novel’s end, who “found herself, at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (ch. 50).


Austen’s nineteen-year-olds are old enough to experience deep and sincere emotions, yet young enough to make dreadful errors of judgment. Some of them are ready to give counsel, while others trustingly follow the counsel of others. They stand on a threshold, looking backward to the consequence-free choices of childhood and ahead to the responsibilities of adulthood, with one foot in each place. Rather like us, tonight, as we leave 2018 behind and look ahead to what will come.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2018 02:00PM

Tomorrow is Christmas, the day on which a larger-than-life personage employing semi-equine transport suddenly appears in our homes, bringing good things for the good and not-so-good things for the naughty.


You may think Jane Austen didn’t have this covered. But you would be wrong.


Yes, it’s true that Christmas comes up only once in a while in Austen’s work, and seldom as an occasion of joy and revelry.


Of the three novels that refer to the holiday, only Persuasion gives us a cheerful family scene. The Christmas section of Mansfield Park highlights Mary Crawford’s inability to enjoy tranquil home pleasures, and as for the fiasco of Emma’s Christmas Eve party. . .


Austen’s proliferation of unhappy, or entirely absent, Yuletides isn’t all that surprising: As Austen scholar Devoney Looser recently explained, for Regency folk, the holiday was a relatively low-key affair, lacking the stockings-trees-and-adorable-children froufrou that was popularized by the Victorians and that still informs our modern conception of the season.


But there is at least one Austen work in which the Christmas season is indeed heralded by the arrival of a larger-than-life personage employing equine transport and, arguably, calling down appropriate rewards and punishments upon the good and the not-so-good. My text is drawn from Lady Susan, Letter 3, as Catherine Vernon writes to her mother, Lady De Courcy:


“My dear Mother

I am very sorry to tell you that it will not be in our power to keep our promise of spending our Christmas with you; and we are prevented that happiness by a circumstance which is not likely to make us any amends. Lady Susan . . . has declared her intention of visiting us almost immediately.”


True, as far as we can tell from Austen's text, the carriage that takes Lady Susan to Churchill, the Vernons’ home, is drawn by horses, not reindeer, and arrives at the front door, not on the roof. And honesty compels me to admit that, apart from one further passing reference, Christmas is never mentioned again in the course of the novella. But aside from all that. . .


Oh, fine: I’ll concede that casting the poisonous Lady Susan as Santa Claus may be something of a stretch. But think about it: an estranged relative turns up unexpectedly in a small town, disrupting family holiday plans and sparking romantic entanglements? Obviously, Lady Susan is the latest Jane-Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie -- and written by Jane Austen herself, no less. Just add hot chocolate and stir.


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