Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2020 01:00PM

By now, it’s no surprise to find Jane Austen’s name surfacing in discussions of Britain’s unsavory imperial history: The debate over the significance of Austen’s glancing references to West Indian slavery has raged for decades.


Nor should it be a surprise to see Austen press-ganged into service, however unfairly, as a symbol of uncritical nostalgia for nineteenth-century country house life. Still, I couldn’t help bristling when her name surfaced in a recent Guardian story about the impact of the worldwide anti-racism protests on the National Trust, the British non-profit that preserves and curates hundreds of stately homes.


Apparently, the National Trust plans a stepped-up effort to highlight its properties’ ties to slavery and colonialism. Although the issue has been on the agenda at least since the 2007 bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, “it would be fair to say we haven’t made the progress that we should have done since then,” John Orna-Ornstein, the trust’s director of culture and engagement, told the newspaper. “The Black Lives Matter movement has made us realize that we need to go much faster,” he added.


The initiative is surely a welcome development that, if done well, should enrich and complicate tourists’ experience of National Trust properties. But how does Jane Austen fit into this picture? Where did she stand on comparable issues in her own time?


It’s a complex question with no definitive answer: Although we know from her letters that Austen admired the abolitionist writer Thomas Clarkson, her references to slavery in Emma and Mansfield Park are oblique enough to leave us guessing about the precise contours of her beliefs.


In our era, marked by a profusion of Jane Austen adaptations filmed in the ornate parlors and manicured gardens of very beautiful National Trust properties, nuance is easily elided, however. And thus it is that the Guardian can quote Katie Donington, a historian of the transatlantic slave trade, speculating about whether the popular perception of the country house will militate against efforts to reckon with its unsavory hidden history.


“Is it scones and tea and a bit of Jane Austen-type fantasy?” she asked the newspaper. “Or does it engage with the hard political and economic realities of where some of that wealth came from?”


It’s possible that Donington is a dedicated follower of the literary critic Edward Said, who argued decades ago that Austen was conveniently blind to the horrific human suffering that underwrote her own society. But more likely her comment is yet another example of the way that Jane Austen screen adaptations, with their beautiful costumes and buildings and actors, have come to stand for all things Jane Austen – no matter how much that overlooks Austen’s own engagement with hard political and economic realities.


When contemporary screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels are the (implied or overt) topic of discussion, the conversation is about us, the twenty-first-century viewers, not her, the nineteenth-century novelist. So could we leave poor Jane Austen out of it?



By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 9 2020 01:00PM

At this point, roughly three weeks into All-American Shelter at Home, you -- the average Janeite -- have probably watched, or re-watched, your entire collection of filmed Jane Austen adaptations.


The first week, you gorged on the really good stuff – the cinematic comfort food: the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice, the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, Clueless.


The second week, you turned to the mediocre, unnourishing, but acceptable choices -- the filmic equivalents of Cheetos: the Mormon Pride and Prejudice, the 1983 British mini-series of Mansfield Park, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma.


By last week, down to nothing but stale crumbs, you were scraping the bottom of a very deep barrel: Billie Piper as Fanny Price, Sally Hawkins chasing Captain Wentworth through the streets of Bath, even – God forbid – Scents and Sensibility.


And now it’s Week Four, and the cupboard is bare. Soon, you’ll be gnawing on your own leg.


Luckily, however, some intrepid artists have stepped forward to keep self-cannibalism at bay just a little while longer:


* Tomorrow night, a new musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon will stream for free at 6:30 and 10 pm (Eastern). P&P is the latest offering of Streaming Musicals, a hybrid of live and recorded theater that launched eighteen months ago with a production of Gordon’s Emma.


To watch the free premiere of P&P, you’ll need to register ahead of time; if you can’t make it tomorrow night, the show will be available to buy (for $19.99) or rent ($4.99) later on.


* Through next Wednesday, the small Washington D.C. theater company We Happy Few is streaming a video recording of its fall 2019 production of Lovers’ Vows, by Elizabeth Inchbald. As Janeites will recall, it’s this hit play of 1798 that the wayward Bertram and Crawford siblings choose for their ill-fated home theatricals in Mansfield Park.


You can watch any time you like, in return for a donation of whatever you can afford. The company recommends at least $5, which seems a small price to pay to understand why Sir Thomas was scandalized. And also to save your leg.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2020 01:00PM

Trendy fashion accessories come and go. One year, it’s thigh-high red boots and black berets; the next it’s purple shoes and tiny handbags. Right now, it seems to be Jane Austen novels.


Months ago, blog readers will recall, first one and then a second Kardashian sister took to social media to publicize photos suggesting her previously unsuspected love of Jane Austen. And now the trend has gone royal.


Last Sunday saw the release via Instagram of what the British celebrity magazine Hello! assures us is a “rare” picture of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge (click the right arrow), working from home – although accounts differ as to whether that means Kensington Palace in London or her family’s quarantine digs at “10-bed country mansion” Anmer Hall in the eastern English county of Norfolk. (Quarantine weighs more heavily on some of us than on others.)


The pictures of Kate and her husband, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, were intended to promote mental health in the time of coronavirus; supposedly, they depict the Cambridges conferring by telephone with the directors of mental health charities.


For us Janeites, however, the real story is in the accessories: Arrayed atop Kate’s antique-y desk is a set of twelve books that the British media have helpfully identified as items from the Penguin “Clothbound Classics” series, with covers (quite lovely ones, actually) by designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. Over the weekend, via painstaking research requiring a magnifying glass and repeated cross-checking of images obtained through Google searches – the kind of research only possible when you’re procrastinating another, less congenial task – I succeeded in identifying all twelve titles.


I’m happy to report that Kate’s taste is impeccable: Three of the books on her desk are by Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park are third, fourth and fifth from the left).


I know that the cynical among you – the same people who insist that Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian associated themselves with Austen titles solely as self-branding exercises – will claim that Kate’s book collection was curated purely to boost her smart-but-not-too-smart, royal-girl-next-door image. You may even claim, as my anti-monarchist British husband did, that the main selection criterion was how well the colors of the covers fit into the shot. (Is it suspicious that the pink of Middlemarch picks up the pink of Kate’s pantsuit?)


As you know, however, I am a simple, trusting, Jane Bennet type. (Well, at least today I am.) Therefore, I am going to assume that Kate is actually a fan of Austen and the other classic writers on her desk, from Homer and Shakespeare to Dickens, Hardy, and Oscar Wilde.


Her Austen collection, however, seems woefully incomplete – and in this time of plague, we all need as much literary comfort food as possible. Can I interest anyone in a GoFundMe campaign to buy Kate matching copies of her missing three Austen novels?


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2020 01:00PM

No one in Jane Austen’s novels becomes infected with a coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say on the subject that now occupies all of our minds. At least three important characters* in her novels experience significant bouts of infectious disease:


--Harriet Smith “was very feverish and had a bad sore-throat . . . . ‘a throat very much inflamed, with a great deal of heat about her, a quick low pulse, &c.’ ” (Emma, ch. 13)


In an early example of self-quarantining, poor ailing Harriet has to miss the Westons’ Christmas party.


--Harriet’s illness seems to be a random act of God, but Marianne Dashwood courts disaster with “two delightful twilight walks . . . . not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where . . . the grass was the longest and wettest . . . assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 42)


Eventually “heavy and feverish, with a pain in her limbs, a cough, and a sore throat,” she grows progressively worse, is confined to her bed, and begins calling deliriously for her mother; a week later “the fever was unabated; and Marianne only more quiet -- not more herself -- remained in an heavy stupor.” (chs. 42-43)


Rather than self-quarantining, however, Colonel Brandon sets out for Barton Cottage, risking the transport of a nasty bug across county lines. Arguably, however, bringing a mother to her child’s potential deathbed counts as essential travel.


* If Marianne’s illness stems from imprudence, Tom Bertram’s is born out of downright recklessness, not to mention dissipation: “Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where a neglected fall and a good deal of drinking had brought on a fever.” (Mansfield Park, ch. 44)


By the time Tom is back at Mansfield Park, “some strong hectic symptoms, which seemed to seize the frame on the departure of the fever” leave Edmund and Sir Thomas “apprehensive for [Tom’s] lungs” and forced to nurse the patient through “nerves much affected, spirits much depressed.” (ch. 45)


On the bright side, however, there’s nothing like a scandalous extramarital elopement to encourage a family toward a bit of social distancing.


Let’s take it as a good omen for our perilous times that all Austen’s patients eventually recover their health. Happy hand-washing, everyone!



* I omit the numerous parents and parental figures who expire offstage, often before the narrative commences, and the long convalescence of Louisa Musgrove, who is the victim of an accidental injury, not an infectious disease.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 27 2020 02:00PM

Apparently, I’m not the only Jane Austen completist out there.


Last week, as blog readers will recall, the New York auction house Swann Galleries auctioned off first editions of all Austen’s novels – three-volume sets of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, and the combined four-volume edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


The sale result can be summed up in the headline on Swann’s press release: “Jane Austen Rules.” (Well, we knew that already, right?)


“Most any Jane Austen first edition appearance is noteworthy, but to have all six of her major novels, each one complete and in period binding, helped make this a wildly successful and memorable sale,” said John D. Larson, whose Swann title -- “literature specialist” -- pretty much sums up my dream job.


Larson’s claim of wild success was no doubt a reference to the bottom line. Each book sold for far more than its estimated high price, with Pride and Prejudice going for $100,000, more than three times the estimated high of $30,000.* Indeed, the total for all six novels came to a whopping $240,625, more than double the projected high of $106,000.


But what really makes this story thrilling – for me, at least – is the fact that a single buyer managed to snag all six.


Swann’s press release doesn’t identify this lucky, and well-heeled, collector/completist, except to say that they registered bids through “the Swann Galleries app” during “competitive bidding.”


Imagine being the kind of person who a) loads an auction house’s app on your phone; and b) has nearly a quarter of a million dollars to spend on books. Now that’s a completist after my own heart.



* Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, as you might expect, drew the lowest prices. Apparently, even auction-house bidders love them less.


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