Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 8 2018 02:00PM

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


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen had spent her day productively.


“Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter finished exactly 204 years ago today (#98 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.”


To put myself in the correct frame of mind for this blog, I have read The Corsair and mended a pillowcase, since there’s little call for petticoats in my house. (Unlike Austen, I still have a long to-do list, but I did try.)


Byron is a great poet, but The Corsair -- which was published in February 1814, a month before Austen read it -- is not my cup of tea. Yes, the verse is miraculously supple and natural, but you can’t say the same of the story, what with its obscurely-tortured-yet-devastatingly-attractive pirate-hero, its selflessly virtuous heroine, and its homicidal anti-heroine-cum-harem-slave. Apparently, men too can write bad romance-novel plots.


Nevertheless, reading The Corsair – for the first time! My education has been sadly neglected – points up the comedy in Austen’s sentence. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Byron’s swashbuckling saga than the domestic chore of mending underwear. Coupling the two has the salutary effect of puncturing Byron’s pretensions, though Austen may also be poking fun at the lack of drama in her own life.


Meanwhile, as I plied my needle, like so many centuries of women before me, I found myself reflecting -- as perhaps Austen did, too -- on the bankruptcy of the madonna-whore dichotomy into which Byron so neatly fits his female characters.


Of course, Austen’s books contain their fair share of flawed men and good, or not-so-good, women. In case we need reminding that she took a subtler approach than The Corsair, later in the letter Austen reports on her brother’s response to her soon-to-be-published new novel, the story of a virtuous woman who withstands the blandishments of a plausible but problematic suitor.


“Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better,” she tells Cassandra. “He is in the 3d vol.—I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end;--he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 25 2017 02:00PM

For those of us with school-age children, Christmas week provides a delightful break from the rhythms of the academic calendar: No rising before dawn to meet the school bus, no rushing to squeeze homework in before bedtime, no anxious balancing of multiple extracurricular commitments. Heaven!


But of course, not everyone welcomes peaceful leisure-time – as Jane Austen reminds us in one of the few Christmastime sequences in her novels.


At Mansfield Park, the feverish excitement and romantic maneuvering surrounding the December 22 ball dissipates the next day, as William and Edmund leave on business (seafaring for William, ordination for Edmund). After some Christmas Eve chitchat about the festivities with Mrs. Grant and Mary Crawford, Fanny Price settles contentedly into her usual routines. Mary? Not so much.


“The week which passed so quietly and peaceably at the great house in Mansfield had a very different character at the Parsonage,” Austen tells us in chapter 29. “To the young lady, at least, in each family, it brought very different feelings. What was tranquility and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary.”


Indeed, by New Year’s Day, Mary can no longer stand the company of her own thoughts, and the regrets, worries, and jealousies about Edmund that they bring. She’s off to Mansfield Park to grill Fanny about why her cousin has extended his visit with his friend Mr. Owen.


“Was his letter a long one? Does he give you much account of what he is doing? Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for? . . . How many Miss Owens are there? . . . Are they musical?” she babbles. “. . . . But it is very foolish to ask questions about any young ladies—about any three sisters just grown up; for one knows, without being told, exactly what they are: all very accomplished and pleasing, and one very pretty. There is a beauty in every family; it is a regular thing. Two play on the pianoforte, and one on the harp; and all sing, or would sing if they were taught, or sing all the better for not being taught; or something like it.”


Mary just can’t stop herself; she seems helpless to stem the characteristic flow of witty banter – made suddenly brittle by the sincere emotion that she’s half-ashamed of and can barely acknowledge even to herself. And how does Fanny respond to all this accidentally self-revealing blather?


“ 'I know nothing of the Miss Owens,' said Fanny calmly."


To quote my kids – “Burn!” And they call this woman a doormat! I don't think so. But here’s wishing you a Christmas week full of tranquility and comfort.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 14 2017 02:00PM

The year marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death is almost over, but one more major Austen anniversary lies ahead of us: 2018 is the two hundredth year since the posthumous joint publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.*


Writer, critic, and blogger Sarah Emsley, who has already curated eclectic and insightful blog series for the bicentenaries of Mansfield Park and Emma, will launch a new one on Saturday, Austen’s 242nd birthday. Running over the next six months, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” will include posts from dozens of Austen readers, some academic and some not, analyzing different aspects of these two very different novels.


My contribution is running at the very end, in June, since I’m writing about Captain Wentworth’s letter, perhaps my single favorite passage in all of Jane Austen. Don’t ask me how I snagged this prize; Sarah didn’t even make me arm-wrestle for it.


Emsley has a star-studded Janeite Rolodex; the contributors to her past series have exposed me to new information and ideas about everything from Austen’s religious beliefs to Regency cooking. I’m looking forward to learning more about the novels that bookended Austen’s writing career.



* “What? I’m confused! I thought those books were published in December of 1817!”

Yes, Virginia, they were, but the title page says 1818, so we’re allowed to keep celebrating all next year.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 10 2017 01:00PM

During World War I, historians tell us, Jane Austen’s novels were sometimes prescribed to traumatized British soldiers as a remedy for shell-shock, anxiety and despair. And now, it seems, the benefits of the Austen Cure are about to become available to another jumpy, unsettled demographic: lonely dogs and their guilt-ridden owners.


Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon, has just announced a new program, Audible for Dogs, whose spokesman is dog whisperer Cesar Millan. And among the titles Millan recommends for canine consumption (figuratively speaking, I hasten to add) is a 2015 recording of Pride and Prejudice, read by British actress Rosamund Pike, who played Jane Bennet in the 2005 P&P film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.


The idea of Audible for Dogs is to give man’s best friend a soothing substitute for His Master’s Voice when said master is out of the house for long periods of time. Just set up a digital speaker, crank up an audiobook featuring the calm, consistent tones of someone whose voice resembles that of the primary dog-owner, and voila: no more guilty worries that lonely, neurotic Fido will spend your absence peeing on the carpet, chewing your Manolos, or annoying the neighbors with incessant barking.


Such is the idea, anyway. Millan and Audible claim to have backed up their hunch with a month-long study featuring one hundred volunteer dog-human pairs, but forgive me for a teensy bit of skepticism about the objectivity and scientific rigor of this experiment.


For Janeites, the key question is clear: Although Pride and Prejudice is often suggested as a good introduction to Austen for human readers, is the same true for canine ones? I’m concerned that Millan may have set these four-legged neophytes up for failure by choosing a book that, as far as I can recall, contains no mention of dogs at all.


Given that omission, it hardly seems fair to stack P&P up against some of the more canine-centric titles on Millan’s list, including Soldier Dogs, A Dog’s Purpose, and The Art of Racing in the Rain. Wouldn’t he have been better off choosing Northanger Abbey, whose hero greets visitors accompanied by “the friends of his solitude, a large Newfoundland puppy and two or three terriers”? Or Sense and Sensibility, whose anti-hero Willougby, though lacking in moral fiber, at least has the good taste to own “the nicest little black bitch of a pointer” that Sir John Middleton has ever seen?


But really, the answer is obvious: Dogs are clearly the only readers who should be introduced to Jane Austen by way of Mansfield Park. To human readers, Fanny Price may seem insipid, and Edmund Bertram's cluelessness may cry out for a slap upside the head. But what canine companion, nursing feelings of neglect and abandonment as its owner departs for a long day at the office, won’t be charmed by Lady Bertram’s excellent judgment in “thinking more of her pug than her children”?


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 29 2017 01:00PM

A little over two centuries ago, Jane Austen famously recorded her acquaintances’ opinions, pro and con, of Emma and Mansfield Park. So perhaps she would have enjoyed browsing the catalogue of an auction held this week to benefit Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, a charity that runs literary events, gives grants and prizes to authors, and engages in outreach to students in disadvantaged public schools.


In keeping with the All Jane Austen All The Time theme of this bicentenary year, the RSL’s online and live auctions, which wrapped up on Tuesday, featured nothing but Austen-related items -- eighteen of them, including drawings, annotated film scripts, and special offers, such as a book-club visit from an Austen expert or tea with a recent Austen biographer.


Among the most covetable items were handwritten comments on Austen by famous authors – Kazuo Ishiguro on Mansfield Park; Margaret Atwood and British children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson on Pride and Prejudice; Ian McEwan on Northanger Abbey. Some of the comments were adoring (“I’ve learnt so much from this supreme novelist”-- Ishiguro) and some were impish (“Were underage readers of this book, such as myself, doomed to a series of hopeless liaisons in which unpleasant men turned out to be simply unpleasant?”— Atwood). And one commenter was as harsh as Austen’s young acquaintance Fanny Cage, whose response to Mansfield Park was “did not much like it. . . nothing interesting in the Characters––– Language poor”: Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin said he finds Austen “a bit stuffy and dull.”


Perhaps not coincidentally, bidding on the worshipful Ishiguro item closed at £1,899 (about $2,433), whereas the carping Rankin went for a mere £150 ($192).


Were I richer than I'm ever likely to be, I wouldn't have minded bidding on that Atwood letter. But my personal favorite among the items was the cartoon by British artist Posy Simmonds, who imagined Jane Austen weighing whether to return from the afterlife to enjoy the accolades now heaped upon her. Simmonds’ Austen envisions what awaits her – impertinent prying into her sex life, stultifying feminist lit-crit jargon, fans prattling about Colin Firth and calling her “Jane” – and decides to stay put.


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