Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 27 2017 01:00PM

Barely is the metaphorical ink dry on my recent blog post lamenting all the great UK Jane Austen bicentenary events that we American Janeites are likely to miss when I happen across another one.


This time it’s an exhibition of Austen manuscripts, artifacts and film clips, titled “Which Jane Austen?” and on display at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries from June 22 to October 29. Among the items in the exhibition – some from the Bod’s own collections, some on loan from other places – will be the manuscripts of The Watsons and Sanditon, Austen’s two unfinished novels; the logbook that her sailor brother Frank kept on board one of his ships, HMS Canopus; and Austen’s hand-copied music books.


The point of the exhibition, according to curator Kathryn Sutherland, an eminent Austen scholar who teaches at Oxford, is to counter the “popular belief” that Austen was a “retiring country mouse” by showing her intimate engagement, both in her fiction and through the experiences of family members, with the worlds of politics, war and commerce.


Sigh.


Don’t get me wrong: The exhibit sounds great, and I am green with envy of all the British Janeites who will get to see it. But really: Could we let go of the dear-innocent-little-Jane meme that we keep insisting is everybody else’s idea of Austen?


Yes, in the decades following the 1870 publication of her nephew’s hagiographic Memoir of Jane Austen, Kindly Domestic Aunt Jane was the accepted image. But at least since the 1940s, when D.W. Harding published his famous essay on Austen’s “regulated hatred,” an alternative view of a tougher, more politically engaged Austen has been equally prevalent, if not more so.


And by now – after decades of scholarship about the mentions of slavery in Mansfield Park, the Napoleonic Wars context to Persuasion, the guillotining of Austen’s French cousin-by-marriage, the radicalism or conservatism of Austen’s sexual politics, the cutting things she writes about the Prince Regent in her letters, yada yada yada – it’s not clear to me that anyone still believes Austen was a sweet-natured maiden aunt who barely noticed that her country was at war for most of her adult life.


I suppose if Sutherland is talking about the views of your average person on the street, whose acquaintance with Jane Austen mostly consists of a forced high school march through Pride and Prejudice and repeated viewings of Clueless, this could be an accurate account. But does someone like that even know, or care, enough about Jane Austen to think of her as a retiring country mouse? I have my doubts.


Perhaps the exigencies of marketing in our noisy culture require that every new Austen book, movie, or exhibition be portrayed as a fearless effort to push back the forces that insist on inappropriately domesticating a strong and subversive woman writer. From where I sit, though, it looks like this battle was over -- and won -- long ago.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 16 2017 02:00PM

Earlier this month, Janeites were delighted when the Folio Society publishers and the House of Illustration, a London gallery devoted to the art of illustration, unveiled the list of finalists for the job of illustrating a new edition of Mansfield Park.


I ran across the story via selections available on the website of the Guardian newspaper – but I recently realized that I overlooked the complete set of images on the House of Illustration’s own web site: four images, including a cover, from each of the twenty-three artists.


It’s a fascinating mixture of styles and approaches, from the hyper-realistic to the completely abstract, and it’s going to be very interesting to see which the judges select – and whether their choice matches that of the lay audience, who are invited to cast their own votes for the Visitors’ Choice Award.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 2 2017 02:00PM

Those of us who first encountered Jane Austen on the page of a book without illustrations -- rather than on a movie screen -- probably created our own mental images of her characters. Did we imagine them art deco or impressionist, manga-style or collaged, super-realistic or highly abstract?


Now’s your chance to find out what other people’s mental Austen looks like: Yesterday, the Guardian ran a fascinating slide show featuring images by the twenty-three artists who are finalists for the job of illustrating the Folio Society’s forthcoming edition of Mansfield Park. The winner will be announced later this month.


The artists hail from ten different countries, and their work varies radically in style, tone and medium. Many of the illustrations -- of Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, Lovers' Vows and broken hearts -- are quite lovely, but few seem to me to perfectly capture Austen’s voice, especially her humor. Perhaps that's not what such illustrations ought to do. Perhaps I’ve just imprinted on the famous Brock and Thomson images, even though I don’t like them very much.


Or perhaps I’m just wedded to the pictures in my head.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 19 2017 02:00PM

By now, we Janeites are experts at the fine art of comparing and contrasting the various screen adaptations of Austen’s novels. Favorite Mr. Darcy: Firth or Macfadyen? Best Emma: Paltrow, Beckinsale or Garai? Finest Sense and Sensibility screenplay: Emma Thompson or Andrew Davies? Which Pemberley do you prefer: Lyme Park or Chatsworth?


Neglected have been the many radio adaptations of Austen by our friends across the pond, where radio drama seems to flourish in a way that it doesn’t over here. So imagine my excitement when, thanks to the blog Excessively Diverting, I learned that six of these Austen adaptations, one per novel, are now available on CD or MP3. (OK, I admit I’m late to this party: this compilation has been out since last spring. But better late than never. . .)


The only item in the fifteen-hour-plus collection that I can recommend based on first-hand acquaintance is the BBC’s well-done 2003 adaptation of Mansfield Park, featuring the not-yet famous voices of Felicity Jones as Fanny, Benedict Cumberbatch as Edmund and David Tennant as Tom.


Annoyingly, I can’t find a cast list for the other dramatizations in the collection, so it’s hard to tell if they’re equally star-studded. But it’s the BBC, so the acting is bound to be good, right? With luck, we’ll soon be able to play the Janeite compare-and-contrast game in a whole new medium.


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