Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 16 2016 05:06PM

Just yesterday, I was expressing skepticism about whether the famous, allegedly valuable Jane Austen £5 notes would turn up any time soon.

And then today -- Jane Austen's birthday, no less! -- comes word that one of the four fivers specially engraved with a miniature portrait of Austen has indeed turned up. But no juicy details of the discovery, at least so far: the finder is described only as a senior citizen who plans to give it to her granddaughter.

It's delightful to learn, however, that the first note to be discovered is the one on which the Austen portrait by noted miniatures engraver Graham Short is encircled by Mary Crawford's apt line from Mansfield Park, “A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”

Apparently, this is the note that was put into circulation at a cafe in Wales -- the notes spent in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland remain at large. Happy hunting. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 15 2016 02:00PM

It’s been nearly two weeks already, but the British press cannot get enough of the Jane-Austen-meets-Roald-Dahl story of the specially engraved £5 notes.

You will recall that earlier this month, the owner of a Scottish art gallery announced that he was secretly circulating four £5 notes embellished with a hidden miniature portrait of Jane Austen by Graham Short, an artist who specializes in teeny-tiny engravings.

Short’s creations, which take months of painstaking work, have sold for tens of thousands of pounds, and so the reporters covering this story have decided, on the basis of little more than wishful thinking, that the Austen fivers could net similarly vast sums for anyone lucky enough to find one.

So far, we’ve learned that one of the magic fivers was spent on a sausage-and-egg sandwich from the Square Café in the southern Welsh town of Blackwood, another paid for two pies from Granny Jean’s Home Bakery in the Scottish town of Kelso, and a third purchased a snack at Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in the Leicestershire town of Melton. No word yet, as far as I can tell, on where the Northern Irish note was dropped.

In case you want a leg up on the competition, however, a web site called AngleNews has helpfully supplied instructions for checking whether your fiver includes one of the hidden portraits, plus a list of the serial numbers of the four bills, each of which includes the Austen portrait encircled by one of four Austen quotes. (I’m delighted to see that one of them is Mary Crawford’s immortal – and, in this context, highly appropriate -- witticism, “A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”)

It’s hard to believe that the current atmosphere of breathless interest will be sustained much longer, unless one or two of the bills turns up quickly. And although we’re all hoping for a heartwarming finale – Priceless Fiver Pays for Blind Girl’s Eye Operation in Vienna; “It’s a Miracle!” Joyful Mum Shouts -- there’s no particular reason to think that will happen.

Unlike the Golden Tickets in Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which were packaged with an easily identifiable food item produced in relatively small quantities, the Austen fivers are swimming in a vast sea of currency. They could spend months sitting unnoticed in a piggy bank, a trouser pocket or a bank teller’s drawer. We could be in for a long haul.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 25 2016 01:00PM

I am, of course, aware that online listicles with titles like “22 Places in the UK That Are a Must-See for Jane Austen Fans” are silly clickbait to which I should pay no mind. However, I am constitutionally incapable of passing such pieces by without a teensy-weensy bit of grumbling.

So let’s get on with it.

Buzzfeed’s twenty-two-item list includes three places with rock-solid connections to Jane Austen’s life: Chawton cottage (#1), where she spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels; Chawton House (#2), one of her brother Edward’s properties, which she often visited; and Winchester Cathedral (#3), where she is buried.

Then there are three places with legit links to the novels: Chatsworth House (#10), which Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit during their holiday trip in Pride and Prejudice; Box Hill (#16), where Emma insults Miss Bates; and the Bath Assembly Rooms (#22), where Catherine Morland meets Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

Throw in a couple sites with rather more tangential relationships to the life, the work or both: Saltram House (#12), whose one-time mistress, the Countess of Morley, was a fan of Austen’s writing; and Stoneleigh Abbey (#19), which Austen is known to have visited and whose chapel is likely to have served as the inspiration for the Sotherton chapel in Mansfield Park.

Heck, I’m in a forgiving mood, so I’ll even grant that the Jane Austen Centre in Bath (#4), although an entirely artificial creation for tourists, belongs on the list, given that Austen did spend several unhappy years living in the city.

But thirteen of the twenty-two places on the list – nearly two-thirds – are stately homes and/or picturesque villages known to Austen lovers only as locations where Austen movies were shot.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have been to some of these places, and they are delightful. If you want to visit them, don’t let me stand in your way. (Although I really can’t imagine making a special trip to Newby Hall -- #20 – merely because the execrable Billie Piper Mansfield Park was shot there. Maybe that’s just me.)

But here’s my point. If you’re compiling a list of places in the UK for Austen fans to visit, it seems a tad perverse to take up nearly two-thirds of your list with movie locations while omitting a bunch of places with real Austen connections: places like St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, where Austen’s father was the rector for the first twenty-five years of her life; the Vyne, where Austen attended a ball or three; Godmersham Park, where Jane and Cassandra often stayed with Edward’s family; Goodnestone Park and House, the home of Edward’s in-laws, where the Austen sisters also visited; Lyme Regis, where key scenes in Persuasion take place; or the British Library, where Austen’s portable writing desk is on display.

Yes, I will grant you that Steventon is hard to get to, Godmersham House is closed to the public, and Goodnestone costs a small fortune to rent for a night. But such minor logistical considerations never stopped a real fan.

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