Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 9 2018 01:00PM

In Jane Austen’s time, as we know, women’s lives and opportunities were circumscribed in ways we can scarcely imagine today. Women were excluded from the professions; the sexual double standard was brutal and inexorable; married women couldn’t own their own property; husbands and fathers had power little short of tyrannical.


No doubt we’ve come a long, long way.


On the other hand, it’s salutary to be reminded from time to time of just how recently male authority figures still felt empowered to enact their sexism – and just how hard women had to fight to hold them accountable.


Today’s text is drawn from a fascinating recent article in the alternative weekly DigBoston, which chronicles the nine-year effort by Austen scholar Julia Prewitt Brown to reverse Boston University’s 1981 refusal to grant her tenure, the lifetime job security that is the academic equivalent of the Holy Grail.


At the time, Brown was a young scholar whose first book, the feminist-influenced Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form, had recently been published by Harvard University Press.


Her tenure was refused by high-ranking university administrators after her department and two lower-level committees voted to grant it, and Brown argued that she was the victim of sex discrimination. Eventually, she won a jury verdict giving her tenure, legal fees, and $215,000 in damages; the verdict was upheld on appeal, and Brown is retiring this year after forty-four years in BU’s English department.


The case was relatively high-profile in its time because BU’s then-president, John Silber, was known nationally for his outspoken and uncompromising conservativism. In 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts.


In trial testimony aimed at discrediting Brown’s scholarship, Silber, a philosopher, “implied that Austen was an inherently less complex or worthy subject than Dryden or Kant,” writes Max L. Chapnick, author of the DigBoston article.


Silber wasn’t the only Austen-disser to testify: Brown tells Chapnick that BU’s dean, who had offered her a three-year extension of her contract in lieu of lifetime tenure, testified that although he was not a literary scholar, “he felt comfortable judging a book on Jane Austen because he had lived in England near where Jane Austen lived.” (“Not in those times?” the judge asked. “Not quite, sir,” the dean replied.)


Brown might have been denied tenure even if she hadn’t been a feminist scholar writing about a female novelist whose subject was the domestic lives of women. Nevertheless, Brown’s case resonates with a certain unfortunate historical strain in the response to Austen.


Over the past two centuries, Austen’s fans have been male as often as female, but contemporary Austen fandom – and, to a lesser extent, scholarship – skews female. I’ve long been convinced that sexist denigration of Austen fans (those cute middle-aged women in their bonnets!) borrows from a tradition of sexist denigration of Austen dating back to her nephew’s affectionate but trivializing 1870 Memoir.


In this tradition, Austen is caricatured as either a sweet maiden aunt writing charming little romance novels or, alternatively, as a sour spinster working out her sexual frustration by satirizing other people’s love stories – anything but a morally serious professional artist. And these attitudes still crop up, especially in popular treatments that draw more on movie adaptations of Austen novels than on the novels themselves.


Brown won her case in part because her adversaries were so unsubtle: Silber described BU’s English department, whose faculty ranks comprised six women and more than fourteen men, as “a damn matriarchy.” Today’s adversaries are sometimes less obvious (though, #metoo knows, not always). Still, history tends to repeat itself, if we let it. Remembering stories like Brown’s is one way to make sure it won’t.


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, Oct 15 2015 01:00PM

Just in case – ahem! – you were wondering what to get me for my birthday, a particularly scrumptious set of Jane Austen editions is issuing, with tantalizing slowness, from the Folio Society. London-based Folio is known for producing elegantly printed, beautifully illustrated and crazily expensive hardbacks of works both classic and contemporary.


The Austen editions came to my attention this week, when Folio announced the release of its Sense and Sensibility, with an introduction by the mysterious Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, famous for using a pseudonym so impenetrable that, supposedly, no one knows who she (?) really is.


Turns out that Folio did a Pride and Prejudice last year and an Emma earlier this year, as well as an edition of the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh. We can only hope that the rest are not far behind.


Judging from the web site pictures I’ve been squinting at, all four of the volumes published so far look delightful. Together, they’ll run you just about $234. Which seems about right for a birthday, don’t you think?


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 23 2014 01:00PM

From time to time, it’s useful to recall that not everyone knows as much about Jane Austen as we Janeites do.


Last week’s salutary reminder came in the form of a post on Slate’s history blog, The Vault, wherein writer Rebecca Onion shared with the masses a fascinating document in Jane Austen’s hand: Austen’s compilation of friends’ and relatives’ opinions about Emma and Mansfield Park.


“The British Library recently made the manuscripts available online,” Onion wrote. “Below, I’ve transcribed Austen’s collection of feedback on Mansfield Park.”


The piece left me befuddled. Was Onion under the impression that the BL’s digitization was making a little-known document widely available for the first time? ‘Cause Janeites know that’s just not so.


In fact, excerpts from the “Opinions” were first published in 1870, in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s famous Memoir of Jane Austen, and the legendary Austen editor R.W. Chapman followed up with a 1926 printing. (That history is reported here.) My 1996 Knopf edition of Austen’s minor works – the fourth printing of that edition, by the way – includes the full text of the “Opinions,” and the long-out-of-copyright minor works have been published in other editions, too.


Online, the text has been available at the Republic of Pemberley for I’m-not-sure-how-long (Pemberley was founded in 1997, and judging from the primitive interface, this item goes back quite a few years). Both a facsimile of the BL’s manuscript and a transcription of the text can also be found on the wonderful Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts website, which launched four years ago.


I hope Onion didn't strain her wrist with all that unnecessarily duplicative transcription. No news here, folks! Move along!


But still: the "Opinions" are well worth another look, if only to confirm that Austen readers have been puzzling over Fanny, Edmund and the Crawfords for as long as there have been Austen readers. And of course it’s always lovely when the rest of the world catches up to Our Jane.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 16 2014 02:00PM

Less than two sentences into her preface, Edith Hubback Brown is already asserting her genetic right to complete Jane Austen’s fragment The Watsons. “I will not apologise. I like my great-aunt Jane, and she would have liked me,” Brown writes, with an absolute certainty that will sound familiar to other Janeites equally convinced that only an accident of history prevented them from becoming Austen’s closest confidant.


“She would have said, ‘I am pleased with your notion, and expect much entertainment,’ ” Brown continues. “Solemn people can say, if they like, that we should not do this, but I decline to be solemn about Aunt Jane. She was fun, much more than she was anything else, and this has been fun to do.”


I do not begrudge Edith Hubback Brown her harmless fun. Alas, however, her 1928 continuation, the subject of today’s post in my "Watsons in Winter" blog series, is not much of a book. Although in outline it closely tracks a previous Watsons continuation -- The Younger Sister, by Brown's grandmother, Catherine Hubback, the subject of an earlier "Watsons in Winter" blog post -- Brown drains Hubback's original of much of its charm. Brown's writing is adequate and even shows occasional flashes of wit, but her story is rushed and her characters one-dimensional. Novelistic talent may not be genetic after all.

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