Deborah Yaffe

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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, Sep 17 2018 01:00PM

Dissing the members of the British royal family -- at least the popular ones -- is not for the faint of heart.


Jane Austen confined her criticism of the royals of her day to her private correspondence, where she revealed her dislike of the Prince Regent (later George IV) and her not-unmixed support for his slandered and abused wife, Princess Caroline.


Sandi Toksvig, the current co-host of TV’s Great British Bake Off – known to American audiences as The Great British Baking Show – was unwise enough to do her dissing in public.


Back in 2013, Toksvig, then known as a radio personality, told the Guardian that she wasn’t excessively impressed with Prince William’s willowy wife, the former Kate Middleton.


“Kate Middleton is not enough for me. We used to admire women who got their place in life through marriage and having children, but I like to think we've grown up a bit,” Toksvig said back then. “I can't think of a single opinion she holds – it's very Jane Austen.”


(The first quarter of 2013, not long after the announcement of the royal couple’s first pregnancy, was rife with Kontroversial Kate Kommentary: Just a few weeks before the Toksvig interview, novelist Hilary Mantel had caused a minor kerfuffle by comparing Princess Kate’s* public image to that of a “shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.”)


A few days ago, Toksvig took the opportunity to apologize for her 2013 remarks, insisting she had meant no offense and hoped that Kate had taken none. I, however, have a different view of the matter. It seems to me that the person who deserves Toksvig's apology isn’t Kate Middleton but Jane Austen.


Because whether you’re referring to the novelist herself or to her fictional heroines, there is nothing “very Jane Austen” about holding no opinions of anything. Elizabeth Bennet has no ideas of her own? Emma Woodhouse is a shrinking violet? Marianne Dashwood keeps her mouth shut and defers to the views of others? And don’t even get me started on the strong-minded woman who created these mouthy, opinionated characters.


As so often happens, "Jane Austen" in this context doesn't actually mean "the novelist Jane Austen," or "Jane Austen's books," or "Jane Austen's characters." Austen's name is used as shorthand, signifying a cluster of ideas, attitudes and social arrangements that she herself did not create and did not necessarily endorse.


Probably Toksvig meant to say that it is “very Jane Austen” for women to earn their social positions through marriage and childbearing. Fair enough: Austen does write about a world in which that’s the case. But that’s not “very Jane Austen”; it’s “very nineteenth-century patriarchy.”



* Oh, OK: the Duchess of Cambridge. But we all call her Princess Kate, don’t we?


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