Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 7 2020 01:00PM

Those of us who set ourselves up as arbiters of correctness in matters of Jane Austen quotation never run short of opportunities to criticize. All over the internet, people are bobbling Austen’s words, or attributing quotes from Austen movies to Austen novels, or wrenching accurate quotes out of context, thereby distorting their meaning.

But if you’re ready to criticize, you must also be ready to praise. And thus it is that I tip my hat to one Zisilia Alvsa, whom the self-help website Wealthy Gorilla credits as the creator of a listicle called “100 Best Fake Friend Quotes of All Time.” Because right there at #5 is a completely authentic, entirely apposite Northanger Abbey quote: “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”

Last year, this self-congratulatory passage, which is spoken by the selfish, utterly insincere Isabella Thorpe, clocked in at #2 on my list of Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes. You’ll find it cited everywhere, irony-free: sighed over as a true testament to love, or immortalized as a “friendship quote” on t-shirts, fridge magnets, and tote bags.

In fact, as Alvsa has noticed, Isabella’s words are the exact opposite of a “friendship quote”: they’re the sentiments of someone more interested in looking like a good friend than in being one. Now, if only more listicle writers were interested in reading Austen carefully, rather than in just looking as if they had.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 13 2020 01:00PM

Remind me: How many novels did Jane Austen write, again?

Just kidding! Yes, of course, the answer is six. But if you didn’t know that already, you might be confused by the coverage of Rachel Cohen’s recently published memoir Austen Years, in which Cohen describes how her experience of new motherhood and her grief over her father’s death enriched her understanding of Austen’s books.

Not all of Austen’s books, though: Cohen’s subtitle is A Memoir in Five Novels. Which five? Oh, “all five of Austen’s major novels,” says the New York Times reviewer, a Princeton English professor. (“Major” novels? Says who?) “All but Northanger Abbey, generally regarded as inferior,” explains another reviewer. (“Generally regarded”? By whom?) “Not Northanger Abbey which is a farce of a Gothic novel,” says a book blogger. (Farce = skippable?)

Not everyone seems quite so clear about which books made Cohen’s cut and which didn’t. The Washington Post reviewer advises prospective Cohen readers to first tackle “at least four if not all six of Jane Austen’s novels.” (Which of the five “major” ones are we allowed to skip? She doesn’t say.) And the New Yorker’s excerpt from Cohen’s memoir, headlined “Living Through Turbulent Times with Jane Austen,” is subtitled “How six unexpectedly far-ranging novels carried me through eight years, two births, one death, and a changing world.”

I haven’t read Austen Years yet, but a quick Google search confirms that Northanger Abbey is indeed the book that Cohen voted off her island. Even while compulsively rereading the other five, she writes, “I only looked into Northanger Abbey. . . . To me, Northanger Abbey is still opaque. The wit is sometimes harsh, the characterizations are less subtle, the proportions are not complex and harmonic. Gilbert Ryle says, ‘It is the one novel of the six which does not have an abstract ethical theme for its backbone,’ no general qualities being considered in the light of different characters. I think Austen decided not to publish it because she had never found the way to rewrite it to her satisfaction.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the assumption that only five of Austen’s novels really count. Although many critical studies of Austen devote one chapter to each novel, with Northanger Abbey getting equal time, the book has drawn less interest from filmmakers (I know of only two screen adaptations) and probably also from fanfic writers (the pickings are slim). The only survey of Janeites that I’m aware of, conducted by Jeanne Kiefer in 2008 for the Jane Austen Society of North America, found that Northanger Abbey was the least favorite Austen novel for 40 percent of the 4,500 Janeites surveyed – a strong plurality, certainly, although not a majority.

Of course, Rachel Cohen is under no obligation to read, let alone write about, a book she doesn’t like. For me, too, Northanger Abbey is the least compelling of the six, although on a recent reread, I found it fresh, funny, and altogether charming. But I’m puzzled by reviewers’ offhand allusions to a taken-for-granted consensus. Who gets to decide this stuff? And how come I never got a vote?

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, Feb 27 2020 02:00PM

Apparently, I’m not the only Jane Austen completist out there.

Last week, as blog readers will recall, the New York auction house Swann Galleries auctioned off first editions of all Austen’s novels – three-volume sets of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, and the combined four-volume edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

The sale result can be summed up in the headline on Swann’s press release: “Jane Austen Rules.” (Well, we knew that already, right?)

“Most any Jane Austen first edition appearance is noteworthy, but to have all six of her major novels, each one complete and in period binding, helped make this a wildly successful and memorable sale,” said John D. Larson, whose Swann title -- “literature specialist” -- pretty much sums up my dream job.

Larson’s claim of wild success was no doubt a reference to the bottom line. Each book sold for far more than its estimated high price, with Pride and Prejudice going for $100,000, more than three times the estimated high of $30,000.* Indeed, the total for all six novels came to a whopping $240,625, more than double the projected high of $106,000.

But what really makes this story thrilling – for me, at least – is the fact that a single buyer managed to snag all six.

Swann’s press release doesn’t identify this lucky, and well-heeled, collector/completist, except to say that they registered bids through “the Swann Galleries app” during “competitive bidding.”

Imagine being the kind of person who a) loads an auction house’s app on your phone; and b) has nearly a quarter of a million dollars to spend on books. Now that’s a completist after my own heart.

* Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, as you might expect, drew the lowest prices. Apparently, even auction-house bidders love them less.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 30 2020 02:00PM

In September, we suspected. We hoped. We crossed our fingers. And now it’s confirmed. In perhaps the least likely household on Planet Earth, a nest of Jane Austen fans has apparently hatched.

Yes, it’s true. The Kardashians are Janeites.

Four months ago, blog readers will recall, Kourtney Kardashian, the eldest of the K-named tribe, posted an Instagram shot of herself draped across an empty bathtub reading a handsome hardback of Emma. Admittedly, it was all in the service of selling an essential-oil diffuser, but still.

Then, last week, Khloe Kardashian, third of that line, posted snapshots on Instagram of her daughter True’s bookshelves. And there, strewn oh-so-casually amid a set of pink-flowered teacups, were copies of Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. No word on whether these are gifts from Aunt Kourtney, but there’s no essential-oil diffuser in sight, so perhaps not.

With little True Thompson apparently a newly minted member of the family book club, we now face the possibility of not one but two generations of Kardashian Janeites. Given that True won't celebrate her second birthday until April, however, we may have to wait awhile before we can be certain she shares her foremothers’ excellent taste in literature.

I realize that the more cynical among you may argue that the Kardashians’ conspicuous Austen-love is all for appearances’ sake, a calculated brand-management effort designed to convey Girly Yet Smart. You may be ungenerously tempted to bring up Miss Bingley’s efforts to read the second volume of Mr. Darcy’s book, or Mrs. Elton and her Italian endearments.

But no! I refuse! I prefer to think that the Kardashian women have developed an appetite for lucid prose and biting social satire, to go along with the bikinis and bling.

Really, though, the only thing that will settle this dispute is for Kim Kardashian West to add her vote. Perhaps an Instagram shot of her beach basket, with a copy of Mansfield Park nestled amid the high-thread-count towels and organic sunscreen? A selfie with a Sense and Sensibility paperback tucked into a plunging neckline? An arty photo of a pensive Kim, captioned “You pierce my soul”? The possibilities are endless.

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