Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 3 2019 01:00PM

It’s that time again, Janeites: The Jane Austen Society of North America is holding its Annual General Meeting (AGM) over the next four days. This year’s gala – theme: “200 Years of Northanger Abbey: ‘Real, Solemn History’ ” – is taking place in the period-appropriate setting of Williamsburg, Virginia.


At this point, I’ve been to a lot of AGMs – if memory serves, this one will be my eleventh. But even when the offerings in the shopping emporium seem over-familiar, I always enjoy catching up with old friends, meeting interesting new people, and gaining unexpected insights into the ever-fresh work of Jane Austen, via an assortment of plenary lectures and breakout talks delivered by an eclectic array of speakers. This year’s lineup includes university professors, novelists, booksellers, librarians, costume experts, and even a professional matchmaker.


Because I’m a sometime chronicler of JASNA’s history (chapter 8 in Among the Janeites), this year’s AGM has special resonance for me: Saturday night’s banquet will be held forty years to the day after the very first JASNA gathering, the society’s kickoff dinner in a mirrored, gold-draperied room at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City. A Friday morning panel will feature reminiscences by three people who have been members of JASNA since the beginning, or as close as makes no difference.


JASNA’s three founders – Joan Austen-Leigh, Henry Burke, and Jack Grey – are long dead, but their vision lives on. Surely they would have been thrilled to see us all now.



By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 1 2019 01:00PM

As I have pointed out rather often, most recently earlier this week, the Internet is filled with quotes from filmed adaptations of Jane Austen novels that are erroneously attributed to Austen herself.


You might think, then, that you could avoid embarrassment by checking searchable databases of Austen’s texts to make sure that the words you plan to quote can actually be found therein. And this would, indeed, be a great first step.


But Austen is a slippery writer. Just because she – or, really, one of her characters – says something doesn’t mean that Austen intends us to take that sentiment at face value. Irony is omnipresent; context is crucial. Sometimes, in fact, her intended meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning. You have to tread carefully when quoting Austen.


And thus it is that I bring you, as a companion piece to Monday's Top Five (Or, Actually, Six) Faux Jane Austen Quotes, the Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes.


The Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes


5. “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 5)


Internet understanding: What a profound parsing of terms! Clearly, this is Jane Austen speaking! Better highlight this for the test!


In context: Missing the point of the conversation, as per usual, pedantic Mary Bennet struggles to get friends and family to pay some attention to her. Because actually this level of abstraction is no help at all when it comes to living life.



4. “Without music, life would be a blank for me.” (Emma, ch. 32)


Internet understanding: Like, totally! So inspirational! I’m really into music, too!


In context: Pretentious, conceited Mrs. Elton parades her accomplishments, right before announcing that she won’t have time for them now that she’s married. Because actually she couldn’t care less about music.



3. “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 34)


Internet understanding: Swoon! Has anything ever been more romantic? Let’s quote this at our wedding!


In context: Entitled, arrogant Mr. Darcy offers insulting marriage proposal and (deservedly) gets his heart handed to him on a tea tray. Because actually this is rude and overbearing, not romantic.



2. “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.” (Northanger Abbey, ch. 6)


Internet understanding: #BFF! This is so you, girlfriend!


In context: Manipulative Isabella Thorpe vouches for her own unselfishness (since no one else is going to do it) while getting her hooks into a naïve – but potentially useful! -- new friend. Because actually Isabella is utterly insincere and self-interested.



1. “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 11)


Internet understanding: Jane Austen is a writer. Therefore, Jane Austen must have liked reading. Yeah, she says so right here. And it’s so true! Reading is awesome! Also, let’s put this on the Jane Austen £10 note!


In context: Miss Bingley picks up a book to impress the eligible Mr. Darcy but tosses it away in boredom moments later. Because actually she doesn’t like to read.



And the moral of our story? Merely searching the text isn't enough. Because actually you have to read the books.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 1 2019 01:00PM

The dog days of summer are approaching, and perhaps that’s why the amount of Stupid Jane Austen Stuff coming my way seems to have ramped up recently. The hot weather softens the brain, I guess, rendering journalists incapable of CHECKING THE ACCURACY of anything they post online about one of the world’s most famous authors.


Or so I conclude from the following:


1. Bad Quoting: For once, it’s not a movie quote masquerading as a book quote. It’s a book quote understood in a sense diametrically opposed to Austen’s intentions.


“Where would we be without our best friends?” the parenting website Romper asked last month. “It's hard to encapsulate all that your bestie means to you in a speedily written message, but worry not, these sentimental things to text your BFF on National Best Friends' Day will do just that.”


Topping the following thirteen-item list is a one-hundred-percent genuine quote from Northanger Abbey: “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.”


Why this quote? Romper explains: “Jane just had a way with words, and if your friends are big bookworms like mine are, they'll likely know the quote.”


Better hope not, since these words come from the mouth of Isabella Thorpe, whose recipe for friendship is two parts cynical manipulation to one part insincere flattery. (Although, come to think of it, Isabella is exactly the kind of person who would text Hallmark-worthy sentiments to her #BFF #reallyyouare #loveyousomuchgirl for a fake holiday like this one.)


2. Bad History: A strikingly unusual four-bedroom house is for sale in Warwickshire, in south-central England. It’s an octagonal building located on the palatial grounds of a medieval abbey. It’s selling for £870,000 (about $1.1 million). The pictures make it look lovely. So far, so good.


Alas, however, the estate in question is Stoneleigh Abbey, which has a peripheral relationship to Jane Austen’s life and work. Thus giving us the following headline on a report about the sale of the octagonal house: “Inside the eight-sided home in Warwickshire that inspired one of Jane Austen’s novels.”


Sigh. Yes, it has often been theorized that Austen based Sotherton Court, the Rushworths’ grand home in Mansfield Park, and especially the family chapel where one crucial scene occurs, on Stoneleigh Abbey and its chapel. The eight-sided house, however, forms no part in this discussion. I’d call it an exaggeration to say that even Stoneleigh itself “inspired” the entire novel, but I’ll cut the headline writers a break . . .


. . . because at least they didn’t write the following, from a different publication’s report on the sale of the octagonal house: “Jane moved to the estate in 1806, before she became a successful novelist, when it was inherited by her mother’s cousin, Reverend Thomas Leigh. He brought Cassandra Austen, Jane’s mother, to live with him at the site as well as Jane and her sister, also called Cassandra. At the time the gardener on the estate was Humphry Repton, who later featured as a minor character in Austen’s third novel Mansfield Park.”


Extraordinary how much misinformation can be packed into a few short sentences. To wit:


--Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister visited Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 while staying for a short time with Reverend Leigh in the nearby village of Adlestrop. They “moved to” Stoneleigh only in the sense that I “moved to” Rhode Island during my four-day vacation there last summer.


--Humphry Repton was not a gardener. He was one of the most famous landscape designers of his era. He did, indeed, undertake improvements at Stoneleigh, but not until a year or two after the Austens’ visit.


--Repton is not a character, even a minor one, in Mansfield Park. He is mentioned briefly during a discussion in chapter 6 of possible improvements to Sotherton.


And to think! All of this is easily verifiable through a few quick Google searches!


3. Bad Biography: Although you have to be careful about what you Google, since you might end up getting your question answered on a site like Study.com, a purveyor of online courses, where I found the following answer to the question “Who was Jane Austen married to?”


“Jane Austen never married. She fell in love with her former neighbor, Tom Lefroy. They spent much time in each other's company, and it briefly looked as if they would marry. However, Tom Lefroy never proposed to Jane Austen, and their relationship eventually ended. For the rest of her life, Jane Austen set Tom up as the standard by which she judged all other suitors. None of them compared to him, so she refused to marry.”


**headdesk**


It’s not even that Tom Lefroy was a visitor to the neighborhood, not a neighbor; or that they actually spent only a handful of hours in each other’s company, not “much time”; or that the depth of Austen’s feelings for him and the reason(s) she never married are unknown, and unknowable. No, it’s the sentimental and purely speculative twaddle about Tom as “the standard by which she judged all other suitors” that really irks me. Repeat after me, children: Becoming Jane was fictionalized. Just because Anne Hathaway says it, that doesn’t make it true.


Suggestion for Study.com: Offer a course in finding accurate information on the Internet.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 3 2019 02:00PM

Over the last eight years, we’ve marked a plethora of Jane Austen anniversaries: the bicentennials of the publications of all six of her novels (2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2018) and the bicentennial of her death (2017). It’s lucky we’ve had all that practice, because 2019 will bring us three more notable Austen anniversaries – or, to be exact, three Austen-fandom anniversaries:


--Thirty years ago, the Jane Austen Society of Australia (JASA) was founded. A birthday party is already scheduled for December 14, just two days ahead of Austen’s own 244th.


--Forty years ago, the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) marked its debut with an October 5 dinner at Manhattan’s Gramercy Park Hotel, attended by one hundred guests and covered in the New Yorker magazine. On the same evening this year, about six times that many people will raise a glass to JASNA in Williamsburg, Virginia, the site of this year’s Annual General Meeting. The conference theme is “200 Years of Northanger Abbey.” Actually, it’s 201 years, but who’s counting?


--Seventy years ago, the most beloved Austen pilgrimage site, Jane Austen’s House Museum – aka Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – welcomed its first visitors. On the July 23 anniversary of the opening, the museum’s first seventy visitors will get in for the 1949 admission price (about a quarter of the current cost), and four days later everyone is invited to a birthday party.


After all the partying, by this time next year, you may feel inclined to take a breather. But don’t get too comfortable: 2020 marks the eightieth anniversary of the UK Jane Austen Society, the world’s first, whose initial goal was the raising of money to preserve Chawton cottage. And once that anniversary is safely over, it will be time to start thinking about the biggie just over the horizon: 2025, the two hundred and fiftieth year since Austen’s birth.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 8 2018 02:00PM

Back in middle and high school, I took French. In college, I took Italian. I enjoyed them both – beautiful languages, fascinating cultures and histories, great national literatures.


Alas, however, it seems I should have been studying Portuguese.


This belated realization came to me last week, when I learned that Brazilian TV had just concluded the six-month, hundred-hour run of a racy new early-evening soap opera, Orgulho e Paixão (Pride and Passion), that gleefully mingles characters and plot elements from four Jane Austen novels and the novella Lady Susan.


The adapters seem to have taken a few liberties with their source material, and not just in the title pairing. Although the story still concerns a family with five daughters to marry off, it’s set among early twentieth-century coffee barons in rural southern Brazil – “more Downton Abbey than Jane Austen,” writer Marcos Bernstein told the BBC.


In this version, two of the Benedito family’s girls hail from Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and free-spirited Elisabeta has not only a love interest named Darcy but also a close friend named Ema.


Oh, and the proceedings also involve a pregnant Lydia-clone who abandons her groom at the altar, an Elisabeta who attends a party in male costume, a Bingley-equivalent who joins a fight club, and a Darcy who ventures down a mine -- not to mention a gay kiss and a scene in which a couple bathe together under a waterfall. All of it was shocking enough that Brazilian regulators deemed the program unsuitable for children.


OK, so it’s not a strictly faithful adaptation.


But come on – does this not sound wildly entertaining? It’s probably too late for me to learn Portuguese, but according to the BBC, the Jane Austen Society of Brazil (blog here, website here) now boasts four thousand members, making it among the largest Austen societies in the world. Surely someone in this group has a little free time on her hands and would like to spend it creating English subtitles for Orgulho e Paixão? Can you say "Janeite service project"?


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