Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 23 2017 01:00PM

Regular blog readers will recall that I find the very concept of “Jane Austen-inspired” smells, flavors and visuals – as in Austen perfume, toothpaste or knitting patterns – bizarre and problematic. I accept that this is because I am a blinkered and limited human being.


Clearly, however, others are far less bemused by Austen-inspired brand extension than I am. The latest evidence of this fact is the Jane Austen textile design competition co-sponsored by the Whitchurch Silk Mill, a historic nineteenth-century factory located not far from Steventon, the Hampshire village where Jane Austen was born and lived until she was twenty-five.


Earlier this week, the mill announced that a textile pattern designed by Nicole Calliste, a student at the Winchester School of Art, had won a contest “to produce a design which reflected Jane Austen’s enduring influence for a modern-day audience.” (Like so much else going on in Hampshire this year, the competition is part of the commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death.)


Calliste’s design, which she will weave on a handloom at the mill, was inspired by the curious and imaginative Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. “This is the sort of fabric a young woman of great imagination and creativity may have chosen today,” the mill’s director says.


By June, the pattern will be for sale in the mill’s gift shop, incorporated into pencil cases and other items. Judging from the newspaper photo, it’s a bright and appealing textile. But if you didn’t already know it was Austen-inspired, could you tell? I couldn’t – but, as we’ve already established, I’m blinkered and limited.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 27 2017 02:00PM

Once or twice in the past, I have mentioned my aversion to lists of Jane Austen quotes – or mugs with Jane Austen quotes, or, indeed, any items with Jane Austen quotes – that feature quotes that are not actually by Jane Austen. (OK, maybe more than twice.)


I have not dwelt with quite as much vigor on the similarly irritating phenomenon of merchandise featuring out-of-context Jane Austen quotes – for instance, the pendant enclosing those immortal Northanger Abbey lines, “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,” spoken by that paragon of unselfish female friendship, Isabella Thorpe.


Perhaps it is time to remedy this omission. Last week, my Google alert for Austen’s name brought me word of a new (or new to me?) Pride and Prejudice-themed item in the gift shop of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England: a heart-shaped slate wall-hanging that reads, "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." It’s “the ideal romantic gift or decoration,” the promotional copy assures us.


Much as I hate to torpedo the romantic mood, I feel compelled to point out that this line comes from a marriage proposal that was refused – refused, I might add, because it was overbearing, arrogant and insulting. Shortcomings that, just incidentally, Jane Austen makes crystal clear to the alert reader even in this short passage. (“In vain have I struggled”? Why is he fighting his feelings? Because, as he will shortly make clear, he is so acutely conscious of the social inferiority of his love object. “You must allow me to tell you”? What, no one else gets any choices?)


Sure, Mr. Darcy is a romantic icon, but not because of this scene! He’s going to improve, but meanwhile he’s a jerk, and reform-after-jerkiness is kind of the point of the book. I find it annoying when Darcy’s every utterance, even when uttered by his unreformed self, is treated as swoon-worthy; it’s as if the hotness of Colin Firth magically transforms Mr. Darcy into one of those unblemished paragons who, as Jane Austen so memorably remarked, made her “sick and wicked.”


But if you disagree, you can pick up this little item for a mere £10.99. If you wait until summer, you can pay for it using one of the new Jane Austen £10 notes, which feature a quote about the joys of reading from that noted intellectual, Caroline Bingley.



By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 2 2017 02:00PM

Happy new year, Janeites! For us fans of Jane Austen, 2017 is a big year, the biggest since – well, since 2013, when we celebrated the bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, still Austen’s most popular work.


This year, we have an altogether more melancholy occasion to mark – the two hundredth anniversary of Austen’s death, on July 18, 1817, at the all-too-young age of forty-one. (Depending how you count, it may also be the bicentenary of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in a three-volume set that appeared in December 1817 with a title-page publication date of 1818.)


Across the planet, and especially in Austen’s home country of England, Austen fans will celebrate her life and mourn her death at balls, exhibits, lectures, conferences and festivals. Our shelves will creak under the weight of Austen-related books published to coincide with the anniversary. And in Britain, wallets will fill up with Austen-embellished currency. We may even get to see a new Austen movie.


An unscientific, and undoubtedly incomplete, sampling of what’s ahead:

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 22 2016 01:00PM

Screenwriter Andrew Davies, who turned 80 this past Tuesday, is a Janeite demigod, the man who brought us not only the beloved 1995 Firth-Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice, but also highly respected TV adaptations of Northanger Abbey, Emma and Sense and Sensibility.


Davies is famous for adding S-E-X to the supposedly sexless classics -- “People say that I could sex up the Tube map,” he told a Radio Times interviewer last weekend.


At least in his Austen adaptations, the supposedly shocking material is strictly PG-13 -- a bare shoulder here, a rumpled bed there, the odd clingy wet shirt. But twenty years ago, that was enough to cause a sensation in the decorous world of period drama. (Not any more, of course: Thanks to Davies himself, we now expect our bonnet dramas to come with bedroom scenes.)

No, what’s really notable about his work is how often he manages to convey the subtle layers of character and meaning that come through on the page but are often flattened out on screen. That’s why Davies’ adaptations repay repeated viewings, while lesser adaptations – ahem! Naming no names here – pall after a time or two.


Davies manages to stay faithful to the spirit of the works he adapts while taking liberties with some of the details – often in the service of a feminist agenda. The ending of his Bleak House improves on Dickens’ creepy original, with its patronizing handling of Esther’s love life; and Davies’ Sense and Sensibility gives Edward and Elinor a satisfyingly romantic proposal scene that Austen denies them – though arguably she had her reasons.


Now there’s a dinner party I’d like to host: Andrew Davies meets Jane Austen, over a couple of glasses of excellent Cabernet. I suspect she’d care a lot less about the sex than people think.


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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