Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 11 2019 01:00PM

Forty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


"It is a period, indeed!” Captain Wentworth exclaims to Anne Elliot, as their long estrangement begins to thaw in Chapter 22 of Persuasion. “Eight years and a half is a period!"


A similar spirit of mingled pain and nostalgia seems to have animated Jane Austen in the letter she finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 214 years ago today (#43 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The preceding months had been difficult ones for the Austens. On Jane’s twenty-ninth birthday, in December 1804, her beloved friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, known as Madame Lefroy, was killed in a horseback riding accident at 55. Two weeks later, the Austen patriarch, the Rev. George Austen, died unexpectedly at 73. His death, with the loss of his clerical pension, inaugurated a financial slide that would eventually force the surviving Austen women to move repeatedly, as they sought ever-cheaper rented rooms in less and less desirable parts of Bath.


Some inkling of these troubles surely hangs over the letter Jane wrote to Cassandra, who was back in Hampshire, the county the Austen sisters had called home until four years earlier, when their parents uprooted them. While Cassandra helped nurse the dying Mrs. Lloyd, mother of their sister-in-law Mary Austen and their close friend Martha Lloyd, Jane reported the news from Bath.


“This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlayne look hot on horseback,” Jane wrote to Cassandra. “Seven years & four months ago we went to the same Ridinghouse to see Miss Lefroy’s performance!—What a different set are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind.”


By our standards, Jane Austen was still young in 1805, and it would be another decade before she began Persuasion. But already, in this letter, we can glimpse the emotional raw materials of the novel: a melancholy sense of the inexorable passage of time.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2018 02:00PM

Nineteen is a number much on our collective minds today, as we prepare to usher in 2019, the last year of the second decade of the twenty-first century.


Accordingly, I went looking for nineteens in Jane Austen -- and I found eleven references, in ten different passages spread over four of the completed novels. (Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are nineteen-free zones.) With the exception of one throwaway Mansfield Park reference to “nineteen times out of twenty,” Austen’s nineteens are an interesting bunch – at any rate, significant enough to provide fodder for discussion while awaiting the Times Square ball drop.


For Jane Austen, nineteen is both too young and old enough: her nineteen-year-olds are variously mature and naïve, sensible and foolish. For Austen – and for us? -- nineteen is a transitional age, a waystation between childhood and adulthood.


In Mansfield Park, “eighteen or nineteen” is the age at which Mary Crawford expects girls to retain a certain innocent shyness, even if they are officially “out” in the marriage market. “One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to everything—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before,” Mary tells the Bertram brothers (ch. 5).


Yet some nineteen-year-olds are perfectly competent, it seems: Although Emma Woodhouse, at nearly twenty-one, still has much to learn, “at eighteen or nineteen [Jane Fairfax] was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself” (Emma, ch. 20).


The nineteen-year-olds of Persuasion are old enough to fall in love for keeps -- like Anne Elliot, who is nineteen when she accepts, and then refuses, Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal. But they are also young enough to mistake infatuation for the real thing -- like Louisa Musgrove, who, interestingly, is also nineteen when her charms temporarily turn the same man’s head, perhaps because he is unconsciously trying to recapture his youthful romance. And the novel contains a third naïve nineteen-year-old -- Mrs. Smith, who is nineteen when she meets, and initially likes, the duplicitous Mr. Elliot. “At nineteen, you know, one does not think very seriously,” she tells Anne (ch. 21).


Well, some nineteen-year-olds don’t: At the start of Sense and Sensibility, Austen tells us, Elinor Dashwood already “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother” (ch. 1). Like Persuasion, however, S&S features three significant nineteen-year-olds: in addition to the Elinor of the novel’s opening, there are the Edward Ferrars of four years earlier, whose “youthful infatuation of nineteen” has unhappily bound him to Lucy Steele (ch. 23), and the newlywed Marianne Dashwood of the novel’s end, who “found herself, at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (ch. 50).


Austen’s nineteen-year-olds are old enough to experience deep and sincere emotions, yet young enough to make dreadful errors of judgment. Some of them are ready to give counsel, while others trustingly follow the counsel of others. They stand on a threshold, looking backward to the consequence-free choices of childhood and ahead to the responsibilities of adulthood, with one foot in each place. Rather like us, tonight, as we leave 2018 behind and look ahead to what will come.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2018 02:00PM

Tomorrow is Christmas, the day on which a larger-than-life personage employing semi-equine transport suddenly appears in our homes, bringing good things for the good and not-so-good things for the naughty.


You may think Jane Austen didn’t have this covered. But you would be wrong.


Yes, it’s true that Christmas comes up only once in a while in Austen’s work, and seldom as an occasion of joy and revelry.


Of the three novels that refer to the holiday, only Persuasion gives us a cheerful family scene. The Christmas section of Mansfield Park highlights Mary Crawford’s inability to enjoy tranquil home pleasures, and as for the fiasco of Emma’s Christmas Eve party. . .


Austen’s proliferation of unhappy, or entirely absent, Yuletides isn’t all that surprising: As Austen scholar Devoney Looser recently explained, for Regency folk, the holiday was a relatively low-key affair, lacking the stockings-trees-and-adorable-children froufrou that was popularized by the Victorians and that still informs our modern conception of the season.


But there is at least one Austen work in which the Christmas season is indeed heralded by the arrival of a larger-than-life personage employing equine transport and, arguably, calling down appropriate rewards and punishments upon the good and the not-so-good. My text is drawn from Lady Susan, Letter 3, as Catherine Vernon writes to her mother, Lady De Courcy:


“My dear Mother

I am very sorry to tell you that it will not be in our power to keep our promise of spending our Christmas with you; and we are prevented that happiness by a circumstance which is not likely to make us any amends. Lady Susan . . . has declared her intention of visiting us almost immediately.”


True, as far as we can tell from Austen's text, the carriage that takes Lady Susan to Churchill, the Vernons’ home, is drawn by horses, not reindeer, and arrives at the front door, not on the roof. And honesty compels me to admit that, apart from one further passing reference, Christmas is never mentioned again in the course of the novella. But aside from all that. . .


Oh, fine: I’ll concede that casting the poisonous Lady Susan as Santa Claus may be something of a stretch. But think about it: an estranged relative turns up unexpectedly in a small town, disrupting family holiday plans and sparking romantic entanglements? Obviously, Lady Susan is the latest Jane-Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie -- and written by Jane Austen herself, no less. Just add hot chocolate and stir.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 27 2018 01:00PM

When you’re off to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual conference, and the theme of that conference is Persuasion, it’s irresistible to quote the following exchange from the novel, the last one Austen finished before her death:


"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

"You are mistaken," said he gently; "that is not good company; that is the best.” (ch. 16)


And the best company is what I’m expecting over the next four days. JASNA’s annual general meeting, or AGM, is invariably a great time, with thought-provoking lectures, beautiful period costumes, energetic Regency dancing, excellent Austen-themed shopping, and quirky special sessions. (I’ve been looking forward to the “Cheese Tour of Jane Austen’s England” for two years.) But the highlight is the chance to talk Austen with fellow devotees.


Although Kansas City, where the conference is being held, is reputedly a pleasant locale, it’s quite possible that I will never leave the hotel, except for the occasional lunch. The cheese, and the conversation, will tide me over nicely.



By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 27 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s characters and situations feel so real to us that it’s easy to overlook the fact that many of her stories are set in entirely fictitious places. Highbury, Meryton, Kellynch: all completely made up, despite efforts to “prove” that Sanditon is actually the southeast English town of Hastings, or that Darcy’s estate at Pemberley is based on this or that real-life stately home.


Austen creates this illusion of realism in part by sending characters who live in fictional locales on visits to real ones – places like Bath, London, Portsmouth, or Box Hill. (The website of the Jane Austen Society of North America includes a useful breakdown of real and fictitious sites in the novels.)


One of the most memorable of the real-life venues that appear in Austen’s work is Lyme Regis, the site of Louisa Musgrove’s consequential fall halfway through Persuasion. Not surprisingly, Janeites have long been eager to view the precise “steep flight” of steps on the Cobb, Lyme’s famous seawall, where Louisa insists on being “jumped down” by Captain Wentworth and is rewarded with a severe concussion and the moony, poetry-loving Captain Benwick -- a consolation prize if ever there was one.


Atop the Cobb in Lyme Regis


Earlier this month, one Janeite adventurer, British-based writer Catherine Batac Walder, chronicled her efforts to determine which of three possible candidates is the staircase Austen had in mind when she described Louisa’s fall. Seven years ago, when I visited Lyme with a JASNA tour group while researching Among the Janeites, our tour guide rehashed the same debate.


Just as I did, Walder found all three sets of stairs less precarious than the downward-sloping Cobb itself, where the intrepid walker perched on its surface is exposed to the buffeting of sea breezes, with nary a railing or handhold in sight. Still, Lyme is a beautiful and atmospheric place: it’s not hard to understand why Austen, who visited twice with her family, decided to embed this real-life location in the imaginary geography of her last completed novel.


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