Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 14 2017 02:00PM

The year marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death is almost over, but one more major Austen anniversary lies ahead of us: 2018 is the two hundredth year since the posthumous joint publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.*


Writer, critic, and blogger Sarah Emsley, who has already curated eclectic and insightful blog series for the bicentenaries of Mansfield Park and Emma, will launch a new one on Saturday, Austen’s 242nd birthday. Running over the next six months, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” will include posts from dozens of Austen readers, some academic and some not, analyzing different aspects of these two very different novels.


My contribution is running at the very end, in June, since I’m writing about Captain Wentworth’s letter, perhaps my single favorite passage in all of Jane Austen. Don’t ask me how I snagged this prize; Sarah didn’t even make me arm-wrestle for it.


Emsley has a star-studded Janeite Rolodex; the contributors to her past series have exposed me to new information and ideas about everything from Austen’s religious beliefs to Regency cooking. I’m looking forward to learning more about the novels that bookended Austen’s writing career.



* “What? I’m confused! I thought those books were published in December of 1817!”

Yes, Virginia, they were, but the title page says 1818, so we’re allowed to keep celebrating all next year.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 23 2017 02:00PM

Thanksgiving Day is upon us once again, and once again it’s time to search the works of Jane Austen – who, as an Englishwoman who never left England, had no personal Thanksgiving experience – for mentions of holiday foods.


Blog readers will recall that Austen’s novels refer to turkeys twice and potatoes once. I’m happy to report that the tally for pie, a crucial holiday staple in my house, stands at a chart-topping three!


Well, sort of.


The Brits, it’s worth recalling, define “pie” rather expansively, and Austen is no different. During the Musgroves’ riotous family Christmas in chapter 14 of Persuasion, we happen upon “tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies”; as plans come together for the summer visit to Box Hill, in Emma, “Mrs. Elton was growing impatient to name the day, and settle with Mr. Weston as to pigeon-pies and cold lamb.”


It’s unlikely that these meat-based pies – sometimes served cold (**shudder**) -- are what most Americans will place on their Thanksgiving table today. Even my British husband is content with the traditional pumpkin and pecan and has never asked me to substitute the abomination known as the Cornish pasty.


More apropos, for today’s purposes, is this snippet of dialogue between Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth, who is desperately trying – and failing -- to get her mother to talk about something Not Embarrassing during her visit to the Bingleys at Netherfield.


"Did Charlotte dine with you?" Elizabeth asks in chapter 9 of Pride and Prejudice.


"No, she would go home,” [Mrs. Bennet replies]. “I fancy she was wanted about the mince-pies. For my part, Mr. Bingley, I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up differently. But everybody is to judge for themselves, and the Lucases are very good sort of girls, I assure you. It is a pity they are not handsome! Not that I think Charlotte so very plain -- but then she is our particular friend."


Mince pies, though primarily a Christmas tradition, seem a bit more relevant to today’s holiday than brawn and pigeon. Also on point: Embarrassing relatives. Here’s hoping that your table is long on pie and short on embarrassment today.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 4 2017 01:00PM

Collecting copies of Jane Austen’s books is a popular Janeite pastime. The wealthy seek out rare and valuable first editions. The globe-trotting track down translations in every country they visit. The artistic look for beautiful, unusual, or completely silly cover designs.


And now we have word of a new miniature edition of Austen’s Juvenilia, packaged in an attractive floral cover. As a bonus, it comes with a Gucci handbag.


I admit it’s possible that the handbag, which retails for $3,500 to $7,500, depending on style and materials, is the main attraction for certain buyers. But I prefer to concentrate on the pocket-size Austen (pictured here – scroll down) that Gucci has thrown in at no extra charge.


Gucci seems to be on a bit of an Austen kick this year: back in February, the invitation to the company’s Milan fashion show came in the form of a vinyl record whose B side featured the rapper A$AP Rocky reading Captain Wentworth’s love letter to Anne Elliot. And during the show itself, models carried clutch purses designed to look like copies of Persuasion (pictured here -- scroll down).


Why Austen, you may ask? Gucci’s web site explains that the Juvenilia are “short stories written by English writer Jane Austen during her teenage years from 1787-1793, a time during which she was free from censorship or societal pressure. The creative chaos and the continuous contradictions which characterize the stories are the same pillars we witness in Gucci’s collections.”


This pitch sounds a bit like a (badly written and commercialized) version of the familiar thesis that Austen was able to express her true self only in her madcap adolescent writings and was later forced to tamp down her authentically anarchic spirit in order to get published.


Whatever you think of that view -- I'm not convinced, but never mind -- the main reason Austen was “free from censorship or societal pressure” while writing the Juvenilia is that, as far as we know, they were never read by anyone outside her family until long afte her death. Presumably, Gucci would prefer a bit more public exposure for its products.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 21 2017 01:00PM

The Jane Austen bicentenary is already a month in the rearview mirror, but cute little tie-in pieces are still turning up online – sometimes new, sometimes overlooked in the mad July 18 rush.


Here are three that have caught my attention recently:


-- “If Jane Austen characters used dating apps”: The BBC imagines how Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham would behave in the Age of Tinder. Not surprisingly, Darcy’s profile is sparse – frankly, I don’t think he’d ever stoop to online dating in the first place, but I’ll suspend my disbelief – and yet Elizabeth swipes right anyway. (Hey, the profile photo is of Colin Firth, so who can blame her?) Funniest touch: Wickham texting an unsolicited pic of his, um, sword. Though I suspect Wickham would be smoother than that. Sword pics seem like more of a John Thorpe move.


--“History of Jane Austen (in One Take)”: History Bombs, which produces fast, hip educational videos and supporting materials for classroom use, offers a five-minute rap summarizing the basics of Jane Austen’s life. It’s funny and entertaining, and of course it’s better that kids should meet Jane Austen than not. But surely if you’re teaching history, you shouldn’t make factual errors about even relatively minor matters like Jane Austen’s age at death or the terms on which she published Emma. *


--“Jane Austen’s facts and figures – in charts”: The Guardian offers an intriguing graphic tour through such matters as the ages of Austen’s heroines, the relative incomes of her characters, and the proportion of unhappy marriages portrayed in her novels (42 percent, they claim). I would quibble over some details – Persuasion’s spontaneous after-dinner dance for three or four couples doesn’t qualify as a ball in my book – and it’s a shame that the Google doc laying out the data in more detail seems to have vanished. Still, this feature should be good for starting a few conversations.



* Thanks to Marian Wilson Kimber for bringing this one to my attention.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 27 2017 01:00PM

Barely is the metaphorical ink dry on my recent blog post lamenting all the great UK Jane Austen bicentenary events that we American Janeites are likely to miss when I happen across another one.


This time it’s an exhibition of Austen manuscripts, artifacts and film clips, titled “Which Jane Austen?” and on display at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries from June 22 to October 29. Among the items in the exhibition – some from the Bod’s own collections, some on loan from other places – will be the manuscripts of The Watsons and Sanditon, Austen’s two unfinished novels; the logbook that her sailor brother Frank kept on board one of his ships, HMS Canopus; and Austen’s hand-copied music books.


The point of the exhibition, according to curator Kathryn Sutherland, an eminent Austen scholar who teaches at Oxford, is to counter the “popular belief” that Austen was a “retiring country mouse” by showing her intimate engagement, both in her fiction and through the experiences of family members, with the worlds of politics, war and commerce.


Sigh.


Don’t get me wrong: The exhibit sounds great, and I am green with envy of all the British Janeites who will get to see it. But really: Could we let go of the dear-innocent-little-Jane meme that we keep insisting is everybody else’s idea of Austen?


Yes, in the decades following the 1870 publication of her nephew’s hagiographic Memoir of Jane Austen, Kindly Domestic Aunt Jane was the accepted image. But at least since the 1940s, when D.W. Harding published his famous essay on Austen’s “regulated hatred,” an alternative view of a tougher, more politically engaged Austen has been equally prevalent, if not more so.


And by now – after decades of scholarship about the mentions of slavery in Mansfield Park, the Napoleonic Wars context to Persuasion, the guillotining of Austen’s French cousin-by-marriage, the radicalism or conservatism of Austen’s sexual politics, the cutting things she writes about the Prince Regent in her letters, yada yada yada – it’s not clear to me that anyone still believes Austen was a sweet-natured maiden aunt who barely noticed that her country was at war for most of her adult life.


I suppose if Sutherland is talking about the views of your average person on the street, whose acquaintance with Jane Austen mostly consists of a forced high school march through Pride and Prejudice and repeated viewings of Clueless, this could be an accurate account. But does someone like that even know, or care, enough about Jane Austen to think of her as a retiring country mouse? I have my doubts.


Perhaps the exigencies of marketing in our noisy culture require that every new Austen book, movie, or exhibition be portrayed as a fearless effort to push back the forces that insist on inappropriately domesticating a strong and subversive woman writer. From where I sit, though, it looks like this battle was over -- and won -- long ago.


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