Deborah Yaffe


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.


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.

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, 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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 4 2016 01:00PM

Jane Austen was only seven when the American War of Independence ended, and as far as I know she is not on record either pro or con – though, as a loyal daughter of Great Britain, she would most likely not have chosen to set off celebratory July 4 fireworks today.

But the smashing success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical Hamilton got me wondering about whether Hamilton appears in Austen’s work. And wouldn’t you know it – he does! Or, at least, his surname does:

"[Anne Elliot] had heard. . . of there being an old school-fellow in Bath, who had the two strong claims on her attention of past kindness and present suffering. Miss Hamilton, now Mrs. Smith, had shewn her kindness in one of those periods of her life when it had been most valuable. Anne had gone unhappy to school, grieving for the loss of a mother whom she had dearly loved, feeling her separation from home, and suffering as a girl of fourteen, of strong sensibility and not high spirits, must suffer at such a time; and Miss Hamilton, three years older than herself, but still, from the want of near relations and a settled home, remaining another year at school, had been useful and good to her in a way which had considerably lessened her misery, and could never be remembered with indifference." (Persuasion, ch. 17)

I must concede that it’s unlikely Jane Austen had that Hamilton in mind when she chose the unlucky Mrs. Smith’s maiden name. (If anyone, Lord Nelson's scandalous mistress Emma Hamilton, surely -- though the cheerful but infirm Mrs. Smith is hardly a glamorous adultress.) Still, if anyone in need of a dissertation topic (“Jane Austen and the Founding Fathers: A Study of Influence”?) wants to hunt for Jeffersons, Madisons or Burrs, be my guest. There's definitely an Adams in the Juvenilia. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, May 2 2016 01:00PM

The story sounds irresistible: A treasured Jane Austen first edition, inscribed more than a century earlier to an unknown young woman, arrives unannounced at the English department of her old high school. A dedicated teacher takes it upon herself to track down the descendants of the mysterious owner and return the precious volume. The screenplay practically writes itself.

It’s no wonder this story captured the imagination of a newspaper reporter in northeastern Massachusetts, where the copy of Persuasion – apparently given in 1900 as a prize to student Lillian M. Flood -- arrived this spring at Ayer Shirley Regional High School. The book had been sent by a woman who found it among the possessions of her deceased mother, an inveterate buyer of used books.

As a Janeite lacking the budget for Austen first editions, I was captivated by the Antiques Roadshow aspect of the story. A Jane Austen first edition, potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars, just knocking around someone’s attic? What a find!

Well -- not so much. It’s patently obvious from a close-up inspection of the picture that ran with the original story that the copy in question is not John Murray’s original 1818 edition of Persuasion but rather an 1899 edition published by the British firm of J.M. Dent, which later launched the beloved Everyman’s Library of classic literature. It doesn’t take any special expertise in rare books to figure this out -- which is lucky, since I don’t have any such expertise. The name of the publisher and publication date are right there on the title page, across from a colored illustration signed “C.E. Brock 1898.”

It’s an interesting and lovely old book, yes, but it’s no first edition. And given the ready availability of that newfangled Internet that all the kids are talking about these days – not to mention a working set of eyes -- the original reporter should have known as much. (Given the reporter's bizarre take on Persuasion -- "Unlike earlier works such as Pride and Prejudice or Emma, which gently nudged the social conventions and romantic notions of her day, Persuasion was less subtle and has been called a 'biting satire' " -- it's probably safe to assume no Janeite expertise.)

The confusion seems to have arisen because an early page of the Dent edition displays a sort of heraldic shield containing Austen’s dates and the words “first edition of Persuasion published 1818.” But this is obviously a statement about the novel’s history, not an announcement that this volume is itself a first edition.

Alas, as is so often the case in this disappointing world of ours, the story isn’t quite as good as it sounded at first. But at least it’s got a happy ending – the Massachusetts English teacher located Flood’s grandsons and is sending them the book.

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