Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 28 2016 01:00PM

We fans of Jane Austen movie adaptations have had kind of a dry spell for the last few years.

We’ve watched poor Sally Hawkins gallop through the streets of Bath, in the travesty that was the 2007 Persuasion. We’ve goggled at the utterly miscast cleavage of Billie Piper in the 2007 Mansfield Park. We’ve endured Austenland, survived Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (OK, I admit I haven’t actually seen that one yet – waiting for the DVD), and sat through – God help us – Unleashing Mr. Darcy.

So I think we really deserve to have Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, the first-ever screen adaptation of Lady Susan, be excellent. Early reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival (for instance, here) have been very positive, and now comes this trailer.

Squee! Looks ve-e-ry promising! Dry spell may be over!

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 30 2015 02:00PM

Ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.

We know so little of Jane Austen’s views on nearly everything that it’s tempting to mine her novels for raw material and map the results back onto her life. But this extrapolation from made-up stories to real-life opinions is a risky business, as any writer who has ever invented people quite different from herself will tell you.

Hence the avidity with which we read the letter Jane Austen wrote to her eldest niece, 21-year-old Fanny Knight, on November 30, 1814, exactly 201 years ago today (#114 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). At last! Some hint of Austen’s unfiltered attitudes toward love, romance and marriage!

The letter forms just one chapter in a continuing saga. Earlier in November 1814, Fanny had consulted thirty-nine-year-old Aunt Jane about an affair of the heart: Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for John Plumptre, an eligible clergyman who seemed eager to marry her. Austen had pointed out the young man’s merits, and in her reply, Fanny apparently seemed persuaded that, whatever her own doubts, she should let her aunt’s views sway her.

But in today’s letter, Austen retreats, terrified “out of my Wits” that Fanny will disregard the less-than-passionate nature of her own attachment. Like Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Musgrove in the climactic scene of Persuasion, Austen notes the dangers of a long engagement. “Years may pass before he is Independent,” she writes. “You like him well enough to marry, but not well enough to wait.” (That’s a line whose clear-eyed understanding of human irrationality and frailty earns it a place in the Austen canon.)

Though Austen admits that Fanny has led Plumptre on and will seem fickle if she drops him now, this is the lesser of two evils, she insists, for “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love, bound to one, & preferring another.”

That sentence could be read as romantic – Jane Austen, novelist of courtship, speaking out for love! – and certainly Austen is urging Fanny to take the temperature of her own feelings and marry only if they are warm enough.

But Austen is not endorsing a swoony belief in a passion that is Meant To Be. Austen recognizes that much in life is contingent on circumstance. Marry now, and the relationship may flourish; wait too long, and fledgling feelings may wither. She acknowledges the importance – indeed, the essential importance – of romantic love, but she’s realistic about its limitations. She’s still the Jane Austen we know, even when she isn’t writing for publication.

By the way, Fanny didn’t marry John Plumptre.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 28 2015 01:00PM

The mainstream media are convinced that Jane Austen’s work is a giant No Sex Zone.

Nothing seems to shake this perception, no matter how often you point out that there are two illegitimate children in Sense and Sensibility, a living-in-sin elopement in Pride and Prejudice, a home-wrecking adultery in Mansfield Park, and a kept-woman situation in Persuasion.

Nope, nope, nope: Austen is all tremulous glances and virgins in frilly white dresses, and those nutty Janeites can’t handle racier stuff. “For Jane Austen purists, the sight of two characters sharing a kiss in a screen adaptation is enough to set hackles rising,” insists the Telegraph.

Hence the excessive fascination aroused by a recent speech by Austen scholar John Mullan at the annual Hay-on-Wye literary festival. (I note that two years ago, British novelist Howard Jacobson also talked about Jane Austen and sex at the Hay Festival. Apparently, this topic is inexhaustibly fascinating for British literary types.)

Mullan offered the not exactly startling conclusion that, in Emma, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax may have been canoodling shortly before Emma finds them together in Miss Bates’ apartment, where Frank has allegedly been mending Mrs. Bates’ spectacles.

“I think they have been at it, in a Regency sort of way,” Mullan said. “I put it to you they’ve been snogging.”

Mullan, who should know better, also repeats the Austen-fans-don’t-like-kissing canard, and the Telegraph’s story cites as examples of Janeite purism objections to the kisses at the end of the 1995 Amanda Root Persuasion and the 2005 Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice.

In neither instance, though, did Janeites object to the kiss per se: we objected to the public nature of the kiss in Persuasion (in the Regency, even long-married couples didn’t snog on the street), and to the saccharine nature of the dialogue in P&P (“Mrs. Darcy. . .Mrs. Darcy. . .”)

Kisses are no problem. It’s historical inaccuracy and bad writing that really raise Janeite hackles.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 2 2015 02:00PM

Another year, another round of Let’s Misquote Jane Austen.

Back in October, the last time I was overcome by irritation at the general inability to CHECK THE TEXT before attributing any old line to Jane Austen, I focused my annoyance on a Bustle list of “19 Jane Austen Quotes That Can Fit in a Tweet.”

That list included three quotes from Austen movie adaptations, so I didn’t come down too hard on the three additional quotes that were garbled versions of actual Austen lines.

Such restraint ends now. has given us “40 Authors on How to Be Happy” – actually, forty authors saying something about happiness, not necessarily giving instructions – and the Austen contribution, at #15, is misquoted and attributed to the wrong book.

As we Janeites know, it’s Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, not someone or other in Pride and Prejudice, who says, “I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve” – not, as ShortList has it, “I must learn to be content with being happier than I deserve.”

A minor difference, you think? Let us pause for a moment to note how much better Austen’s line is. First, it’s pithier: ten words instead of twelve. Second, it's more euphonious, avoiding the slightly clunky “to be. . .with being” construction and substituting the alliteration of “brook being.” And third, it's funnier, since “brook” connotes a teeth-gritted endurance, which contrasts amusingly with the happiness that the good captain must force himself to bear.

Interestingly, precisely the same misquote, misattribution and all, appeared on that old Bustle list, too, and Google informs me that this doubly-wrong version is all over the Net. No doubt someone right now is repeating the error on a key-ring or a fridge magnet, secure in the knowledge that ShortList and Bustle must know what they're talking about. (Ha!)

How do these mistakes get started, I wonder? I’d guess that someone – call her the ur-misquoter, or UMQ for short – decided to jettison the slightly old-fashioned “to brook” in favor of a more modern-sounding alternative. Not being as good a writer as Jane Austen – who is? – the UMQ ended up with an inferior version.

And why P&P rather than Persuasion? Oh, you know: Colin Firth, etc. As far as the misquoters are concerned, Jane Austen only wrote one book. Why even bother checking?

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