Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 7 2017 02:00PM

How time flies.


It’s been exactly a year since a Scottish art gallery announced that Graham Short, an artist known for his teeny-tiny masterworks, had engraved miniature portraits of Jane Austen on four Winston Churchill £5 notes.


As blog readers will recall, in a deliberate echo of the Golden Ticket sweepstakes in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Short spent the notes in cafés throughout Britain and challenged the spending public to find these needles in the currency haystack. Breathless press reports speculated that, based on the prices Short’s earlier work had commanded, the embellished fivers could be worth as much as £50,000 ($67,000).


Given the amount of currency out there, I was skeptical early on that these four prized portraits – Jane Austen in her familiar cap, encircled by a quote from one of her novels – would ever turn up. Then, in relatively short order, three did. Two of the lucky winners decided to keep the notes as souvenirs; the remarkably generous third winner donated her fiver back to the gallery, with a request that it be used “to help young people.”


Tomorrow, that wish will come true, when the fiver – this one bears the Pride and Prejudice quote "To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love" -- is auctioned off. The auction will benefit BBC Children in Need, a charitable arm of the venerable broadcaster, which makes grants to projects aimed at helping disadvantaged children and youths. Just incidentally, the auction will also provide the first gauge of the Austen fivers’ actual market value, as opposed to their entirely speculative, reporter-determined value.


In July, to commemorate the bicentenary of Austen’s death, Short donated a fifth embellished fiver for display at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. Meanwhile, one last note remains undiscovered somewhere. Check your piggy banks, Brits: you could have a surprise holiday gift in there.


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, Nov 20 2017 02:00PM

Twenty-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Only six of Jane Austen’s letters to her oldest niece, Fanny Knight, survive, but for Janeites mining for links between Austen’s work and Austen’s life, that tiny correspondence is chock-full of golden nuggets.


Scarcely seventeen years separated aunt from niece, and Fanny seems to have enjoyed parsing her romantic dilemmas with this sympathetic and interested older confidante, in a pre-telephonic version of “And then he said. . . . And then I said. . . . And then he said. . . .”


Austen’s letters to Fanny fall into two groups: two letters written in November 1814, when Fanny was twenty-one and Austen thirty-eight; and three more written some two and a half years later, in early 1817, when Fanny was twenty-four and the forty-one-year-old Austen had only months to live. (The sixth letter, which contains a few verses of doggerel, was written years earlier, when Fanny was a child.)


The letter Austen finished writing exactly 203 years ago today -- #109 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- is the first of two in which Aunt Jane addresses Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for the young clergyman John Plumptre. (I blogged about the second of these letters here.)


To me, what’s most interesting about Letter #109 is the way that Austen’s reactions to Fanny resonate with incidents or dialogue in her work. Apparently, Fanny has visited Plumptre’s home, hoping to stimulate her waning passion by a view of his things. Austen can’t help giggling at the idea. “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!--Such a circumstance ought to be in print,” she writes. And little more than a year later, with the publication of Emma, the world was introduced to Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” – a worn-out pencil stub and an extra bit of court plaister, saved as stimuli to romantic nostalgia. Was Fanny’s dirty shaving rag an inspiration for Harriet’s treasure trove? Impossible to say – but tempting to speculate.


The letter contains an even more explicit echo of Austen’s fiction. After cataloguing the worthy Mr. Plumptre’s many merits, Austen nevertheless advises Fanny to consult her own feelings: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen writes.


Was Jane Austen channeling, consciously or unconsciously, the gentle, optimistic Jane Bennet -- in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice, published the year before -- who, confronted with the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy, cries, “Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection”? Impossible to know – but tempting to speculate.


In their insistence on marital love, both Janes are speaking to young women for whom the prudential and the romantic need not conflict: for the fictional Lizzy, because she has fallen in love with a wealthy man, and for the real-life Fanny, because she is herself an heiress. But Austen’s advice also echoes a far darker passage in her work – a snippet of dialogue in the early pages of her fragment The Watsons, in which the idealistic Emma Watson and her older, less naïve sister Elizabeth discuss the search for a husband.


“I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,” exclaims Emma, who has grown up with a wealthy aunt and only recently returned to her struggling birth family.


“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school,” Elizabeth replies. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have.”


Austen undoubtedly took Fanny’s romantic woes seriously, but she must have realized that the stakes were far lower for a young woman who, even if she stayed single, would never have to face the hard work and genteel poverty of teacher or governess. And perhaps that is why, amid her genuine concern for the feelings of Fanny and the unfortunate Mr. Plumptre, Austen’s wry, unromantic common sense cannot help but assert itself.


Fanny has encouraged her suitor, and therefore pain awaits him if she changes her mind, Austen acknowledges. But not that much pain. “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up,” she writes, “but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 19 2017 01:00PM

Fifty-three years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, while he could not fully define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”


Apparently, so do the wardens of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. And for them, the category includes Jane Austen fanfic.


In a case now pending in federal appeals court, a convicted murderer serving a life-without-parole sentence argues that the prison’s no-porn policy, under which his jailers refused to give him a number of items mailed to him by his mother, is unconstitutionally broad and vague. Among the rejected items were Renaissance art images, a book on Picasso and Matisse, a collection of erotic fantasy tales called Thrones of Desire – and Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition. *


I take no position on the merits of the case, but based on my skim of the excerpt available online, Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition has no merits of its own, even if it was written by a sometime bestselling author. (Although the book is credited to “Jane Austen and Annabella Bloom,” the “Note from One of the Authors” – guess which one? -- is signed by a writer with the comically appropriate name of Michelle Pillow.)


Taking a leaf from the eighty-percent-Austen playbook of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book seems to consist largely of Austen’s prose, studded with occasional not-very-good edits (Mr. Bennet’s “quick parts” become “a fast mind”) and saccharine interpolations (Jane Bennet, mooning over Mr. Bingley after the Meryton Assembly, “danced around the room, twirling in her long nightgown till it billowed about her legs.”) And lest we be in any doubt about where we’re headed, Elizabeth has barely glimpsed Darcy before she’s daydreaming about the “unmistakably mesmerizing shift of his hips beneath his jacket.”


What’s that? You want to know more about the sex scenes? I’m shocked – shocked! We’re discussing literature here!


Oh, all right. I can confirm that they exist. Lydia sneaks away from the Meryton Assembly for an assignation with a married man’s “turgid shaft,” and as Chapter 3 closes, Darcy is – ahem! – “t[aking] himself in hand” to thoughts of that distracting Bennet girl. (Not handsome enough to tempt him, indeed!)


I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether the book’s presence in the case might stem from one of those mistakes that your mom sometimes makes when confronted with the puzzling intricacies of Amazon. Turns out that the editor of Thrones of Desire, Mitzi Szereto, is the author of yet another sexed-up P&P -- Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts. Could it be that the prisoner-son is a Szereto fan who never even wanted the Wild and Wanton Edition?


Tell it to the judge, I guess.



* Thanks to Devoney Looser for posting this tidbit on Facebook.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 16 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen anticipates current events in Hollywood:


Northanger Abbey, ch. 15:

“ ‘Did you ever hear the old song ‘Going to One Wedding Brings on Another?’ I say, you will come to Belle’s wedding, I hope. . . . And then you know’ — twisting himself about and forcing a foolish laugh — ‘I say, then you know, we may try the truth of this same old song. . . . But I have a notion, Miss Morland, you and I think pretty much alike upon most matters.’ ”


Emma, ch. 15:

“. . . scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up -- her hand seized -- her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping -- fearing -- adoring -- ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible. . . .


“ ‘Charming Miss Woodhouse! allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me.’ ”


Pride and Prejudice, ch. 19:

"I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favor; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long. . . .


"When I do myself the honor of speaking to you next on this subject, I shall hope to receive a more favorable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character. . .


"You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. . . . in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small, that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females."


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