Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 14 2019 02:00PM

Valentine’s Day, the celebration of lovers, dates back to the Middle Ages. Yet Jane Austen – often described as the mother of the romance novel, albeit by people who haven’t read her very carefully -- never mentions today’s most romantic of all holidays.


Or does she?


At least as far back as R.W. Chapman, the legendary editor who brought out the first scholarly editions of Austen’s work in the 1920s and -30s, Janeites have scoured Austen’s novels for hints to the dates on which events are supposed to be taking place.


Sometimes these are explicitly provided, as when Mr. Bingley reminds Elizabeth Bennet that the Netherfield ball took place on November 26. More often, however, they must be inferred from subtler clues that link a particular novel’s chronology to the almanacs for specific calendar years.


In 1986, the Austen scholar Jo Modert noted that if we take Emma – published at the end of 1815 – to be set in 1813-14, then internal clues indicate that its major events correlate with church holidays. Modert’s sleuthing uncovered fascinating evidence of Austen’s cleverness -- for instance, the fact that it is Shrove Tuesday, traditionally the religious holiday on which Christian believers were supposed to confess their sins, when Frank Churchill nearly tells Emma about his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax.


But the best known, and most delightful, of Modert’s discoveries is Austen’s hidden reference to Valentine’s Day – which, it turns out, marks the arrival of the piano that Frank secretly sends to Jane. And as the crafty Frank tells Emma in chapter 26, “Your reasonings carry my judgment along with them entirely . . . . now I can see [the gift] in no other light than as an offering of love."


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 21 2019 02:00PM

Few expressions of Janeite commitment are as permanent -- not to mention as painful -- as the Jane Austen tattoo. Therefore, I’d have thought – call me crazy! – that it would be worth taking the trouble to verify ahead of time the accuracy of any Austen quotation you planned to etch onto your skin.


Apparently, not everyone agrees with me. For every Janeite as careful as Alethea White-Previs, whose impressive array of Austen tattoos features several genuine, take-‘em-to-the-bank Austen quotations, there seem to be any number of people willing to commit themselves on the basis of a cursory Google search.


I can only hope no one is following the lead of Lucy Martin, a columnist for the University of Warwick (England) student newspaper, whose recent literary tattoo suggestions included “For those who love romance novels, ‘I love you most ardently’ from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” A line which a) is misquoted from b) a scene that, properly understood, isn’t romantic, in c) a book that is not a romance novel.


But Martin isn’t alone in her apparent inability to text-search before tattooing. In 2014, a BuzzFeed list of “23 Epic Literary Love Tattoos” included not one but two photos of skin art featuring not-in-Austen lines, both from the screenplay of the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice: “We are all fools in love” (#22) and “You have bewitched me body and soul” (#19).


The latter tattoo incorporated a picture of a quill pen, even though screenwriter Deborah Moggach seems much more likely to have used a computer. (Over on Pinterest, a poster noted proudly that the font of her new “You have bewitched me etc.” tattoo mimics “Jane Austen’s handwriting,” in which those words were never written.)


In November 2015, Bustle recommended the “fools in love” line as one of “14 Jane Austen Quotes That Would Make Great Tattoos.” Two months later, the same website featured a picture of the same phrase, prettily inked onto the skin of someone-or-other. “Jane Austen laid down some serious truth bombs in her books, but this quote from Pride and Prejudice is so universal, honest, and accurate, it practically screams ‘Pick me, pick me!’ from inside the pages,” the accompanying caption explained.


Except that you won’t find that quote inside the pages of P&P, because Jane Austen didn’t write it.


Obviously, if you love a line from a Jane Austen movie and want to ink it onto your skin, you should go right ahead. But if your goal is to acquire a literary tattoo, then it might be worthwhile to consult an actual book. And if that seems like too much work to do for your Jane Austen tattoo, maybe you’d better stick to the temporary kind.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 13 2018 02:00PM

Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Jane Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”


Let me paraphrase: Of all authors with a reputation for writing romances, Austen is the most difficult to catch in the act of writing something romantic.


Look, for example, at the latest work of the Internet Truthiness Quote Machine: a recent piece on the website of Travel + Leisure magazine offering “101 Romantic Messages to Keep the Love Alive While You're Apart.” The suggestions include a list of fifty “Romantic Quotes for Love Letters,” two of them attributed to Jane Austen.


Given Austen’s popular reputation as a purveyor of swoony, rose-tinted chick lit about handsome young men courting pretty girls in high-waisted dresses while wandering the grounds of palatial English estates, you’d think it would be quick work to find Austen quotes for such a list.


And yet only one of the two quotes that T+L attributes to Austen was actually written by her, and that one – “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope . . . . I have loved none but you,” from Persuasion – seems an odd choice for a message to an accepted lover, since it bespeaks the writer’s uncertainty that his feelings will be returned.


Meanwhile, the other quote – “To love is to burn, to be on fire”— is not by Austen at all. It’s a line from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which the ITQM has been busily misattributing for years. (For details, check out this excellent blog post by researcher Sue Brewton, a woman whose obsession with misquotation rivals my own. I can’t believe I’ve only just stumbled across the work of this soul sister.)


So of T+L’s two Austen love quotes, one is faux and one is out of context. That record is bad, yes, but hardly unprecedented. As blog readers know, I’ve been banging on about both problems for years. Indeed, one of the leading examples of out-of-context distortions concerns a love quote: As I’ve noted before, the supposedly swoony start to Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, in Pride and Prejudice -- "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” – is, in context, not so romantic after all. *


But for would-be Austen love-quoters, the main problem is that despite her reputation for lovey-doveyness, which largely derives from the movies based on her work, Austen isn’t actually a romance writer: she’s a satirist whose stories happen to concern courtship, the crucial moment of decision in a genteel young woman’s life. Thus it is that these alleged romance novels offer a startling paucity of love scenes that Internet listicle-makers can mine for ardent tidbits.


Janeites are well aware of Austen’s stinginess in this regard. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon propose to the Dashwood sisters offstage; Edmund Bertram sues for Fanny’s hand in a couple of highly ironic summary paragraphs; Catherine Morland is “assured of [Henry Tilney’s] affection” in words that readers must imagine for themselves; and Darcy’s successful proposal is the height of respectful restraint – “My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” I’m partial to Mr. Knightley’s declaration – “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” – but note that this is a love quote about the impossibility of love quotes. Captain Wentworth stands alone among Austen heroes in his forthright avowal of his feelings, and as for the heroines – well, let’s just say that Austen’s description of Emma’s reply to her suitor (“What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”) pretty much covers them all.


Why is it so hard to find certifiably, one-hundred-percent-genuine, heart-warming Jane Austen quotes about love? Mr. Knightley’s proposal offers a clue. Unlike the denizens of our therapeutic age, Austen is suspicious of people who talk fluently about their most intense and private emotions. If you can manufacture beautiful phrases about love, she suggests, you probably don’t have much time left to actually experience it. I shudder to imagine what she would have thought about people who turn to Internet listicles for advice on romantic messaging.



* And lest I find myself tempted to stop obsessing on this topic, just a couple of days after I published this post, the website Everyday Power -- founded in 2010 by a middle-school English teacher who wanted to provide "relevant and meaningful material he felt his students needed to experience" -- produced a list of "50 Love Quotes For Your Husband To Make Him Feel Appreciated." The three Jane Austen quotes on the list include Mr. Darcy's first proposal (twice! Don't ask me), and yet another not-in-Austen line -- “My heart is and always will be yours" -- from Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility screenplay. According to the site, Everyday Power is "a curriculum resource for many schools across the country." The mind boggles.



By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 10 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s mature work features only one character of color: the teenaged West Indian heiress Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender,” who receives a passing mention near the end of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death.


The lily-white nature of Austen’s cast of characters isn’t surprising, given the racial makeup of the rural English world she knew best. What is intriguing is a recent spate – I think we can call it a trend! -- of Austen fanfic, in both book and screen form, featuring characters of color.


The latest example is Unmarriageable, by the journalist and novelist Soniah Kamal, which updates the story of Pride and Prejudice to contemporary Pakistan, much as did the short stories in last year’s Austenistan.


But although the Indian subcontinent, as I’ve noted before, is a longtime hotbed of Austen adapters, the current characters-of-color trend is broader.


Late last summer, a production company acquired the movie rights to Ayesha At Last, a Pride and Prejudice update set among young Muslims in modern-day Toronto, and HarperCollins published Pride, a P&P update set among young Latinos and African-Americans in Brooklyn.


Then, last month, Lifetime TV announced plans for Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta – yes, a P&P update set against the backdrop of a black church in Georgia. (The producers may have a good idea here: it might be easier to keep these versions straight if the titles of all P&P spinoffs were required to identify the adaptation’s location, CSI-style.)


The impulse to adapt Austen’s stories -- or at least her most famous one -- to characters whose life experiences diverge significantly from those of the people she knew is yet more proof, were any needed, of the universality of her incisive portraits of families, relationships, and comings-of-age. I haven’t yet read the latest offerings, but with luck the writers will use Austen’s narrative template as a vehicle for reflecting on the issues of class and gender that we still wrestle with, two centuries after Austen’s time – as well as the issues of race that she mostly ignored.


No idea how Unmarriageable will stack up against all these other products of the ever-churning Fanfic Factory. But one thing is for sure: Her publisher, Penguin Books, is just a little bit off when it calls Kamal’s novel a “one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2018 02:00PM

At this point in Jane Austen’s career of pop-culture celebrity, it’s no surprise that every place with even a tangential connection to her life or work wants to publicize said linkage. And thus it is that two tidbits of news crossed my desk in recent weeks:


* The Vyne, a stately sixteenth-century home near Basingstoke, recently unveiled an exhibition about the life of the Victorian-era owner who devoted his entire fortune to saving the house from dereliction, thereby leaving his four daughters dowerless and unmarried.


Austen knew the Chute family, which owned the house for three centuries, until they turned it over to Britain’s National Trust in 1956. (And breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding the monstrous bills associated with its upkeep, according to the family’s current representative, seventy-one-year-old Robin Chute, who remembers sword-fighting with his brother in the Oak Gallery during Christmas visits to the ancestral manse.)


Austen mentions members of the Chute family in her letters, and she attended parties at The Vyne. But is it really the case, as a recent story in the Telegraph asserts, that “it’s thought that she may have based her Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price on Caroline Wiggett, who came to live at The Vyne in 1803 aged three, having been plucked from a pool of poor distant relations and adopted by the childless couple who lived there”?


Could be – Austen biographer Claire Tomalin notes some parallels – but Austen had a closer-to-home model for Fanny in her brother Edward, adopted by the childless Knights in 1783, when Jane was about seven. My antennae always rise at squirrelly attributions like “it’s thought,” which always suggest to me wishful thinking by publicists eager to milk an Austen connection.


Still, judging from the photos accompanying the Telegraph story, the Vyne is a splendid and beautifully restored home. (That library: to die for.) The participants in last summer’s Jane Austen Society of North America tour of Austen’s England visited; alas, my own JASNA tour in 2011 did not.


* Southampton, England, where Austen lived from 1806 until 1809, has installed a bas-relief plaque in her honor in a theater building in the city’s cultural district. An earlier version of the plaque, which was installed in the public library in1917 to commemorate the centennial of Austen’s death, was destroyed by bombing during World War II.


The new plaque features a sculpted adaptation of an 1804 watercolor her sister, Cassandra, made of Austen: not the famous head-and-shoulders portrait of a seemingly irritated Austen in a frilly turban, but a lesser-known representation of a seated Austen, seen from the back. (See both images here.)


For a Janeite, there’s a certain oddity to the plaque’s very existence. Although the Austen sisters indubitably lived in Southampton, sharing a home with their mother, their brother Francis – often away at sea -- and his wife and baby, Austen’s residence there marked a low point in her literary career. She seems to have written nothing during the Southampton years; it was the move to Chawton cottage in 1809 that finally gave her the time, space, and mental breathing-room to write or revise all six of her completed novels.


But you wouldn’t know that from Southampton’s plaque, which features the first line of Pride and Prejudice and a list of Austen’s novels -- right above the name of the Southampton street where she lived when she wasn’t writing any of them.


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