Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 12 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen, her brother Henry would have us believe, didn’t care about making money. “She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination,” Henry Austen wrote in 1817, in the biographical note appended to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. “Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.”


Austen herself was franker about her financial ambitions. “People are more ready to borrow & praise than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight four months after the publication of Mansfield Park. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” (Letter #114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


Conventional wisdom holds that poor Jane Austen earned barely a pittance from her work (Egad! She sold the copyright of perennial bestseller Pride and Prejudice for a mere £110!), and sometimes it does seem as if everyone has made money off her work except Austen herself. What Janeite – after perusing the groaning shelves of Austen paperbacks, streaming yet another filmed Austen adaptation, or buying the latest Austen-themed tote bag, fridge magnet, or coloring book -- hasn’t sighed over the unfairness of it all?


New research using Bank of England archives shows that the picture is a bit more complicated, however. In a piece published online earlier this month, independent scholar John Avery Jones, a retired judge, concluded that Austen earned a lifetime total of £631 pounds before tax, or £575 after tax, which he calculates is the equivalent of £45,000 (about $54,600) in today’s money.


Jones’ ingenious research draws on indexes of stock sales and prices, as well as contemporary income tax rates. Unlike earlier scholars, who based their calculations of Austen’s earnings on estimates of her proceeds from book sales, Jones looks at how much she was able to invest in “the Navy Fives” -- government securities sold to the Regency public at a discount, rather like today’s savings bonds.


Jane Austen’s career as a published writer lasted only six years, from the 1811 appearance of Sense and Sensibility until her death in 1817, and Jones’ calculations seem to cover the income only from the four books published during that span. Pro-rated across six years, Jones’ number works out to a yearly income of $9,100. It’s not a lot, certainly – and, as Jones notes, some of her contemporaries earned more from their writing.


But it’s enough to be proud of – and we know that Austen was. “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold,” she wrote to her brother Frank in September 1813 (Letter #86). “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 29 2019 01:00PM

The Emmy nominations were announced recently, and all the brouhaha over Game of Thrones et al. has left me hankering to award some prizes of my own.


As regular blog readers know, one of my perennial themes is the proliferation on the Internet of quotes from Jane Austen movies masquerading as the words of the novelist herself. It would be fair to say that I do not look kindly upon these sloppy mistakes, so easily avoided in this age of searchable e-texts.


Still, there’s a certain grandeur to this phenomenon – or, at least, to its imperviousness to eradication. Faux Austen quotes are the cockroaches of error, the kudzu of cyberspace. In that spirit, I hereby bring you the Top Five Faux Jane Austen Quotes. In the spirit of the occasion, there are actually six of them.


The Top Five (Or, Actually, Six) Faux Jane Austen Quotes


5. “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Emma

Actually the work of: Douglas McGrath, Emma (1996)


The cherry on this sundae of inaccuracy: the movie words, spoken by Jeremy Northam's Mr. Knightley moments after Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma has accepted his proposal, are actually “Maybe it is our imperfections which make us so perfect for one another.” But who’s counting?



4. “We are all fools in love.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Actually the work of: Deborah Moggach, Pride and Prejudice (2005)


Yes, we are. (Fools in love, that is.) And also suckers for any mistake that’s repeated often enough.



3. “There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (or, sometimes, “personal correspondence”)

Actually the work of: Patricia Rozema, Mansfield Park (1999)


Maybe it was inevitable that Rozema’s highly idiosyncratic film would spawn a faux quote: after all, she claims to have based her screenplay not only on Austen’s novel and letters but also on her “early journals.” Which don’t exist. (Presumably, Rozema meant the juvenilia, but those are fiction, not autobiography.)



2. (tie) “You have bewitched me body and soul.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Actually the work of: Deborah Moggach, Pride and Prejudice (2005)


2. (tie) “To love is to burn, to be on fire.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Actually the work of: Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility (1995)


The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that Jane Austen the Ur-Romance Novelist is actually not given to grand romantic statements. If you want those, you almost have to turn to the movies.



1. “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Actually the work of: Andrew Davies, Sense and Sensibility (2008)


This time, the garbling of the faux quote isn’t just a cherry on the sundae; it’s practically a whole extra scoop of ice cream. For, as I’ve reported elsewhere, the real Davies quote, uttered by a newly wised-up Marianne Dashwood, is “It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are. It is what we do, or fail to do.” But if they won’t check the searchable e-texts, they’re certainly not going to scroll through an entire three-part mini-series to make sure they’ve got it right.



Well, that was refreshing! I like handing out prizes! In fact, tune in Thursday for another round. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 8 2019 01:00PM

The success of the screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels has been attributed to many factors: romantic plots, attractive stars, witty dialogue, stately mansions. And, of course, great-looking clothes.


No surprise, then, that Austen tourist venues frequently display costumes from the movies, even though, as modern reproductions worn by contemporary actors playing fictional characters, these outfits fall at least three degrees of separation short of historical reality.


Now Janeite costume fans can look forward to another opportunity to wallow in Regency fashion: The Exhibits Development Group, a Minnesota-based company that assembles traveling shows on art, science, history, and pop culture, has put together “Jane Austen: Fashion and Sensibility.” Thus far, no venues have been announced for the exhibition, although EDG’s projected schedule seems to imagine a tour of eighteen sites over six years, starting in the fall of 2020.


The show features forty-nine costumes from eight different filmed adaptations of four Austen novels, but the lion’s share of the items – thirty-five of the forty-nine – come from just two of those adaptations: the iconic 1995 BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, written by Andrew Davies and starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; and the 1995 Ang Lee movie of Sense and Sensibility, written by Emma Thompson and starring Thompson and Kate Winslet.


While more than two-thirds of the featured costumes were worn by women – because let’s face it: who usually gets the more interesting clothes in these movies? – the exhibitors clearly have a savvy eye on their market: Among the smaller number of male garments on display will be the so fetchingly moistened white shirt that Firth wore in the BBC P&P, and the long gray coat and halfway-unbuttoned shirt in which a super-hot Matthew Macfadyen met Keira Knightley at the end of Joe Wright’s 2005 movie of P&P.


Cue swooning.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 8 2019 01:00PM

For Janeites, it’s salt rubbed in a wound: the news that scholars will soon be able to inspect a fascinating trove of letters from an interesting and important Georgian-era woman. . . who isn’t Jane Austen, because her letters are still burnt to a crisp.


No, the letters in question were written by Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough – many of them to her lover, Lord Granville, an important nineteenth-century diplomat who served as British ambassador to Russia and France. The letters – stored in two tin trunks, reports the website inews -- form a small part of a huge Granville family archive, recently acquired by the British Library for £860,000 (about $1.1 million).


Lady Bessborough, usually known as Harriet, has no end of interesting family connections. Her father was the 1st Earl Spencer, originator of the line that leads to Princess Diana. Her sister was the writer, political activist, and socialite Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Her daughter was the scandalous Lady Caroline Lamb, who unforgettably summed up her own sometime lover, Lord Byron, as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” And Lady Bessborough eventually contrived to marry off Lord Granville – yes, the man she’d been sleeping with -- to her own niece, Georgiana’s daughter, who, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, was also named Harriet.


But enough of this gossip about the incestuously small world of the British aristocracy. For our purposes, what’s interesting is a book recommendation Harriet sent to her big sister Georgiana in November 1811. “God bless you dearest G. have you read Sense & Sensibility?” Harriet wrote, just weeks after the book’s publication. “It is a clever novel [,] they were full of it at Althrop – tho’ it ends stupidly I was much amus’d by it.”


As inews notes, this remark “is thought to be the first contemporary comment on a work by Jane Austen,” not to mention the first recorded instance of reader dissatisfaction with the ending of an Austen novel. (Did Lady Bessborough think Elinor should have married Colonel Brandon?)


The letter is not a new discovery – Lady Bessborough’s comments are mentioned in Brian Southam’s 1968 compilation of early responses to Austen’s works, and I don’t know if he was the first to find them. What’s new, apparently, is the chance for scholarly cataloging of – and, sometime next year, scholarly access to -- the full collection of letters.


Now if only Cassandra Austen had kept one of those tin trunks.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2018 02:00PM

Nineteen is a number much on our collective minds today, as we prepare to usher in 2019, the last year of the second decade of the twenty-first century.


Accordingly, I went looking for nineteens in Jane Austen -- and I found eleven references, in ten different passages spread over four of the completed novels. (Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are nineteen-free zones.) With the exception of one throwaway Mansfield Park reference to “nineteen times out of twenty,” Austen’s nineteens are an interesting bunch – at any rate, significant enough to provide fodder for discussion while awaiting the Times Square ball drop.


For Jane Austen, nineteen is both too young and old enough: her nineteen-year-olds are variously mature and naïve, sensible and foolish. For Austen – and for us? -- nineteen is a transitional age, a waystation between childhood and adulthood.


In Mansfield Park, “eighteen or nineteen” is the age at which Mary Crawford expects girls to retain a certain innocent shyness, even if they are officially “out” in the marriage market. “One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to everything—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before,” Mary tells the Bertram brothers (ch. 5).


Yet some nineteen-year-olds are perfectly competent, it seems: Although Emma Woodhouse, at nearly twenty-one, still has much to learn, “at eighteen or nineteen [Jane Fairfax] was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself” (Emma, ch. 20).


The nineteen-year-olds of Persuasion are old enough to fall in love for keeps -- like Anne Elliot, who is nineteen when she accepts, and then refuses, Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal. But they are also young enough to mistake infatuation for the real thing -- like Louisa Musgrove, who, interestingly, is also nineteen when her charms temporarily turn the same man’s head, perhaps because he is unconsciously trying to recapture his youthful romance. And the novel contains a third naïve nineteen-year-old -- Mrs. Smith, who is nineteen when she meets, and initially likes, the duplicitous Mr. Elliot. “At nineteen, you know, one does not think very seriously,” she tells Anne (ch. 21).


Well, some nineteen-year-olds don’t: At the start of Sense and Sensibility, Austen tells us, Elinor Dashwood already “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother” (ch. 1). Like Persuasion, however, S&S features three significant nineteen-year-olds: in addition to the Elinor of the novel’s opening, there are the Edward Ferrars of four years earlier, whose “youthful infatuation of nineteen” has unhappily bound him to Lucy Steele (ch. 23), and the newlywed Marianne Dashwood of the novel’s end, who “found herself, at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (ch. 50).


Austen’s nineteen-year-olds are old enough to experience deep and sincere emotions, yet young enough to make dreadful errors of judgment. Some of them are ready to give counsel, while others trustingly follow the counsel of others. They stand on a threshold, looking backward to the consequence-free choices of childhood and ahead to the responsibilities of adulthood, with one foot in each place. Rather like us, tonight, as we leave 2018 behind and look ahead to what will come.


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