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By Deborah Yaffe, May 4 2020 01:00PM

When Elinor Dashwood learns (as she thinks) that the love of her life, Edward Ferrars, has finally married his longtime fiancée, she is surprised at the intensity of her sense of loss.


“Elinor now found the difference between the expectation of an unpleasant event, however certain the mind may be told to consider it, and certainty itself,” Jane Austen tells us in chapter 48 of Sense and Sensibility. “She now found, that in spite of herself, she had always admitted a hope. . . . and she condemned her heart for the lurking flattery, which so much heightened the pain of the intelligence.”


For Janeites, last Tuesday brought our own painful Elinor moment: the arrival of a long-expected-yet-greatly-dreaded email from Liz Philosophos Cooper, the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, officially canceling JASNA’s Annual General Meeting. Scheduled for October 9-11 in Cleveland, the conference—“Jane Austen’s Juvenilia: Reason, Romanticism, and Revolution”—was to have centered on the short, boisterous burlesques that Austen wrote as a teenager.


It’s hard to argue with Cooper’s reasoning: It’s vanishingly unlikely that a COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available this fall; large gatherings risk spreading the virus; and JASNA’s AGM attendees skew toward the older end of the age spectrum, making them especially vulnerable to illness.


“It is impossible to hold our conference without undue risk to public health,” Cooper wrote in her message to JASNA members. “None of us wants to look back and wish that we had been more careful.”


Sigh. It’s all true, and anyone who’s been following the news must have known this was coming. And yet—what a sad difference certainty itself makes! See, this was going to be such a fun AGM! Novelty! (JASNA has held only one prior AGM on the juvenilia, and that was in 1987.) Hilarity! (The juvenilia are often laugh-out-loud funny.) Glory! (OK, that was a personal note. I was going to be co-presenting one of the breakout sessions, achieving a long-held goal.)


JASNA has held an autumn AGM in a different city every year, without fail, since the society’s founding in 1979, even pulling off a Seattle conference less than a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This year-without-an-AGM will set a sad precedent.


It’s likely that the canceled 2020 conference will be rescheduled, but with AGM locations already chosen for 2021 and 2022, that presumably can’t happen for at least three years. Still, it’s something to look forward to—which seems about as much expectation of certainty as we can get these days.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2020 01:00PM

Trendy fashion accessories come and go. One year, it’s thigh-high red boots and black berets; the next it’s purple shoes and tiny handbags. Right now, it seems to be Jane Austen novels.


Months ago, blog readers will recall, first one and then a second Kardashian sister took to social media to publicize photos suggesting her previously unsuspected love of Jane Austen. And now the trend has gone royal.


Last Sunday saw the release via Instagram of what the British celebrity magazine Hello! assures us is a “rare” picture of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge (click the right arrow), working from home – although accounts differ as to whether that means Kensington Palace in London or her family’s quarantine digs at “10-bed country mansion” Anmer Hall in the eastern English county of Norfolk. (Quarantine weighs more heavily on some of us than on others.)


The pictures of Kate and her husband, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, were intended to promote mental health in the time of coronavirus; supposedly, they depict the Cambridges conferring by telephone with the directors of mental health charities.


For us Janeites, however, the real story is in the accessories: Arrayed atop Kate’s antique-y desk is a set of twelve books that the British media have helpfully identified as items from the Penguin “Clothbound Classics” series, with covers (quite lovely ones, actually) by designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. Over the weekend, via painstaking research requiring a magnifying glass and repeated cross-checking of images obtained through Google searches – the kind of research only possible when you’re procrastinating another, less congenial task – I succeeded in identifying all twelve titles.


I’m happy to report that Kate’s taste is impeccable: Three of the books on her desk are by Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park are third, fourth and fifth from the left).


I know that the cynical among you – the same people who insist that Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian associated themselves with Austen titles solely as self-branding exercises – will claim that Kate’s book collection was curated purely to boost her smart-but-not-too-smart, royal-girl-next-door image. You may even claim, as my anti-monarchist British husband did, that the main selection criterion was how well the colors of the covers fit into the shot. (Is it suspicious that the pink of Middlemarch picks up the pink of Kate’s pantsuit?)


As you know, however, I am a simple, trusting, Jane Bennet type. (Well, at least today I am.) Therefore, I am going to assume that Kate is actually a fan of Austen and the other classic writers on her desk, from Homer and Shakespeare to Dickens, Hardy, and Oscar Wilde.


Her Austen collection, however, seems woefully incomplete – and in this time of plague, we all need as much literary comfort food as possible. Can I interest anyone in a GoFundMe campaign to buy Kate matching copies of her missing three Austen novels?


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2020 01:00PM

No one in Jane Austen’s novels becomes infected with a coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say on the subject that now occupies all of our minds. At least three important characters* in her novels experience significant bouts of infectious disease:


--Harriet Smith “was very feverish and had a bad sore-throat . . . . ‘a throat very much inflamed, with a great deal of heat about her, a quick low pulse, &c.’ ” (Emma, ch. 13)


In an early example of self-quarantining, poor ailing Harriet has to miss the Westons’ Christmas party.


--Harriet’s illness seems to be a random act of God, but Marianne Dashwood courts disaster with “two delightful twilight walks . . . . not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where . . . the grass was the longest and wettest . . . assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 42)


Eventually “heavy and feverish, with a pain in her limbs, a cough, and a sore throat,” she grows progressively worse, is confined to her bed, and begins calling deliriously for her mother; a week later “the fever was unabated; and Marianne only more quiet -- not more herself -- remained in an heavy stupor.” (chs. 42-43)


Rather than self-quarantining, however, Colonel Brandon sets out for Barton Cottage, risking the transport of a nasty bug across county lines. Arguably, however, bringing a mother to her child’s potential deathbed counts as essential travel.


* If Marianne’s illness stems from imprudence, Tom Bertram’s is born out of downright recklessness, not to mention dissipation: “Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where a neglected fall and a good deal of drinking had brought on a fever.” (Mansfield Park, ch. 44)


By the time Tom is back at Mansfield Park, “some strong hectic symptoms, which seemed to seize the frame on the departure of the fever” leave Edmund and Sir Thomas “apprehensive for [Tom’s] lungs” and forced to nurse the patient through “nerves much affected, spirits much depressed.” (ch. 45)


On the bright side, however, there’s nothing like a scandalous extramarital elopement to encourage a family toward a bit of social distancing.


Let’s take it as a good omen for our perilous times that all Austen’s patients eventually recover their health. Happy hand-washing, everyone!



* I omit the numerous parents and parental figures who expire offstage, often before the narrative commences, and the long convalescence of Louisa Musgrove, who is the victim of an accidental injury, not an infectious disease.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 27 2020 02:00PM

Apparently, I’m not the only Jane Austen completist out there.


Last week, as blog readers will recall, the New York auction house Swann Galleries auctioned off first editions of all Austen’s novels – three-volume sets of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, and the combined four-volume edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


The sale result can be summed up in the headline on Swann’s press release: “Jane Austen Rules.” (Well, we knew that already, right?)


“Most any Jane Austen first edition appearance is noteworthy, but to have all six of her major novels, each one complete and in period binding, helped make this a wildly successful and memorable sale,” said John D. Larson, whose Swann title -- “literature specialist” -- pretty much sums up my dream job.


Larson’s claim of wild success was no doubt a reference to the bottom line. Each book sold for far more than its estimated high price, with Pride and Prejudice going for $100,000, more than three times the estimated high of $30,000.* Indeed, the total for all six novels came to a whopping $240,625, more than double the projected high of $106,000.


But what really makes this story thrilling – for me, at least – is the fact that a single buyer managed to snag all six.


Swann’s press release doesn’t identify this lucky, and well-heeled, collector/completist, except to say that they registered bids through “the Swann Galleries app” during “competitive bidding.”


Imagine being the kind of person who a) loads an auction house’s app on your phone; and b) has nearly a quarter of a million dollars to spend on books. Now that’s a completist after my own heart.



* Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, as you might expect, drew the lowest prices. Apparently, even auction-house bidders love them less.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2020 02:00PM

Like all American girls, I loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and when I shared it with my daughter many years after my first reading, I was delighted to see that it held up beautifully – not just a good book for children but a great American Victorian novel. But it wasn’t until I saw Greta Gerwig’s new movie adaptation – which is one of the year’s best films, in my not-so-humble opinion – that I noticed the Jane Austen reference.


I had completely forgotten that the newspaper publisher to whom the fledgling writer Jo March takes her sensational stories is named Mr. Dashwood. Indeed, I had forgotten that detail so completely that when it turned up in Gerwig’s movie, I assumed it was a gentle Austen homage by Gerwig herself.


But no! It’s right there in Alcott’s chapter 34: Jo “told no one, but concocted a ‘thrilling tale,’ and boldly carried it herself to Mr. Dashwood, editor of the ‘Weekly Volcano.’ ”


As far as I know (and please correct me if I'm wrong, Alcott scholars), we have no direct evidence that Alcott read Austen – nothing like the documented Austen-hatred of Charlotte Bronte, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain or the loud Austen-appreciation of E.M. Forster, William Dean Howells, and Virginia Woolf. Alcott certainly could have read Austen, however: Little Women was written in 1868-9, more than fifty years after Austen’s death. And Austen’s themes – family life, women’s choices, the impact of money and class – are Alcott’s too, although where Austen is cool and ironic, Alcott tends to the moralizing and sentimental, in the Victorian mode.


But I think it’s Alcott’s choice of “Dashwood,” specifically, as the name for her minor character that seals the Austenian deal. Sure, she might have been thinking of the notorious eighteenth-century rake Sir Francis Dashwood, whose Hellfire Club was known for its sensationally immoral activities, when she created a character named Dashwood whose Volcano – figurative spewer of hellfire and brimstone -- is known for publishing stories with sensationally immoral plots.


But surely it’s no accident that Alcott chose this last name, indelibly associated with a story about sisters who take divergent approaches to romantic love and social obligations, for her own story of the relationships among a group of very different sisters. With the deliberate echo, she’s inviting us to remember Elinor and Marianne, and perhaps to ask ourselves which March sisters embody sense and which sensibility.



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