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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 24 2020 01:00PM

Did Jane Austen want the world to know her name? It’s a complicated question.


In January 1796, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, the twenty-year-old Austen joked, “I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter, for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument” (letter #2 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


But fifteen years later, when she finally became a published author, Austen chose anonymity over fame: The 1811 title page of Sense and Sensibility describes the novel as “By A Lady,” and her next three books were ascribed only to “the author of” the earlier novels.


During her lifetime, Austen seems to have been somewhat vexed by her brother Henry’s inability to keep the secret of her authorship, and only after her death, when her last two books were published along with Henry’s “Biographical Notice,” was her authorship publicly acknowledged.


On her deathbed in Winchester, however, Austen dictated a curious poem that features St. Swithin, the city cathedral’s patron saint, rising from the dead to chastise insufficiently deferential townsfolk: “When once we are buried you think we are gone,” he tells them. “But behold me immortal!”


Was this a throwaway line, or Austen’s last, defiant assertion of her own literary greatness? It’s impossible to be sure. Maybe she herself was ambivalent, torn between the safety of anonymity and the natural human desire to claim credit for her work. All we know is that when she had the choice, she chose to remain in the shadows.


These reflections occurred to me recently as I followed the kerfuffle over a well-intentioned but slipshod effort at literary feminism: the ReclaimHerName project, designed to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a prestigious UK literary award given annually to a novel by a female author.


Under the #ReclaimHerName hashtag, the prize’s sponsor, the Baileys liqueur company, is reissuing twenty-five books by female authors who used male pseudonyms, with new covers proclaiming the writer’s original, female name. Most of the books are long forgotten, or at least semi-obscure, with the notable exception of Middlemarch by one Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot.* The books can be downloaded for free, and box sets of hard copies will be donated to libraries.


The project’s sponsors have worthy motives: to promote the work of women, including women of color, and ensure that literary history is rewritten to include them. “If their identities are hidden, it’s as if women didn’t write any of these books, that the past is an unbroken line of beards and every now and again, you get one woman,” British novelist Kate Mosse, who founded the Women’s Literary Prize, told the Guardian newspaper.


Unfortunately, as plenty of commentators have already pointed out (for instance, here and here), the project implicitly buys into a highly contentious claim: that throughout history, all female authors wanted their names known and adopted male pseudonyms only when forced to do so by patriarchal oppression.


In fact, many female authors published under their own names in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and America – Jane Austen knew works by such disparate authors as Charlotte Smith, Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney, Mary Brunton, and Ann Radcliffe, to name just a few -- and like Austen herself, those who didn’t had their own reasons for choosing anonymity or pseudonym. Perhaps they valued their privacy; perhaps they feared their work would stir up controversy; perhaps they found adopting new personas liberating; perhaps they identified with a different gender. Even today, it’s common for romance writers, most of whom are female, to choose pen names; many see the pseudonyms as part of the fun.


Of course, a choice like this is inevitably inflected by cultural norms, some of them oppressive: Female authors who chose privacy may have done so out of a (conscious or unconscious) conviction that women ought not to assert themselves, that female voices were somehow illegitimate, that a woman who spoke up was immodest or was putting herself at risk. But do such problematic social pressures explain the decision-making of every female writer who chose a male pseudonym? Unlikely.


In other words, the subject is too complex and context-dependent for a single hashtag. What seems certain is that for twenty-first-century researchers to swoop in and restore the “real” names of writers who chose to publish pseudonymously smacks of condescension, as if those poor dears condemned to living in the less enlightened past couldn’t possibly have made clear-eyed choices of their own.




* Curiously, four of these twenty-five writers chose George as their male pseudonym. Only two other names – Michael and Frank – got used even twice. Apparently, there’s something about George. . .


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.


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