Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2020 02:00PM

On March 2, I reported the happy news that a theatrical adaptation of Emma – written by Kate Hamill, the actor/playwright whose madcap versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have been widely produced – would premiere in April at Minneapolis’ venerable Guthrie Theater.

Well, you can guess how that turned out.

But all is not lost for fans of Hamill’s Austen: A costumed reading of this new Emma – online, of course -- will take place over the next two weekends. The show is sponsored by Shakespeare & Company, which usually produces summer theater in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts.

Emma will be performed – live, apparently – at 7 pm (Eastern time) on December 26-27 and January 2-3. Although all four performances are free, you have to register ahead of time to get the link; it’s not clear to me whether the performances will be available for time-shifted viewing or must be watched as they occur, although I assume the latter.

Either way, an early peek at Hamill’s latest literary adaptation is an unexpected and tasty New Year’s treat.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 17 2020 02:00PM

Despite the strangeness of this year, some eternal verities remain. Snowflakes. Evergreens. Misquoting of Jane Austen.

A few highlights of the season:

* “Here’s 15 percent off to celebrate our new friendship,” the bookstore chain Books-A-Million exulted in the subject line -- punctuated with a party-popper emoji! – of an email it sent me following a recent order.

“Chapter 1: A Brand New Friendship,” the message continued. (Get it? Bookstore chain? Chapter 1?) And then the kicker: “ ‘There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.’ – Jane Austen.”

As I’ve noted before, this oft-quoted line from Northanger Abbey – while genuinely the work of the author Jane Austen and thus not, in one sense, a misquote -- is, in context, hardly the full-throated tribute to friendship that Books-A-Million clearly intends it to be. Instead, it is the insincere self-representation of manipulative Isabella Thorpe, who sees all relationships in purely transactional terms.

Come to think of it, then, maybe it’s not a misquote at all; perhaps it’s actually the perfect quote for a retail promotion. Isabella Thorpe is just the kind of person who would consider a fifteen percent discount to be a true mark of friendship.

* Getting married over Zoom doesn’t permit you to dispense with every wedding chore, notes Elite Daily, an online news platform for millennial women.

“Even if everyone's not together dancing at a reception venue, you'll still need some Instagram captions for virtual wedding pics you take,” writer Rachel Chapman reminded her readers last month, in a listicle offering “40 Instagram Captions For Virtual Wedding Pics & Celebrating The Love At Home.”

Thirty-nine of the forty captions -- alternately saccharine (“True love couldn’t wait to say ‘I do’ ”) and would-be-witty (“A wedding that even my cat could attend”) -- appear to be Chapman’s own work. Number fourteen, however, is this: “My heart is, and will always be, yours. – Jane Austen.”

I suppose it is pointless to note that Jane Austen never wrote these words, which come from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I suppose it is even less pointful to note that this rendition slightly garbles Thompson’s original --“My heart is, and always will be, yours” -- thereby ruining the rhythm of the line.

You might wonder why Chapman, content to leave thirty-nine of her forty Instagrammable sentiments unsigned, felt compelled to attribute the last one to someone who didn’t even write it. The answer, as usual, is AustenBranding: sprinkle a bit of Jane on top, and voilà -- Classy Romance. Perfect for the Instagram version of your life.

* “You bewitch me body and soul,” proclaims the “Jane Austen drawstring bag” retailing on Red Bubble for $30.30. “I love, I love, I love you.”

To her credit, bag designer Rachel Vass is not entirely guilty of false advertising, since the bag itself – unlike the online listing for it – attributes the line to “Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice.” Strictly speaking, this is an accurate attribution, if we are talking about the Mr. Darcy in the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and not, as the listing asserts, “Pride and prejudice novel book quote.”

On the other hand, devotees of the movie will surely notice that Vass has garbled her quote, which should read, “You have bewitched me body and soul.” (Suitable for Instagram, maybe?)

If you’re still in the market for a drawstring bag but prefer your Austen quotes to be from Austen, Vass has another possibility for you, however: a bag reading, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. – Jane Austen.”

“One of my favourite quotes by Mr Darcy in pride and prejudice by Jane Austen,” Vass explains. Except, of course, that the line is spoken by Mr. Knightley, in Emma.

Before you ask: Yes, I do realize that, this year especially, we have more important things than online Austen sloppiness to worry about. But isn't it nice to worry about some of the less important things for awhile?

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2020 02:00PM

Less than a year ago, a rich person with excellent taste snapped up a complete set of Jane Austen first editions at a New York auction. If you want to take a shot at acquiring the same coveted Janeite prize, you have until 7 pm (Eastern) tonight.

That’s when Skinner Auctioneers will close the bidding in its online auction of rare books, maps, and manuscripts. Among the items for sale is a set of first editions of all Austen’s novels – sixteen handsomely bound volumes once owned by Mary Orne Bowditch (1883-1971), a sculptor from a prominent Massachusetts family.

Skinner estimates that the set – three-volume editions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, plus four volumes containing the posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion -- will bring in $20,000 to $30,000; earlier this week, the bidding had reached only $16,000.

To me, those numbers seem oddly low, considering that the editions sold in February went for more than $240,000, with Pride and Prejudice alone bringing in more than $100,000. Still, I’m no bibliographer: Perhaps a reader with greater expertise can explain why the new set is apparently less valuable.

Less valuable in monetary terms, that is. I’m sure we Austen fans can agree that any first edition – let alone all of them – is priceless.


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.

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