Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 29 2016 02:00PM

England is a wonderful country. Its history is rich, its democracy is a model for the world, its literature is second to none.

Its food – not so much.

And so it was with some trepidation that I undertook the last assignment in my self-imposed Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I’ve spent 2016 filling some of the holes in my Janeite education. This month’s assignment: cook a meal from The Jane Austen Cookbook, by Maggie Lane and Deirdre Le Faye. The book adapts and modernizes recipes from several Regency cookbooks, including that of Martha Lloyd, the Austen friend who lived at Chawton cottage with Jane, Cassandra and their mother.

Initially, I considered attempting a Regency supper of the kind described in Le Faye’s introductory pages: three courses with as many as five or ten dishes per course. Then I contemplated the acres of leftovers and thought better of that plan.

Instead, I decided to cook more or less the same amount of food I usually make for a family dinner, choosing recipes based directly on Martha Lloyd’s cookbook, since those are the most likely to have been eaten by Jane Austen herself.

Avoiding exotic ingredients unlikely to show up in a suburban supermarket – no Pigeon Pie or Pheasant à la Braise for me – I planned a menu that seemed both within my modest culinary capabilities and likely to pass muster with my family: for the main course, Jugged Steaks with Potatoes (p. 54); for a vegetable side dish, Fricassee of Turnips Pie (p. 45); and for dessert, Jaune Mange (p. 84) accompanied by Ratafia Cakes (p. 125).

The early signs were not good. Apprised of the menu, my teenage daughter decided to accompany a friend to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. I hadn’t served a single dish, and already I had lost a quarter of my customers.

Things did not improve from there. The remaining family members were unimpressed by the jugged steaks with potatoes, which cooked in beef broth for a long time at a low temperature, yielding – at least in my hands -- steak that was tough and potatoes that were mushy. The real problem, however, was the lack of any spice more exciting than salt or pepper.

Jugged Steaks with Potatoes

“It’s a classic bland, hearty English dish,” said my husband. (And since he grew up in Lancashire, he should know.) “Thank God for the Raj,” he added. The jugged steaks, we agreed, would have benefited from the magic of Indian spicing. Some cumin, turmeric and garlic could have worked wonders.

The fricassee of turnips pie – cooked turnips dressed with a cream sauce -- fared a bit better, though its pie-ness seemed more notional than real. Perfectly fine, if unexciting, we agreed.

Fricassee of Turnips Pie

I’d hoped for better things for dessert, which is usually my culinary ace in the hole, but my initial foray was a flop: the ratafia cakes, cookies made of ground almonds and egg whites, spread and flattened in the oven and were nearly impossible to peel unbroken off the baking sheet. “They look like macaroons someone stepped on,” my husband remarked uncharitably. “And they taste like macaroons someone stepped on,” my twenty-year-old son added. Ouch!

The one saving grace: the unfortunately named jaune mange, which my husband insisted on pronouncing, not in the correct French style, but as if its second word rhymed with “range.” I’m not usually a fan of gelatinous custardy desserts, but once unmolded and adorned with canned apricots, the dish, composed largely of wine, sugar and orange juice, looked rather lovely. Even better, its flavor proved to be a delicate and refreshing blend of alcohol and citrus.

Jaune Mange (left) and Ratafia Cakes

Jaune Mange again

“It’s just the right combination of tartness and sweetness, like Elizabeth Bennet,” my husband said, helpfully providing just the right quote for an Austen blogger.

On the whole, however, this foray into Regency cooking wasn’t a great success, with no dish earning a grade above B+ from my customers. I might make the jaune mange again, but the rest of the menu seems appropriately consigned to the dustheap of history.

“I think I like Jane Austen’s books better than her cooking,” my son concluded. “Frankly, I prefer Mansfield Park to this dinner. And that’s saying something.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 28 2016 02:00PM

In Jane Austen’s novels, the quest for a suitable marriage partner is serious business. By law, Regency women surrendered most of their economic and domestic power when they married, so it was crucial to pick a decent, trustworthy husband. In Austen’s courtship stories, the stakes are lifelong happiness or perpetual misery. This is not a game, people!

Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped any number of Janeite entrepreneurs from creating Austen-inspired games. There’s the charmingly low-tech Pride and Prejudice board game, which requires players to answer P&P trivia questions while racing to get both halves of an Austen couple to the church on time. There’s the more up-to-date Ever Jane, the MMPORG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game), currently in beta testing, whose final version is scheduled to launch next year.

And there’s Marrying Mr. Darcy, an outrageously entertaining cards-and-dice game that is this month’s entry in my Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 filling holes in my Janeite education. (OK, OK: playing Austen games isn’t, strictly speaking, educational. But I refuse to apologize for having fun.)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I played Marrying Mr. Darcy twice – once with two players and once with four, including a tolerant college-age male who gamely adopted the role of Georgiana Darcy, winning the weekend’s Good Sport Award.

Marrying Mr. Darcy involves two stages of play, Courtship and Proposal. During the Courtship stage, players embodying one of eight female characters from P&P take turns following the instructions on Event cards covering everything from parties to gambling games to scandalous elopements. Along the way, everyone tries to collect adequate numbers of Character cards awarding points in five crucial areas: Beauty, Wit, Friendliness, Reputation and Cunning.

In the Proposal stage, players take turns weighing offers of marriage from six male P&P characters, with a dice roll determining whether he proposes or passes. Turn down Mr. Collins, and – as he pointed out to Elizabeth Bennet on a parallel occasion – “in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you.” And then you could end up an Old Maid, with another roll of the die determining whether “you live a short, lonely, and bitter life” (for zero points) or “become a celebrated author” (for ten).

Victory goes to the player with the most points, calculated by combining your Character score with your reward for marrying well. The highest number of marriage points is awarded to characters who marry as Jane Austen intended: Elizabeth Bennet gets fifteen points for landing Mr. Darcy, but only five if she settles for Wickham.

It’s a cheerful diversion, lasting just long enough to pass the time on a quiet evening, but not so long that it requires blocking out a whole afternoon. The cards are attractively designed, with character illustrations that seem intended to recall some of our favorite screen adaptations, and for the most part, game play is intuitive and easy to master.

What the Austen-ignorant would make of the game, I can’t say – all my fellow players had read P&P -- but for a Janeite, the game’s pleasures lie in the small details: the quotes from P&P slipped into the Event cards (one entitling you to a second shot at a proposal from a refused suitor is titled “It is usual to reject the addresses of a man when he first applies for your favor”), and the elements of play that suggest the game’s creators have read their Austen (a card titled “Call on Maria Lucas” gives a bonus to the player impersonating Kitty Bennet).

At the risk of overthinking what is, after all, Just A Game, I also found some unexpected Austenian resonance in the game’s structure.

Dowries are foundational but seldom mentioned – except when ties are resolved in favor of the character with the larger one – and heroines have almost no opportunities to increase the dowry points they’re awarded at the start (one for the Bennet sisters, four for Georgiana Darcy). Luck plays a major role in determining whether you amass enough beauty and reputation points to satisfy a high-status suitor. Cunning is deployed in the service of undermining female rivals and increasing the odds of a proposal from a desirable suitor. And the all-or-nothing dice roll that decides your marital fate – along with the concomitant risk of choosing to reject a lower-status man in hopes of landing a better prospect down the line -- is a fair analogue of the high-stakes decisions that confront Austen’s heroines.

I don’t want to overstate the parallels here: Austen surely wouldn’t consider beauty to be a matter of character, and she wouldn’t think of friendliness and wit as qualities entirely determined by chance. Her people grow and change through humbling trials and painful reflection, not on the turn of a card. Marrying Mr. Darcy is a delightful game. Pride and Prejudice is more than that.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 24 2016 01:00PM

When Jane Austen described her work as “the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour,” her words – however tongue-in-cheek their self-deprecation -- launched an unfortunate tradition: what the New Zealand literary critic Jocelyn Harris calls “the myth of her limitation.”

Harris’ 2007 book A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s Persuasion – this month’s entry in my Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 closing some of the gaps in my Janeite education -- seeks to challenge this myth by showing that Austen’s novels are more than the circumscribed, domestic tales they are sometimes taken to be. A close look at Persuasion demonstrates that Austen is a careful, conscious artist wholly engaged with the political, historical and literary currents of her day, Harris asserts.

I’m no scholar, but I do wonder if this case still needs making. Yes, Henry James condescendingly compared Austen to “the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough,” as if Austen’s work were the product of nothing but nature and instinct – but that was in 1905. Surely by now everyone who has spent any time thinking about Austen knows that she is, as Harris puts it, “an outward-looking, aware, and fully professional author.”

Be that as it may, Harris’ book is an often fascinating look at the elements of Austen’s life, Austen’s world and Austen’s reading to which she was responding in her final completed novel. Harris finds Austen echoing Byron, critiquing Scott, and formulating important tenets of the Romantic movement. Her Austen reflects national angst over the power and charisma of Napoleon Bonaparte; reimagines the heroic, flawed Lord Nelson in Captain Wentworth; and interrogates gender norms by creating a powerfully self-aware heroine and a hero at the mercy of his emotions.

Too often, Harris suggests, critics have defaulted to biographical explanations for elements of Austen’s work – finding in Persuasion’s autumnal mood a reflection of Austen’s encroaching fatal illness, for example – without looking more carefully at alternatives that would show her to be more politically engaged. “The nation’s jubilee after the prolonged carnage of the Napoleonic Wars offers a more likely inspiration for the novel’s mixed mood of loss and celebration, its intensity of pain and pleasure,” Harris writes. And she argues convincingly that this tendency to privilege the biographical reflects a sexist assumption that women can write only out of personal experience.

Along the way, Harris offers interesting and useful context – for instance, sketching in the history and social profile of Bath and Lyme in ways that highlight the contrast Austen intended to draw between the oppression of the city and the freedom of the seaside resort.

As a writer myself, I was especially taken by Harris’ close analysis of Austen’s work on the famous “canceled chapters” of Persuasion, her original (and far inferior) draft of the book’s ending. (Eventually, of course, Austen entirely omitted important parts of even the revised version, replacing it with the sublime published ending, where Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville about the relative constancy of men and women, and Captain Wentworth’s swoon-worthy letter, appear for the first time.) Nothing about Austen’s careful revisions, the alteration of a word here and a phrase there, is particularly remarkable: it’s what writers do. But it’s fascinating to see the genius at work, sketching in her characters’ reactions and then going back to question, and improve upon, her first thought.

As in some of her other chapters, Harris is somewhat limited here by the paucity of her source material. The canceled chapters of Persuasion are the only evidence we have of Austen’s revisions to published work; it’s impossible to know if her process here was typical or if she found the drafting of Persuasion’s ending a particularly thorny task.

Similarly, when arguing for resonance or influence, Harris cannot draw on much evidence in Austen’s own voice; Austen’s surviving letters have more to say about visits to neighbors than about responses to reading. Faced with this lacuna, Harris’ arguments often resort to locutions of the “might represent,” “may have recalled” and “if so” variety. “My argument about Austen’s relationship to Scott is circumstantial, to be sure,” she admits at one point.

Still, Harris’ speculations, if inevitably non-definitive, often seem plausible, or at least worth debating. And it’s hard to argue with her desire to situate Austen in her own turbulent, quarrelsome, immensely creative times. Often, Harris suggests, it’s ignorance of Austen’s context – or a desire to restrict her, and perhaps all female writers, to that two inches of ivory -- that leads readers to conclude that she cared little for politics, wrote without reference to the extraordinary artistic upheavals of Romanticism, or decorously accepted the social status quo.

“Biography alone cannot account for what and how Jane Austen wrote. Her intellectual landscapes are surely as significant as her actual ones,” Harris concludes. “Austen lived not just in Hampshire but in a wider world.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 29 2016 01:00PM

Perhaps because Jane Austen’s writing feels so fresh and modern, it’s tempting to imagine her as a contemporary who shares our right-thinking political and social views. If we’re left-leaning, she’s feminist, tolerant, and open-minded about sex; if we’re right-leaning, she’s devout, rigorously moral, and sexually buttoned-up. In the race to make Jane Austen familiar, it’s easy to forget that, to quote L.P. Hartley, the past is a foreign country.

So it’s useful to read a book that sets Jane Austen in the intellectual context of the thinkers who came before her, rather than insisting that she anticipates our own preoccupations. That’s the achievement of Sarah Emsley’s 2005 study Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues, the work of literary criticism that is this month’s assignment in my Austen Catch-Up Project. (As blog readers will recall, the Catch-Up Project is my effort to spend 2016 filling some of the holes in my Austen education.)

Literary criticism, which too often privileges impenetrable terms of art over plain English, is not my favorite genre, but I’m happy to report that Emsley* is a concise and lucid writer. Her slender volume is an enjoyable read even for those of us lacking Ph.D.s in Obscure Jargon Studies, and her approach to Austen is intriguing.

Emsley focuses on Austen’s heroines, arguing that the work they must do is not so much deciding which man to marry as choosing what kind of life to live. As they undertake this task, they develop and exercise the qualities that have come to be known as “the virtues.”

Classical writers, especially Aristotle, emphasized the four cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude; Christian writers like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas stressed the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity/love. For Christian thinkers, “the two traditions may be seen in a dialectical relation: the theological virtues act as a foundation for the cardinal virtues, while at the same time the cardinal virtues prepare us to receive the theological virtues,” Emsley writes.

Like Aristotle, Emsley argues, Austen conceives of the virtues as developed in practice – through action that eventually becomes habitual, not just through reflection. And because, in Austen’s novels, the virtues must be practiced in the ordinary course of human relations, inside of families and communities, their exercise demands attention to both the requirements of the self and the needs of others.

In chapters covering the six novels and the novella Lady Susan, Emsley explores how Austen draws on the tradition of the virtues, which may have come to her through writers like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Johnson. Elinor Dashwood, for instance, develops and practices the virtue of fortitude as she struggles to strike a balance between honesty and the tactful lies that social intercourse demands. Elizabeth and Darcy learn to do justice as they are educated into a humbling realization of their own shortcomings.

Darcy and Elizabeth take parallel journeys because Austen doesn’t see the practice of virtue as gender-differentiated, Emsley argues. While many writers of Austen’s time saw sexual chastity as the primary female virtue, for Austen, both men and women need the same moral education.

Thus, Emsley rejects the interpretations of critics who argue that Austen’s stories are often about the humiliation of a heroine who learns to submit to the hero’s better judgment. Viewed as a process of moral education, the humbling of characters like Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet is liberating, not humiliating, Emsley argues.

“Humility in Pride and Prejudice is not abject self-abasement, but a right sense of one’s own fallibility, and it is not just something Elizabeth learns in order to submit herself to Darcy, but something that they both learn so that they may together submit to God in the context of Christian marriage,” she writes.

Because Austen is reticent about religion – her characters seldom mention God or prayer, let alone sermonize on spiritual or doctrinal matters – modern readers may overlook the extent to which she takes Christianity for granted, the degree to which it’s the ocean in which her characters swim.

But Emsley’s Austen is emphatically a Christian writer, for whom faith underpins the unyielding moral determination of Fanny Price and the constancy of Anne Elliot. Anne’s “strength is not just stoicism, and her hope is not just romantic,” Emsley writes. “She has faith in something larger than herself, larger than her own life; that is, she has faith in God. . . . religious faith underlies the virtues of the [Austen] heroines.”

Although Austen understands the practice of virtue to be flexible – it’s not the application of a rigid set of rules but a disposition to seek harmonious balance when values conflict -- this flexibility is not moral relativism, Emsley argues. For Austen, non-negotiable standards of value do exist, and they are rooted in Christianity.

I think Emsley is right to restore this religious context, so alien to the world in which many of us live today. Austen’s poignant sense of life’s contingency, her awareness of how easily the stories she tells us could come out differently, seems modern to us, but we should not mistake it for an atheistic existentialism.

Some of Emsley’s analyses are better than others. To my mind, her chapters on Emma and Persuasion are more rushed and less thorough than her considerations of the earlier novels, and a coda discussing whether George Eliot, Henry James and Edith Wharton can be considered heirs to Austen’s philosophy of the virtues seems especially thin.

But these are quibbles, for even the less well-developed chapters are rife with interesting insights. Emsley gives us a new way of looking at Austen by reminding us that she isn’t as new -- as modern -- as we like to think.

* Full disclosure: Emsley gave Among the Janeites a generous review and has invited me to contribute to her blog on several occasions. I’ve also socialized with her at a number of Jane Austen Society of North America events.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 11 2016 01:00PM

Jane Austen fan fiction is a female-dominated field. That’s not surprising: Twenty-first-century Austen fandom is heavily female, and many JAFF works fall squarely into the romance-novel genre, which is mostly written and read by women.

It takes guts for a man to try his hand at this game, which is one reason I added Collins Hemingway’s 2015 novel The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen to the agenda of the Austen Catch-Up Project, my effort to spend 2016 filling holes in my Janeite experience.

The other reason? Hemingway’s memorable decision to promote his self-published novel by raffling off a trip to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England. No mere book giveaway, this!

Still, I’ll admit to some skepticism going in. Hemingway (no relation to Ernest) is a onetime Microsoft marketer, and his previous publications are business books co-written with the likes of Bill Gates – not the likeliest preparation for writing Regency romance. Did some half-conscious sexism inflect my doubts – some question about whether a person in possession of a Y-chromosome could handle this material? Could be.

Hemingway didn’t help his cause by posting on Goodreads a promo that says his book, “using the Austen oeuvre as a foundation. . . takes the heroine out of her safe country villages and tosses her into a world that is far more complex and exciting” – one that involves the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. You know -- “what the Regency era was really all about: great explorations, scientific discovery, industrial advances, labor and political unrest, and an unceasing, bloody war,” as Hemingway explains on his blog.

Spare me yet another round of mansplaining about how safe, simple and dull domestic life is compared to the Very Important Boy Things going in the worlds of politics and economics. Surely one of the lessons of Austen’s work is that daily life is every bit as risky and complex – and every bit as much what the Regency was really about -- as events taking place on a larger canvas.

Given my preliminary reservations, I’m happy to report that The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen is not bad at all. Hemingway’s plot takes elements from Austen’s real life – notably her refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither’s 1802 proposal – and melds them with elements from her fiction to create an enjoyable courtship story with two appealing protagonists.

His hero is Ashton Dennis, who resembles Bigg-Wither in being a rich, gangly stutterer several years Austen’s junior. (His name comes from the jokey pseudonym – “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” abbreviated as “M.A.D.” – that Austen gave herself in 1809, when she tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the manuscript of Susan, later Northanger Abbey, from the man who had bought but not published it.)

Just as in the real-life Austen’s encounter with Bigg-Wither, Hemingway’s Austen accepts Ashton’s proposal but recants the next day. Just as in Pride and Prejudice, the would-be lovers engage in a verbal smackdown over her refusal and then slowly rebuild their relationship on a new, more mature foundation. And just as in just about every Regency romance, the rebuilding culminates – no spoiler alert necessary, given the book's title – in a successful wedding night, described here with a level of detail that falls toward the reticent end of the spectrum between gauzy indirection and clinical specificity.

Along the way, there is a touching trans-Atlantic correspondence facilitated by Austen’s sailor brothers and a charming episode in which Jane and Ashton end up alone in a runaway hot-air balloon. Although Ashton finds himself tangentially involved in the war with France, there’s not much about the slave trade, the scientific revolution and the rest of it. But this book is intended as the first of a trilogy, so presumably all those Really Important Topics will make their way into future installments.

The book’s biggest failing is the writing, which too often tends toward the stilted, verbose and excessively Latinate. Jane, wondering about her approaching wedding night: “From the whispers of her married friends she had obtained the intimation that she might one day find the function of a mate to be less than disagreeable.” Jane, trying to banish her nervousness about said wedding night: “She had to believe that he would never compel her to undertake any action unsuitable to her ability or antagonistic to her humanity.” Even in Georgian England, I doubt that people in casual conversation spoke of “our parents’ abode” or said things like “I would not merit you with so calculated an action of your behavior.”

A tip for fellow writers: Tempted to use the word “osculation”? Just Say No. (Better yet, just say “kissing.”) And if you’re striving to reproduce nineteenth-century diction, ruthlessly purge anachronisms like “interaction,” “relationship,” “option” and – God help us – “synchronicity.”

Presumably, Hemingway wants to give his prose an Austen-ish patina, but even when he avoids anachronistic synchronicity, the results manifest a common misunderstanding of Austen’s technique.

Too often, her imitators seem to think that it’s Austen’s vocabulary that makes her writing sound to us like the product of an earlier era. Because she uses words like “countenance” and “disposition” that have fallen out of favor in our time, her acolytes think they should stud their pastiches with yet more Latinate terms. Bring on intimation and osculation!

But Austen uses such words sparingly – and thank goodness. Who would want to read a novel that began, “It is a verity commanding universal acquiescence that a matrimonially unattached man of substantial prosperity must require a spouse”? It’s the balance of clause and counter-clause that gives Austen’s prose its distinctive ring -- the rhythm of her sentences, not the contents of her thesaurus. And there’s a reason so many of her imitators don’t manage to reproduce that rhythm: it’s fiendishly hard to get right. Far easier to pull another multisyllabic term out of the linguistic grab-bag.

Usually, stylistic shortcomings like Hemingway’s drive me crazy, draining much of my pleasure in reading. Nevertheless, I rather enjoyed The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen – perhaps because it lingers over the ground I like best in my romance novels, the falling-in-love, hoping-against-hope, tremulous-uncertainty stage. Hey, it’s summer. I guess I’m in a forgiving mood.

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