Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 28 2016 01:00PM

Let us stipulate that Mrs. Bennet draws the short straw. Her clever, ironic husband treats her with thinly disguised disrespect. Her wittiest, most interesting daughter recoils from her vulgarities. And Jane Austen’s readers -- identifying, consciously or unconsciously, with the point of view of the clever and the witty – laugh at her, quite a lot.


They don’t, however, long to spend much time in her company. And so my curiosity was piqued when I first heard of Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say, Jane Juska’s 2015 Pride and Prejudice spinoff.


By now, more than two centuries after P&P's publication, it’s hardly an act of revolutionary feminism to suggest that Mrs. Bennet, worried sick over the insecurity of her daughters’ future, is a more responsible parent than her resolutely detached husband.


But let’s face it: She’s also stupid and annoying. We have Jane Austen’s word for it: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”


Centering a fan fiction on this unpleasant character? A challenging task, to say the least. And so I chose Juska’s novel as my latest assignment in the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 plugging a few of the holes in my Janeite education.


Juska, a former English teacher, comes with an unusual backstory of her own. In her late sixties, she placed a personal ad in the New York Review of Books seeking sexual companionship. Then she wrote a memoir about the results and saucily titled it A Round-Heeled Woman. She was over eighty when Mrs. Bennet, her first novel, was published. Clearly, she knows a thing or two about underestimated older women.


Juska’s novel is not, as its title might suggest, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Mrs. Bennet’s point of view. Instead, it’s a prequel recounting the early years of the Bennet marriage -- in Juska’s telling, a misbegotten affair from the first.


Newly of age, Edward Bennet needs a wife, any wife, to produce a male heir. Fifteen-year-old Marianne Gardiner, seduced and impregnated by a handsome militia colonel, needs a husband, any husband, pronto. (Yes, the future Jane Bingley is a cuckoo in the Bennet nest.) Edward is sexually inept; Marianne pines for her colonel; neither can express to the other what they feel or need; and the babies keep turning out to be girls.


Inevitably, the suspense is minimal: We P&P readers know that this marriage can’t, or at least won’t, be saved. Clearly, Juska hopes to hold our interest by showing us how the Bennet relationship curdled, turning Mr. Bennet into the jaundiced cynic and Mrs. Bennet into the frustrated complainer that we know and love.


In more competent authorial hands, the novel might have worked as a comic romp; in truly accomplished ones, it might have achieved real pathos. Alas, however, Juska isn’t up to either task. Her Edward is a doleful, clueless fellow with little sense of humor, rather like his namesake in Sense and Sensibility. Her whiny, tiresome Marianne is far less compelling than her S&S counterpart. And for those of us who care about such things, the stray verbal anachronisms are jarring: a handsome young man is “a looker,” a lady of easy virtue is “a stupid little tramp,” a woman recalls “giv[ing] my all, and then some,” a storyteller launches a tale with “First off.”


But Juska’s biggest mistake is her decision to tell the story in first-person narration, alternating between Mrs. Bennet’s letters to a sympathetic older sister and Mr. Bennet’s diary entries.


The Bennet parents are among Austen’s greatest comic creations, but like so many of her brilliant caricatures, they are one-dimensional: They lack the capacity for growth or change, and that makes them inadequate vehicles for what’s meant to be a story about a growing and changing relationship. By depriving herself of the perspective that an omniscient narrative voice would have brought to the proceedings, Juska is forced to fall back on the introspective insight and emotional sensitivity of two people who conspicuously lack either quality.


Preoccupied with unrealistic romantic imaginings, Juska’s Marianne recalls a far greater literary creation, Emma Bovary. But there’s a reason Flaubert doesn’t let Madame Bovary tell her own story: Her tragedy is that she’s not capable of fully understanding her tragedy. Unfortunately, Juska doesn’t seem to realize that her Mrs. Bennet actually has very little to say.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 30 2016 01:00PM

The classics are timeless, we are told. Their freshness has no sell-by date; their concerns seem as urgent in our times as in the times that spawned them.


Surely, this is true of Jane Austen’s novels, with their indelible character portraits, their psychological acuity and their deep understanding of family dynamics. Arguably, it’s her novels’ very reticence about the ephemera of nineteenth-century politics and economics that makes them great -- that frees them from the particular and allows them to become universal.


Of course, this timelessness is also held against Austen. Even some of her admirers condescend, just a little. “What calm lives they had, those people!” Winston Churchill wrote, after he spent a bout of illness in bed listening to his daughter read aloud from Pride and Prejudice. “No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.”


At the most extreme, Austen’s alleged disconnection from her times becomes one of the items on the Austen-haters’ bill of indictment: Men were fighting battles, and Jane Austen wrote about women attending balls! Where were her priorities? Didn’t she know what was really important?


So is Austen’s timelessness a feature or a bug? A book like the excellent In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815, written by the British biographer, historian and editor Jenny Uglow, provides a useful aid in thinking over this question. Uglow’s book, published in 2015, is my latest self-imposed assignment in the year-long Austen Catch-Up Project, designed to help plug a few of the holes in my Janeite education.


Uglow’s wide-ranging and beautifully written history of the home front during Georgian Britain’s twenty-two years of near-constant war with France fills in the context that Austen’s first readers took for granted. “The wars were like permanent bad weather,” Uglow writes, “so all-surrounding that people stopped referring to them and merely said ‘in these dismal times,’ ‘in such troubling and dangerous times’ or simply ‘in these times.’ ”


The conflict was monumental in every sense. During an era when Britain’s population ranged from ten to fourteen million, one million men and boys fought, and 311,000 died. Battle lines were drawn in Portugal and Spain, Egypt and the Caribbean, Belgium and the Welsh town of Fishguard, where in 1797 a small French detachment staged a brief, unsuccessful invasion of the British mainland.


And the war dragged on and on, lasting -- like every war in every era -- far longer than its proponents ever expected. As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, the brief Peace of Amiens evaporated and British soldiers and sailors returned to the fight, “boys not yet born at the start of the first war were joining their ships or marching away as their father had done, leaving mothers and sisters at home,” Uglow writes.


At home, change of every kind – political, economic, social, religious, technological, artistic – was tremendous and wrenching. Speculators and entrepreneurs made their fortunes, while workers saw traditional livelihoods evaporate amid industrialization and technological change. Wartime pressures spurred innovation in everything from artillery shells to taxation, and a new religious fervor – as well as the desire to undermine France in the West Indies -- pushed Parliament to abolish the slave trade. Bad weather and worse trade policies spawned food shortages and widespread hunger. Political attitudes polarized, and jumpy wartime governments cracked down on dissent, engendering resentment and protest that sometimes degenerated into violence on both sides.


Uglow draws on contemporary diaries, letters, cartoons, poetry and political speeches, as well as on the work of other historians, to tell this story. Along the way, she provides touching and sometimes heart-breaking accounts of families: men separated for years from their growing children, sons struggling to keep family businesses from going under, women dreading the arrival of letters or newspapers that might bring bad news about loved ones.


Inevitably, in a group portrait like this one, the details blur. It’s hard to keep all the names, dates and places straight, and I wouldn’t want to take an exam on everything Uglow tells us about Parliamentary debates or grinding military campaigns. (Though I’m glad to finally understand something about the Peninsular War, the brutally extended fighting in Iberia, which I previously knew mostly from those Regency romance novels in which the hero returns home from the fighting bearing emotional scars that can only be healed by the love of a good woman.)


Ultimately, Uglow sees the Napoleonic Wars as a crucible of British identity, forging a newly assertive nation freshly aware of its strength and its nationhood.


“With its industrial power, technological wizardry and financial clout Britain was squeezed out of the French wars like a pip from a lemon into a century and a half as a major world power,” she writes, in a typically elegant passage. “After 1815 most people shared a feeling of being ‘British’ which had not existed before. . . . The old paternalistic patterns had been fractured, between landlords and rural communities and between masters and workers, but in their place there was a new sense of solidarity in groups.”


What does all this have to do with Jane Austen? In a sense, not much: Her critics are of course correct to note that the upheaval of war touches her stories only tangentially, in the off-stage naval dramas of William Price or Captain Wentworth, or in the unstated fear of French invasion that explains why a provincial town like P&P's Meryton needs a militia presence.


Yet I would argue that when we know something of the fractured, frightening times in which Austen lived, we can make better sense of a mood that subtly pervades the novels, especially the three written at Chawton, as the war dragged on endlessly: the sense that life is a succession of choices whose outcomes can’t be predicted -- that the choices we make are simultaneously deeply serious and entirely contingent.


Timeless truths? Certainly. But also, as Uglow shows us, truths that were the product of a very particular time.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 30 2016 01:00PM

The 2007 movie of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club opens with a montage designed to evoke the noise, stress and atomization of modern life: crowded roadways shimmering in smoggy heat; ubiquitous, isolating screens; malfunctioning machines of all kinds; rude strangers yelling into cell phones, or stealing a parking space, or refusing help at a customer-service window.


The message is clear: we’d be better off escaping into Jane Austen’s world, that infinitely calmer, quieter and more civilized era. “I rather prefer the eighteenth century,” film director Whit Stillman told the New York Times during a recent interview about his new Austen adaptation, Love and Friendship. “I think it’s a superior time, for music, architecture, manners, thought.”


Anyone susceptible to this particular brand of nostalgia would do well to read Jane Austen’s England: Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods, Roy and Lesley Adkins’ 2013 book. It’s the May installment of the Austen Catch-Up Project, my effort to spend 2016 plugging some of the holes in my Janeite education.


Drawing on contemporary newspapers, diaries, memoirs and letters, including those of Jane Austen, the book paints a hair-raising portrait of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – hair-raising, at least, for anyone who cares about social justice, personal hygiene or the welfare of women, children and the elderly. “This was a time of glaring disparity between the immensely rich minority and the poor majority, who suffered from steep rises in the price of food and from falling wages,” the authors write. “This place of radical change is the real England of Jane Austen.”


And then we’re off on a brisk tour of everything from marriage rituals to medical practices. We read about the coal-dust pollution known as “black snow,” about child chimney sweeps who developed skin infections because they were so rarely allowed to wash, about amputations performed without anesthetic, about public hangings for minor thefts, about milk adulterated with water from horse-troughs. We learn of beggars selling their healthy teeth for transplantation into the mouths of the better-off; workers engaged in physical labor into their eighties, because the dreaded workhouse was the only alternative; buckets of urine flung out of windows onto the heads of passersby; and married women giving birth to an average of six or seven children.


It’s enough to make any Janeite thank the lucky historical stars that presided over her birth in an era of antibiotics, social welfare programs, food safety regulations and reliable contraception. For all our shrill cell phones and crowded roads, life back then sounds harder and harsher, more precarious and less forgiving of weakness or misfortune. It’s hopelessly ahistorical of me to say so – my historian husband points out that the inhabitants of the past, unburdened with our expectations, managed to lead full and satisfying lives despite the lack of modern conveniences – but still: I’m really, really glad I didn’t live back then.


The Adkinses, a British husband-wife team of historian/archeologists, are lively, lucid writers who illustrate their summaries with telling details gleaned from the accounts of parsons, governesses and foreign visitors, or from newspaper stories and advertisements. They serve up a banquet’s worth of food for thought. What they don’t do is analyze the mass of material they’ve collected, or set it in much context. The reader gets little sense of the larger economic and political developments underway in Austen’s world, or of the extent to which most of her middle-class contemporaries knew or cared about the gross injustices that surrounded them.


Of course, only glimpses of those injustices can be gleaned from Austen’s novels, either: she famously deals with a narrow stratum of society, the gentry class and those just above and below it. Thieves, chimney sweeps and toothless beggars make no appearances in her work, and it requires only a bit of inattentiveness to read her novels as escapist romances.


Regular blog readers know that I have no patience with those who think Austen’s laser focus on the class she knew best is a fatal flaw, or even a flaw at all. Novelists are not sociologists; they’re allowed to choose what they’re interested in and ignore all the rest, and when they do it with as much psychological acuity and linguistic subtlety as Austen, we readers have nothing to complain about. Still, for those of us whose vision of Regency England begins and ends on the lawns of the stately homes depicted on our ubiquitous screens, the Adkinses' fascinating account offers a useful reminder that Jane Austen’s world encompassed a great deal more.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 18 2016 01:00PM

Work on Jane Austen, whether biography or literary criticism, arrays itself along a spectrum whose poles might be labeled Jolly Jane and Angry Austen.


Jolly Jane is a secure, contented woman who grew up surrounded by fond, supportive relatives. Her delightfully escapist comic novels poke gentle, affectionate fun at human foibles while ushering charming heroes and heroines into blissful marriages. Ultimately, the books reaffirm traditional Tory values and portray a fundamentally just moral universe.


Angry Austen is a frustrated, rebellious woman who grew up surrounded by difficult, oppressive relatives. Her dark and edgy satiric novels ruthlessly skewer the misogyny and materialism of her era while ushering deeply flawed protagonists into problematic marriages. Ultimately, the books reveal the emptiness of traditional patriarchal values and portray a fundamentally bleak moral universe.


John Halperin’s 1984 biography, The Life of Jane Austen, falls about as solidly into the Angry Austen camp as any book could. I chose it as the next entry in my Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 plugging gaps in my Janeite education, because I knew that it was one of the most controversial of the many Austen biographies. “I can imagine Janeites burning effigies of John Halperin all over North America,” one academic reviewer wrote not long after the book’s publication.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 31 2016 01:00PM

For someone who led such a short, uneventful life, and one about which comparatively little is known, Jane Austen has inspired a surprising number of biographies -- at least twenty-two, by my count, and that doesn’t even include the various books that use Austen’s life as a jumping-off-point for historical explorations of such topics as tea, houses, fashion or gardening.


Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh launched the genre with his 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, based on family reminiscences. But it’s the first modern biography by a non-family member -- Elizabeth Jenkins’ Jane Austen: A Biography, published in 1938 – that is the subject of this month’s entry in the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I try to plug some of the holes in my Austen education.


Jenkins (1905-2010) was a well-regarded British novelist and biographer: her subjects, in addition to Austen, included Elizabeth I, Henry Fielding and Lady Caroline Lamb. For Janeites, her most significant contribution is as a co-founder of the UK’s Jane Austen Society, which succeeded in buying Chawton cottage and turning it into a beloved museum of Austen’s life.


Jenkins’ Austen biography is a model of taste, decorum and restraint. With only one lapse, Jenkins is scrupulous about acknowledging the limits of the evidence available to her, and she resists – rightly, in my view – the temptation to read the events in Austen’s novels as evidence for the events in Austen’s life. “To try to deduce from her novels a personal history of Jane Austen, is completely to misunderstand the type of mind she represents,” Jenkins argues.

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