Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2019 01:00PM

The Janeite word of the moment, it would appear, is “fragment.”

* Last week, Jane Austen’s House Museum launched an urgent appeal for donations to fund the purchase of a recently rediscovered portion of an 1814 Austen letter.

* A few days later, the British broadcaster ITV released tantalizing on-set photos from its shoot of Sanditon, the upcoming eight-part television mini-series based on the novel Austen left incomplete upon her death in 1817.

* And yesterday it was announced that playwright Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, an unfinished novel that Austen abandoned around 1805, will have a London premiere this fall.

Among these three fragments, the Austen letter is the least mysterious, since it comprises the lion’s share of a text that was published in full before its physical pieces were dispersed. By contrast, no one knows how Austen planned to finish The Watsons and Sanditon (although I’ve reviewed later efforts at completions here and here).

Given this built-in uncertainty, it’s no surprise that the current adapters felt free to take some liberties. Sanditon screenwriter Andrew Davies is apparently bringing us a rollicking melodrama that, judging from the photos, will feature the gorgeous production values and even more gorgeous actors we’ve come to expect from the company that brought us Downton Abbey. The British air date is sometime this fall; Masterpiece, which will air the show in the U.S., has not yet announced a schedule.

Wade’s theatrical version of The Watsons, which was produced last year at a theater festival in southeast England, takes a different tack, making post-modern hay out of the Pirandello-esque concept of literary characters left stranded in an unfinished work. Wade herself – or, at any rate, a writer named Laura -- shows up to debate matters with her heroine. The reviews were great, and if I had any chance of being in London between September 20 and November 16, I’d be first in line when tickets go on sale next week. Since that, alas, cannot be, I'll rely on blog readers to report back.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 15 2018 01:00PM

The Watsons -- the novel Jane Austen began, probably in 1804, but never finished -- is a fascinating fragment. It’s bleak and wintry, centering on a once-genteel family facing economic disaster and a heroine, Emma Watson, who struggles with feelings of displacement, loneliness and rejection.

Although The Watsons has inspired its fair share of fanfiction – I reviewed ten Watsons completions in a 2014 blog series – as far as I know, it’s never been adapted for the stage or screen.

So I was delighted to learn that this omission will be rectified later this year, when a Watsons dramatization by contemporary British playwright Laura Wade opens at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Chichester, Sussex, in southeastern England. (Those who enjoy playing Six Degrees of Jane Austen will note that the production will be directed by Samuel West, Wade’s life partner, who played Mr. Elliot in the excellent 1995 film of Persuasion.)

Judging from the description on the theater’s website, Wade’s version of The Watsons will have some postmodern fun with the notion of an unfinished manuscript. “Who will write Emma’s happy ending now?” the blurb asks. “This sparklingly witty play looks under the bonnet of Jane Austen and asks: what can characters do when their author abandons them?”

It all sounds most promising. Although Jane Austen apparently gave some of her relatives a general sense of what she planned for her Watsons characters, her outline leaves plenty of scope for fleshing out the story in unexpected ways. It should be fascinating to see whether Wade follows Austen’s roadmap or branches off on her own.

The play won’t open until November, but tickets are already on sale. My chances of being in Chichester this fall are nil, sadly, but If any lucky readers see the show, please post here and let us know what you thought.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2017 02:00PM

Twenty-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Only six of Jane Austen’s letters to her oldest niece, Fanny Knight, survive, but for Janeites mining for links between Austen’s work and Austen’s life, that tiny correspondence is chock-full of golden nuggets.

Scarcely seventeen years separated aunt from niece, and Fanny seems to have enjoyed parsing her romantic dilemmas with this sympathetic and interested older confidante, in a pre-telephonic version of “And then he said. . . . And then I said. . . . And then he said. . . .”

Austen’s letters to Fanny fall into two groups: two letters written in November 1814, when Fanny was twenty-one and Austen thirty-eight; and three more written some two and a half years later, in early 1817, when Fanny was twenty-four and the forty-one-year-old Austen had only months to live. (The sixth letter, which contains a few verses of doggerel, was written years earlier, when Fanny was a child.)

The letter Austen finished writing exactly 203 years ago today -- #109 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence -- is the first of two in which Aunt Jane addresses Fanny’s fluctuating feelings for the young clergyman John Plumptre. (I blogged about the second of these letters here.)

To me, what’s most interesting about Letter #109 is the way that Austen’s reactions to Fanny resonate with incidents or dialogue in her work. Apparently, Fanny has visited Plumptre’s home, hoping to stimulate her waning passion by a view of his things. Austen can’t help giggling at the idea. “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!--Such a circumstance ought to be in print,” she writes. And little more than a year later, with the publication of Emma, the world was introduced to Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” – a worn-out pencil stub and an extra bit of court plaister, saved as stimuli to romantic nostalgia. Was Fanny’s dirty shaving rag an inspiration for Harriet’s treasure trove? Impossible to say – but tempting to speculate.

The letter contains an even more explicit echo of Austen’s fiction. After cataloguing the worthy Mr. Plumptre’s many merits, Austen nevertheless advises Fanny to consult her own feelings: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,” Austen writes.

Was Jane Austen channeling, consciously or unconsciously, the gentle, optimistic Jane Bennet -- in chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice, published the year before -- who, confronted with the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr. Darcy, cries, “Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection”? Impossible to know – but tempting to speculate.

In their insistence on marital love, both Janes are speaking to young women for whom the prudential and the romantic need not conflict: for the fictional Lizzy, because she has fallen in love with a wealthy man, and for the real-life Fanny, because she is herself an heiress. But Austen’s advice also echoes a far darker passage in her work – a snippet of dialogue in the early pages of her fragment The Watsons, in which the idealistic Emma Watson and her older, less naïve sister Elizabeth discuss the search for a husband.

“I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like,” exclaims Emma, who has grown up with a wealthy aunt and only recently returned to her struggling birth family.

“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school,” Elizabeth replies. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have.”

Austen undoubtedly took Fanny’s romantic woes seriously, but she must have realized that the stakes were far lower for a young woman who, even if she stayed single, would never have to face the hard work and genteel poverty of teacher or governess. And perhaps that is why, amid her genuine concern for the feelings of Fanny and the unfortunate Mr. Plumptre, Austen’s wry, unromantic common sense cannot help but assert itself.

Fanny has encouraged her suitor, and therefore pain awaits him if she changes her mind, Austen acknowledges. But not that much pain. “I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up,” she writes, “but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 9 2014 01:00PM

Great news for aficionados of Jane Austen fan fiction: the long-inaccessible third volume of The Younger Sister, by Austen’s niece Catherine Hubback, is finally online,* in a version newly digitized by the University of Iowa.

As readers of my January-February blog series “The Watsons in Winter” will recall, Hubback’s 1850 continuation of Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons was the first published example of the now-popular genre of Austen fan fiction.

Copies of the book, long out of print, exist in only a handful of research libraries around the world, and although the first two volumes have long been available online, in versions digitized by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the third volume had proved too fragile to scan. Most readers wanting to find out how Hubback ends her story were out of luck.

Enter Iowa’s heroic librarians (really, that’s a phrase that should be employed more often, don’t you think?) Iowa holds the only copy of Hubback’s book available for interlibrary loan in the U.S., and when I emailed its librarians to ask about the possibility of digitizing this historically interesting book, they responded rapidly and favorably.

And now they’ve done it! Iowa’s digitized version of Volume III can be read online or downloaded as a PDF: I acquired all 434 pages in 25 minutes.

I’m looking forward to finishing Hubback’s story at last. She’s not as good a writer as her aunt--who is?–but she’s an entertaining Victorian who deserves to be read, if only because her early homage to Austen inspired so many to follow the same path.

* Thanks to reader cmickey, who alerted me to this news.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 28 2014 01:00PM

I spent my weekend in Janeite heaven: Saturday at “Jane Austen Day,” a delightful conference sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of JASNA, and Sunday at a meeting of my local (Central New Jersey) chapter of JASNA.

The topic for Sunday’s local meeting was Jane Austen spinoff fiction. We munched scones, chatted about our favorite – and not-so-favorite – examples of the genre, and speculated about why Jane Austen, alone among classic authors, has inspired such an outpouring of imitators. (Because her characters seem unusually real? Because her life is modest and relatable? Because she only wrote six books?)

Saturday’s more ambitious event featured three distinguished academics delivering papers on the conference topic, “The Unfinished Jane Austen” – the books, and the life, that Jane Austen left uncompleted.

Jocelyn Harris, retired from the University of Otago in New Zealand, spoke on card games as a metaphor for the marriage market in Austen’s novel fragment The Watsons. Janine Barchas of the University of Texas at Austin discussed Regency advertising and the concept of branding in relation to the unfinished Sanditon. And Michael Gamer of the University of Pennsylvania talked about how different posterity’s view of Austen might have been had she survived longer, and had her brother Henry not lived to cultivate an image of her as a sedate and pious spinster.

All three papers were well-delivered and thought-provoking, but as usual in these Janeite gatherings, I found myself enjoying the company as much as the program. What did you think of Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, the latest installment in the Austen Project updates? Are you planning on attending this fall’s JASNA meeting in Montreal? Isn’t it bittersweet to realize how good Sanditon was going to be, if only Austen had lived to finish it? These gatherings are the place for these conversations, and a dozen more like them. It's all about community.

The quintessential Janeite moment came amid one of the scholarly lectures, as the speaker – surely by accident -- referred to Jane Austen’s untimely death at the age of “fifty-one.” A rustling whisper swept through the audience, as dozens of voices murmured a correction: “Forty-one.”

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