Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 21 2018 01:00PM

The Hampshire village of Chawton is the mecca of the Janeite faith: the community where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, the secure home where she wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, the place from which “all her works were sent into the world,” to quote the plaque outside her cottage.

So it’s understandable that at least one villager found himself a tad miffed when the world’s first statue of Austen was unveiled last summer in . . . the nearby market town of Basingstoke, where Austen probably shopped, danced and walked, but where she indubitably did not live.

“Basingstoke has the statue, and Winchester has the grave and features on the Austen £10 note, but Chawton has been left out,” Michael Sanders, retiring chairman of the Friends of Chawton Church, told a local newspaper. “And it was here she did all the work on her books.”

So Sanders and his committee raised the money necessary to get Chawton a consolation prize of sorts: not the life-size bronze of Austen on permanent display in Basingstoke, but a smaller version, known as a maquette, which sculptor Adam Roud made as a preliminary template.

The Basingstoke Austen statue was installed in the central marketplace at street level, as if Bronze Jane were just another passerby on her way to the shops. By contrast, the smaller Chawton version stands atop a pedestal in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, not far from the graves of Austen’s mother and sister and a short distance from Chawton House, the home of Austen’s brother Edward Knight. The statue gazes across the meadows toward the cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen lived from 1809 to 1817.

Among the participants in last Friday’s unveiling ceremony were Richard Knight, one of Edward’s descendants; the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire; the Bishop of Basingstoke; and the novelist Joanna Trollope, a patron of Chawton House and the author of a deeply mediocre Sense and Sensibility update, as well as children from the local school and the chair of Chawton House’s board.

As blog readers will recall, Chawton House itself has had a rocky year or two as it tries to raise enough money to replace the contribution of Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who renovated the property and turned it into a research library for the study of early English writing by women. Most recently, the organization dropped "Library" from Chawton House's name, in the hopes of encouraging non-scholarly tourists to make themselves welcome.

With luck, the statue will provide yet another reason for Janeites to make their very own pilgrimage to Hampshire.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2015 01:00PM

Halfway to the finish line, the Austen Project is looking increasingly like the Austen Fiasco.

The Austen Project, as you may recall, is publisher HarperCollins’ effort to confer respectability upon the much-maligned genre of Jane Austen fan fiction by assigning a modern-day update of each Austen novel to a commercially successful yet critically acclaimed contemporary writer.

The first three volumes have now been published, and each is, in its own way, pretty bad. No adapter has yet been announced for Mansfield Park and Persuasion (although I’m rather partial to my husband’s suggestion that E.L. James should take on Fanny Price), and the project’s web site shows signs of infrequent updating. Could it be that HarperCollins is having trouble persuading writers with the appropriate track record to jump aboard this listing ship?

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 12 2015 01:00PM

“Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy made his fortune from slavery”! “Romantic hero profited from the misery of others”!

So scream this week’s scandal-mongering UK headlines (in, respectively, the Independent and the Daily Mail). Both stories report on a recent speech at the Festival of Literature in Dubai (there’s a lit festival in Dubai? Who knew?) by British novelist Joanna Trollope, who, since penning a deeply mediocre Sense and Sensibility update, has apparently been crowned the Queen of the Austen Experts.

As best I can tell from the overwrought coverage, Trollope seems to have been making a rather uncontroversial point: that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English fortunes, such as those possessed by the heroes of Pride and Prejudice, almost always rested on foundations that look pretty unsavory to our modern eyes.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 28 2013 01:00PM

Joanna Trollope’s modern-dress adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the first in a planned series of six Austen updates by popular contemporary authors, will be published here on Tuesday. I’ve already preordered for my Kindle, but now comes word that Trollope, whose earlier, non-Austen novels I’ve greatly enjoyed, doesn’t want me to read her latest book.

We American Austen fans – apparently we’re noted for our militancy – will be offended that she’s updated the story by, for example, having Willoughby give Marianne a sports car instead of a horse.

“There’s a Jane Austen Society in America which takes it even more seriously than the Jane Austen Society in this country,” Trollope told the audience at a British literary festival this month. “I’ve been to one of their conventions, which was held in Winchester, and most of the delegates from America — none of whom was exactly anorexic — were all in Jane Austen clothes.”

Translation: we’re fat, silly purists with no sense of humor.

Sigh. These aren’t the smart, funny Janeites I know – many of whom, incidentally, rather enjoy a well-written Austen spinoff, whether a sequel set in the Regency or a modern-dress update, a la Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Indeed, it’s pretty clear that this whole “Austen Project” was inspired by the success of P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, which reportedly sold 300,000 copies in hardback alone. Many Janeites I know read that book – although, admittedly, we tended to be far less enthusiastic about it than were mainstream critics.

Trollope’s rather mean-spirited remarks smack of a pre-emptive strike against Janeite criticism. If we don’t like her book, apparently it won’t be because it’s not a good book; it’ll be because we’re nuts.

I understand that enthusiastic fandom can look kind of silly to outsiders, especially, I'm afraid, when the enthusiasts are middle-aged women. But judging from her earlier books, Trollope is keenly aware of the many ways in which our culture slights, ignores and patronizes middle-aged women. She should know better than to indulge in this cheap ridicule of Austen nuts -- especially since it’s the Austen nuts who’ve made the entire Austen Project possible.

A little more politeness – even of the fake, social-smile kind – might be in order. Where’s Elinor Dashwood when you need her?

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