Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 26 2019 01:00PM

Bipartisanship is sadly rare in Washington these days, so it’s refreshing to find one instance of agreement across the aisle, even in these polarized times. Hot on the heels of the news that First Daughter Ivanka Trump is (possibly) a Janeite comes word that Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a leading contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, is also an Austen fan.


“In Iowa City, Elizabeth Warren is asked her favorite book,” New York Times politics reporter Thomas Kaplan tweeted last week. “ ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ she says, ‘because it's about an observant woman who cuts through all of -- I know Jane would never call it this -- but the BS.’ ”


When I read Kaplan’s tweet, I assumed Warren was referring to Elinor Dashwood, who is indeed an observant woman with a sensitive bullshit detector, although more often than not she keeps her findings to herself. On the campaign trail, I figured, Warren probably found herself paying the compliment of rational opposition to many who didn’t deserve it. No wonder Elinor appealed to her.


But apparently Warren had someone besides Elinor in mind, and luckily another intrepid reporter was on hand to clarify her point.


During that same trip to Iowa City, it appears, Warren sat down for a fifteen-minute Q&A with Marie Claire magazine, covering trivial matters like climate change, abortion rights, and the crushing costs of housing, education, and child care. Luckily, however, the final question touched on a truly important topic: What book does Warren reread frequently?


Warren’s answer: yes, Sense and Sensibility. “Every time I read it, I see another layer in it,” she said. “The characters are interesting and far more complex than appears on the surface. I am reminded that a serious woman who is a sharp observer has the capacity to open our eyes in ways we had never thought of before.”


“Are you referring to Jane or Elinor?” asked interviewer Chloe Angyal, who – props to her – had clearly read the book, or at least seen the movie.


“Both,” Warren replied. “I was really thinking about Jane, but it’s both of them. It’s the whole notion of, it celebrates the observer. And I like that.”


If all this reading and rereading weren’t enough to confirm Warren’s Janeite status, the repeated references to the novel’s author as “Jane” would probably do it. But perhaps the most revealing detail is Warren’s transparently autobiographical interpretation of S&S as a celebration of “a serious woman who is a sharp observer.” Reading yourself into your favorite Austen novel: That’s the mark of a true Janeite.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 19 2019 01:00PM

In the most famous passage of perhaps the most famous essay ever written about Jane Austen, the psychologist and literary critic D.W. Harding suggested that many of Austen’s readers don’t fully understand her.


“Her books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked,” Harding wrote in “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen,” first published in 1940. “She is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine.”


Harding’s remark came to mind earlier this month, when I learned for the first time that we Janeites can apparently count among our number an individual lurking remarkably close to the epicenter of American political power. Yes, according to New York Magazine, Ivanka Trump is, if not an Austen fan, at the very least an Austen reader.


As a rebellious adolescent, New York explains, Ivanka “dyed her hair blue, listened to grunge and country music, and cried over Kurt Cobain’s death. . . . She also developed another habit that friends say her father did not like — she became a prodigious reader of great novels, burying her nose in Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Austen, Morrison.”


It is delicious to imagine what Jane Austen would have made of Ivanka Trump: entitled, self-absorbed, convinced of her own selflessness, adored by -- and adoring -- a vain, shallow, spendthrift father . . .


Oh, wait. That’s Elizabeth Elliot. So I guess we don’t have to imagine what Jane Austen would have made of Ivanka Trump.


But let us pause for a moment to wonder what Ivanka Trump, described elsewhere in the article as a bright, loyal, but entirely narcissistic poor-little-rich-girl, made of Jane Austen. Did she see herself in the mirror of the do-gooding but self-satisfied Emma Woodhouse? Did she recognize any – ahem! – family members in the vanity of Sir Walter Elliot or the empty boasts of Lady Catherine de Bourgh? When she fell for Jared Kushner, who from this distance looks like a carelessly privileged, marginally competent Tom Bertram type, did she think of him as her very own Henry Tilney? Or, as seems most likely, did she react like the readers Harding imagines, enjoying the books without letting them force any painful self-reflection?


Alas, we’ll probably never know. Perhaps Austen wasn’t really Ivanka’s jam, after all: The magazine goes on to say that “in her 20s, she said her favorite book was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and she had modeled herself on its capitalist heroine, Dagny Taggart.” So not Elizabeth Bennet, then.


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