Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 4 2019 01:00PM

Remember back in elementary school, when one kid would get an awesome new toy or a cool pair of shoes, and then everybody had to have their own? Today’s equivalent of Beanie Babies, rainbow looms, and sneakers that light up seems to be Jane Austen statues.

In 2017, you’ll recall, Basingstoke commemorated the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, who never lived there, by erecting a life-size bronze in the town center. Then, a year later, nearby Chawton, where Austen actually did live, followed suit with its own smaller version of the same statue.

And now comes word that Bath, where Austen spent the years 1801 to 1806, plans to join the club. The local Jane Austen Centre is apparently talking with city officials about the best location for another life-size bronze, to be based on a waxwork image of Austen “said to be the closest-ever likeness to the author,” according to a report on local-news website SomersetLive.

Bath’s right to an Austen statue is equivocal: On the one hand, she lived there for a substantial period of time, and she set portions of two of her novels there. On the other hand, most biographers think she disliked the place, and her writing output slowed to a trickle during her years there.

As for that waxwork, a 2014 image created by forensic artist Melissa Dring, it owes its reputation for extreme accuracy entirely to the Jane Austen Centre, which commissioned it. Not everyone is equally convinced, and, as I’ve often noted, every claim about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of an Austen image is entirely theoretical, because no one knows what Jane Austen actually looked like.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that the push for a statue in Bath is less about honoring Austen than about publicizing the Jane Austen Centre, which is, depending on your point of view, either a charming introduction to Austen’s life and times, or a kitschy tourist trap.

Still, the centre is putting a feminist gloss on its efforts. "Not only will it be good to honor Austen the author, it will also be good to go a little way to redress the fact that less than 3 per cent of all statues in the UK are of historical, non-royal women,” says managing director Paul Crossey. (At the current rate, 3 percent of all statues in the UK will soon be statues of Jane Austen.)

The enthusiasm for a Bath statue comes barely a month after Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, scotched its plans for yet another Austen statue, in the face of public criticism. I guess that makes the Winchester public the equivalent of the mom who insists that your regular sneakers still have a lot of wear in them and she’s not going to shell out $50 for the ones with the flashing lights. There’s a mom like that in every class.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 24 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen was never squeamish about money-making. In a November 1814 letter to her niece Fanny Knight (#114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), Austen discussed the likelihood that the recently published Mansfield Park would merit a second edition.

“People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” Austen wrote. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.”

And so I suspect Austen would have been delighted to hear that last month’s commemoration of the bicentenary of her death reaped financial dividends for Basingstoke, the largest town in the vicinity of her birthplace in Hampshire, England.

The Basingstoke Observer noted this week that the town’s tourist traffic was up 80 percent in July, amid the festivities surrounding the Austen anniversary on the eighteenth of that month. Among the likely tourist draws: the public art trail of book-shaped benches with Austen themes; an exhibit at the local museum about the balls the youthful Austen attended in Basingstoke; and the unveiling of a life-size Austen statue in the town center.

Not surprisingly, town officials hope to keep the magic going even after this Austen anniversary year is over. They’re already encouraging visitors to take pictures with the Austen statue and post them online. Their proposed hashtag: #SelfieWithJane. Although I think #PewterForBasingstoke works, too.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 31 2017 01:00PM

Among the many, many activities taking place on the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death earlier this month was the unveiling of a new Janeite landmark: a life-size bronze of Austen, purportedly the first-ever statue of the author, portrayed striding through the center of Basingstoke, the nearest big town to her birthplace in Steventon.

Blog readers will recall that I was a bit skeptical about this project when it was first announced, since we don’t really know what Austen looked like. But I must say that, as far as I can judge from the images available online, I’m pleasantly surprised by the final product.

Of course, it’s still not possible to say whether the statue is a good likeness of Austen – we’ll never know that about any representation of her, since we don’t have any way of comparing images to the original. But the alert, observant gaze captured in sculptor Adam Roud’s bronze gives, to my mind, an appealing idea of Our Jane.

Roud’s Austen is not elevated on a pedestal; clad in pelisse and bonnet, she mingles with passersby at ground level, as if she’s on her way to do some shopping, or to return the book she’s carrying to a circulating library. I can already imagine the newest line in tourist photos: devoted Janeite walks companionably by Austen’s side, engrossed in conversation.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 23 2017 02:00PM

Nobody knows what Jane Austen looked like. Nobody will ever know what Jane Austen looked like. So, naturally, we’ll soon have a new image of Jane Austen, this time in bronze.

The English town of Basingstoke, not far from Austen’s birthplace of Steventon, plans to commemorate the July bicentenary of her death by placing a life-size statue in the town center. Last week, the sculptor from whom the Hampshire Cultural Trust commissioned the work, a local artist named Adam Roud, unveiled a preliminary model, known as a maquette.

The trust has turned to crowdfunding to raise the last £10,000 needed to complete the £100,000 project, and presumably they hoped that displaying the maquette would encourage Janeites around the world to pitch in to complete what is apparently the first-ever statue of our beloved author.

Will it work? Well, maybe. It’s hard to tell from the maquette -- which shows a slender woman in a pelisse and bonnet, captured mid-stride, with a book under her arm -- exactly what the statue’s face will look like. In other words, it’s hard to tell which of the various clashing images of Austen (see my previous blogs on this issue, here and here) Roud has selected for his "strong-willed and independent character.” And if you'd asked me -- unaccountably, no one did -- I would have recommended showing Austen at her writing desk, since she is famous for, you know, her writing.

Personally, I’m never satisfied with images of Austen: they never quite live up to the version in my head. But I can certainly imagine worse people to honor with a life-size bronze.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 13 2015 01:00PM

Janeites never tire of speculating about Austen’s appearance (see here and here for examples), despite – or perhaps because of – the shortage of authenticated contemporary images of her face. But in a fascinating recent scholarly article, dress historian Hilary Davidson uses an item of clothing to derive useful information about Austen’s physical self.

As Davidson explains in the June 2015 issue of Costume, the journal of the UK’s Costume Society, Hampshire County Museum Services and Archives owns a brown silk pelisse dating from 1812-14 that certainly belonged to Austen’s family and may well have belonged to Austen herself. The pelisse is too fragile to display, let alone wear, so Davidson set out to recreate it as precisely as possible, meticulously measuring, photographing and researching in an effort to replicate everything from the stiffness of its oak-leaf-patterned sarsenet silk to the length of its hand stitches.

Judging from the photos accompanying the article, the result is a lovely garment in its own right. I leave it to those far handier with a needle than I am to sort through the technical material about pattern alignment and ruching and the like.

But for run-of-the-mill Janeites like me, the project’s greatest interest lies in the conclusions it permits about Jane Austen’s physicality. After trying the recreated garment on a range of modern women and girls, Davidson concluded that “the person for whom the pelisse was made had very narrow shoulders, slim hands, wrists and arms. . . . approximate measurements of a 31 to 33 inch bust, a 24 inch waist, and 33 to 34 inch hips, and was between 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 8 inches tall, adding up to a present UK size four to six” (which roughly correlates to a US size two to four).

Family members described Austen as tall, and in Austen’s time, when women averaged five-two, a woman of five-six or five-eight would certainly qualify as such. Interestingly, Davidson also found that the pelisse was designed to fit a circular rib cage, rather than the elliptical one that most modern women possess. “We conjectured that the pelisse’s round shape had been created through the effects of wearing stays from childhood,” she writes.

Does it make a difference to know that Austen had a willowy hourglass figure shaped by years of corseting? I think it does: in a small way, these details bridge the yawning gap separating us from the person who wrote the books, returning the larger-than-life genius to the material context in which she lived. The iconic artist was also a woman who took up a particular amount of space in the world, a woman with narrow shoulders and slim hands that held her inspired pen.

Plans are afoot to make Davidson’s recreated pelisse pattern available commercially, so I won’t be surprised to see versions of it at some future JASNA meeting, probably adorning women of all shapes and sizes.

Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter