Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 23 2018 01:00PM

These days, it’s de rigueur in some circles to think of Jane Austen as a closet lefty: subversive social satirist, anti-slavery ideologue, radical feminist critic of the patriarchy. But a recent mini-tsunami of news about Austen fans with decidedly more conservative orientations is a healthy reminder that the Janeite faith has no political litmus test.

Exhibit A: Nerves of steel. . . and the heart of a Janeite?

Tammie Jo Shults is the preternaturally calm and competent pilot who successfully landed Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 last week, after a catastrophic accident that took out an engine and killed a passenger. Apparently, she also has a fondness for Our Jane.

Or so we can infer from a Dallas Morning News article that quotes longtime friend Staci Thompson as saying that she and Shults – a former Navy fighter pilot and devout Baptist -- “still get together to watch Hallmark films and Jane Austen movies.”

OK, the movies are not the books. And I’m not thrilled to have anything Austen – even filmed adaptations – closely linked to Hallmark films, which have a justified reputation for treacly mediocrity. But it’s not surprising to find that a woman who pioneered in a male-dominated field by being twice as good as the guys may have an affinity for a writer who did the same thing.

Exhibit B: Wet shirts and waterboarding?

Gina Haspel, the first female nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is not a popular choice on the left, where her involvement in the post-9/11 torture of terrorism suspects is seen as a fatal taint. But according to the New York Times, the CIA is enthusiastically pushing her candidacy, preferring a known quantity with a long agency career over whatever political partisan they might get otherwise.

To humanize her, CBS News reports, “The CIA has been slowly and systematically pulling back the curtain on Haspel, releasing limited information about the contours of her career and a smattering of her interests, describing her as a polyglot Johnny Cash fan who reads Jane Austen novels.”

I’ve heard plenty of Janeites talk about Austen as an antidote to the chaos and ugliness of the modern world, a vehicle of escape into a kinder, gentler time. It’s not a vision of Austen I necessarily embrace – but if anyone needed such an escape, I’d imagine it would have been a CIA officer overseeing a torture site.

Exhibit C: Caroline Bingley for First Lady?

The Episcopal priest who spoke at former First Lady Barbara Bush’s funeral over the weekend undoubtedly meant well when he sought to connect Bush’s favorite book (Pride and Prejudice! Who knew?) with her famous literacy campaign.

If only he’d had a Janeite – maybe even Bush herself – to help him out before he decided to rely on that line that turns up whenever you Google for Austen quotes about books: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”

Yes, it’s true: A Janeite’s funeral included approving mention of Caroline Bingley. The mind reels.

Luckily, the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr. recovered with a touching picture of the famously straight-talking Bush in heaven, taking full advantage of an opportunity we’d all like to have: “My guess is she’s already hunted down Jane Austen and has said, ‘Well, how did things turn out with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet?’ ” Levenson said. “Or, knowing Barbara as we all do, she may be telling Jane how things should have turned out.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 19 2018 01:00PM

Janeites tend to know quite a bit about Jane Austen: her books, her characters, her family, her life and times. But hey – there’s always more to learn, right?

Next Monday sees the launch of “Jane Austen: Myth, Reality and Global Celebrity,” an online course developed by the University of Southampton in England and co-taught by Gillian Dow, a university English professor who is executive director of the library at Chawton House.

The class – a so-called MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course – requires a modest commitment: three hours a week for two weeks. No college credit is involved, but if you fork over $49, you can take tests and receive a “Certificate of Achievement” if you pass. Or you can just watch the lectures for free.

The instructors – Dow and Kim Simpson, a Southampton University lecturer who is currently a Chawton House postdoctoral affiliate – promise to cover a wide range of topics, from the social and historical context of Austen’s work to the marketing of Austen as a contemporary pop celebrity. Judging from the course’s promotional video, participants will also be treated to some lovely shots of iconic Austen-related locations.

The only prerequisite is “a basic knowledge of [Austen’s] novels,” which shouldn’t pose much of a problem for your average Janeite.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2018 01:00PM

Good news for those of us who can never get enough Jane Austen adaptations: Apparently, theater professionals in London and New York are working on a new musical based on Emma.

London casting for an upcoming workshop production was announced last week, and an invitation-only reading was held in New York last September. The show’s book and lyrics are by playwright Meghan Brown, and the music is by composer Sarah Taylor Ellis.

It’s encouraging to see an all-female writing team behind this show, especially one whose previous collaboration is a feminist musical about slumber-party guests possessed by demons. Perfect preparation for Jane Austen!

You can’t call the whole Emma-as-a-musical-thing a new idea, however: A quick Google search informs me that an Emma musical by Paul Gordon was presented in New York in 2006, as part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals, and an apparently completely different version, by Joel Adlen, showed up the following year as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

And that’s not even to mention Eric Price’s Emma! A Pop Musical, which seems to be popular with the drama departments of middle schools and high schools. That version updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs as a score, in the jukebox fashion made famous by shows like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.

No word on how close the latest show is to a full-fledged production, but you know I’ll be there if it happens.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 12 2018 01:00PM

Back when I was writing Among the Janeites, I happened across two Facebook groups whose titles encapsulated a common set of attitudes about Austen’s novels. One was called “I am going to marry one of the men in Jane Austen’s novels.” The other was called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of love.”

I recalled those now-defunct nests of Janeite Facebookers earlier this week, when my Google Alert sent me word of an opinion column in, the online version of the British daily newspaper i, headlined “Jane Austen’s novels have ruined me for dating modern men.”

It’s about what you’d expect: The author, a British journalist and fiction writer named Emily Hill, complains that she’s single at thirty-four because guys today, with their multiple dating apps and caddish behavior, can’t measure up to Mr. Darcy. “At no point has any man – proud, haughty or otherwise – stormed into my presence to declare ‘in vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,’ ” she mourns.

I hate to be one of those officious Janeites who goes around telling everyone else that they’re reading the books wrong, but – Emily, I think you might be reading the books wrong.

It’s Hill’s choice of Darcy quote that’s a giveaway. As we Janeites know, that quote comes from Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth – the insulting one, in which he tells her he tried his best not to love her because of her unsuitable family but finally had to give in, against his better judgment.

As I’ve pointed out before, Austen does not mean this scene to be a swoon-worthy romantic moment. Like other Austen scenes that seem to fit neatly into a romance-novel template, it’s intended more as a warning: Danger! Don’t try this at home! It’s surely not a good sign that Hill even speaks semi-approvingly of the weak and unreliable Willoughby, “who at least gave Marianne in Sense and Sensibility the most exciting months of her life.” *

It’s odd to find a self-proclaimed Austen addict hankering after love-at-first-sight, sweep-me-off-my-feet, Willoughby-and-Marianne romance when the books seem – to me at least – self-evidently critical of such relationships. Most of the Austen heroines are temporarily waylaid by exciting strangers who seem to check all the Conventional Romantic Hero boxes: good-looking, charming, self-confident, smooth. But every Austen heroine marries someone else: a man she’s had time to get to know, whose family or friends she has met, whose character she has seen tested. If Hill equates love with instant passion and then bemoans her inability to find it, I don’t think it’s Austen who can be blamed.

Meanwhile, anyone paying close attention to Austen’s novels will notice that many of the established marriages she portrays are unhappy mismatches (the Bennets) or making-the-best-of-it pairings of a reasonably bright partner with a fairly dim one (Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram). Sure, there are exceptions – the Crofts, the Gardiners, the Westons – but it’s hard to escape the conviction that Austen partially shares the views of that ruthless marital pragmatist Charlotte Collins, née Lucas: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”

So are Austen’s happy endings pure fairy tales, as Hill suggests? Is it true that “if one looks at [Darcy] objectively, he behaves like no man ever did on earth”? Or that Austen’s lifelong spinsterhood points its own lesson: “Look to the life and the fiction starts to fall apart”?

I’m not going to deny that Austen’s happy endings have a fairy-tale dimension, but Hill misidentifies the fantasy elements. It’s fantasy that an a) rich and b) handsome man from c) a distinguished family would get to know, let alone fall in love with, a d) not-rich woman e) far outside his social sphere. Especially in Pride and Prejudice, it’s the social context that supplies the Cinderella-style fantasy.

But let’s say you’ll suspend your disbelief that far. Is it really fantasy that a mature and responsible man confronted with bitter evidence of his failings in the eyes of someone whose opinion he values would undertake a moral inventory and try to do better? I guess I’m not cynical enough to say so.

Perhaps because I missed the online dating moment, Austen’s heroes don’t seem so unrealistic to me. With the notable exception of Darcy, most of them aren’t fabulously wealthy or especially good-looking. Their leading qualities are kindness, wit, generosity, and moral seriousness. I’ve met plenty of men like that. I even married one of them.

* It gets worse: Hill also speaks longingly of the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, a book I love but would hardly take as a relationship guide.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 9 2018 01:00PM

Few are the places with genuine Jane Austen connections. Austen’s birthplace, Steventon Rectory, was razed in the nineteenth century; though some of her temporary homes in Bath survive, her long-term residence in Southampton is gone, replaced by a pub. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, is a treasure, of course, and Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral is worth a pilgrimage, but many of the sites that Janeite tourists visit are movie locations where Austen herself probably never set foot.

So it’s exciting to learn that the newly restored Reading Abbey Gateway will open to the public later this week (see accounts here and here). As Janeites will recall, the Gateway once housed the Reading Ladies’ Boarding School, where the ten-year-old Austen and her older sister, Cassandra, were pupils in 1785-6, the final year of their brief formal education.

Although news accounts imply that visitors will see the very classroom where Austen studied, I doubt this is actually the case. Instead, it seems that in September, the local museum plans to move an already existing Victorian classroom exhibit into the Gateway. Since, as we Janeites are so often called on to point out, Austen was a Regency writer, not a Victorian one, it’s not clear how much relevance this exhibit will have to her own schooldays.

But when it comes to genuine Austen sites, we beggars can’t be choosers. Any readers who get a chance to visit Reading, please let us know what you think of the restored Abbey Gateway!

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