Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 22 2019 01:00PM


Seventy years ago this week, the premier Janeite pilgrimage site welcomed its first pilgrims.


On July 23, 1949, Chawton cottage, the house in the southern English county of Hampshire where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, opened to the public. Admission cost £1/6d, the equivalent of £2.34 (about $2.91) today.


Chawton cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is more than an Austen residence. It is the place where, after four years of unhappiness in Bath, followed by four more of stress and financial insecurity – eight years in which her literary output seems to have slowed to a trickle – Austen, at thirty-three, finally found the psychological breathing-space to write again.


Chawton cottage was in the gift of the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, who inherited Chawton House, the nearby Elizabethan manor, and its accompanying estate from the Knights, the rich relatives who adopted him when he was a teenager. By the time Edward handed over the cottage, it was four years since his father’s death, and his mother and sisters, along with their old friend Martha Lloyd, had spent that time moving repeatedly in search of an affordable situation.


Whether Edward’s generosity was restrained by his wife, Elizabeth Bridges Austen, who was reportedly not a member of Jane Austen’s fan club (“A little talent went a long way with the Goodneston Bridgeses of that period; & much must have gone a long way too far,” Austen’s niece Anna Lefroy wrote decades later), remains speculation. It’s a fact, however, that Edward came through with his offer of housing within months of Elizabeth’s sudden death.


The move to Chawton cottage on July 7, 1809 – almost exactly 140 years before the opening of the museum – inaugurated an extraordinary burst of creativity. During her Chawton years, Austen revised the three novels she had drafted in her twenties (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) and wrote three new masterpieces (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion), at last finding publishers, and a reading public, for her life’s work.


To modern eyes, the “cottage,” with its amply proportioned rooms and spacious garden, seems rather too large for that sobriquet, if not quite as large as the palatial dwelling imagined by Robert Ferrars, on the occasion when Elinor Dashwood decided not to pay him “the compliment of rational opposition.” Indeed, by the time it came to the notice of the Austen enthusiasts who preserved it, Chawton cottage had spent a century divided into three apartments for employees of the Chawton estate.


In the 1940s, as England valiantly fought the Nazis, a small group of home-front Janeites fought to save Chawton cottage for the nation, founding the UK Jane Austen Society – the world’s first – to raise money for the purchase. Ultimately, the house was bought by a grieving father in memory of the son he had lost in the war.


This week, the museum will celebrate its anniversary in style: Tomorrow, the first seventy visitors will be admitted at the 1949 price, and on Saturday, a joyous birthday party will feature Regency dancing, Pimm’s cups, picnics in the garden, and, almost certainly, plenty of costumed Janeites.


More or less simultaneously, the museum will be wrapping up its successful appeal for £10,000 in donations toward the purchase of a once-lost fragment of an Austen letter – a reminder that today the museum is not just a Janeite tourist attraction but also an important scholarly resource.


I first visited Chawton cottage in 1982, at sixteen, more than a decade before Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt inaugurated contemporary Janemania, and I found the place magical, one of those rare literary shrines in which a beloved author’s presence seems palpable. My next visit, twenty-nine years later, during my research for Among the Janeites, felt less satisfactory: too much Firthian kitsch in the gift shop, too many tourists crowded into too small a place. (Myself among them, of course – but naturally I didn’t think of myself as just another tourist. One never does.)


Still, whatever the drawbacks of Austen’s modern, movie-driven celebrity, Chawton cottage deserves its self-declared status as “the most treasured Austen site in the world,” even if that extravagant boast does sound like the kind of thing Lady Catherine de Bourgh would say. Wandering through its rooms, a Janeite tuned to the right emotional frequency can still feel Austen's presence everywhere: in the tiny writing table on which she composed her novels, in the elegant quilt she helped to stitch, in the turquoise ring and topaz cross she wore.


Ultimately, Chawton cottage is the place that is most quintessentially Austen, where her life and her work came together and made her, if not the person she was, then at least the writer we know her to be. Seventy years on, it remains the one indispensable Austen shrine.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 18 2019 01:00PM

South Asians never seem to tire of Jane Austen. We’ve had an Indian TV show based on Sense and Sensibility. We’ve screened cinematic updates of three different Austen novels, all set in contemporary times on the Indian subcontinent. We’ve seen a new Jane Austen Society taking root in Pakistan.


Last week, my Google alert brought two reminders of this Subcontinental Austen phenomenon: an account of three new Pride and Prejudice updates by authors of Indian or Pakistani descent now living in North America, and a real-life story about Austen’s powerful impact on a young Indian Muslim woman struggling against religious patriarchy.


The fanfics are Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, by Sonali Dev, set among wealthy Indian immigrants in San Francisco; Ayesha At Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin, which takes place among the Muslim diaspora in Toronto; and Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal, set in contemporary Pakistan (not unlike the recent short-story collection Austenistan, another example of this trend).


All three of the new books have recently been released in the United States by major publishers (Penguin Random House, Harper Collins), rather than consigned, like so much Jane Austen fanfic, to the frequently unremunerative world of self-publishing. Rightly or wrongly, the money people seem to think that transplanting the ever-popular Austen into a newly diverse context could be a profitable move.


Time will tell how successful this bet proves to be. But it’s surely not coincidental that these books are arriving in the midst of an ongoing debate over diversity – or, more precisely, the lack thereof – in romance writing and publishing.


Although Jane Austen probably never met an Indian, a Hindu, or a Muslim, her life in a rural English rectory was not as distant from the subcontinent as it might seem: Years before Austen’s birth, her paternal aunt Philadelphia Austen traveled to India in search of a husband, and gossip had it that Philadelphia’s daughter, Eliza Hancock, was the offspring of an adulterous liaison with Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India.


More significant for the new fanfic, in countries where generations grew up under British colonial rule, the classics of English literature form a vexed but very real part of the cultural heritage. Fanfic can be seen as a response to this dilemma, Jalaluddin suggests – “a way for writers of color to reclaim the colonial literature we have grown up with and make it truly our own.”


Which Austen already is for the Indian-born Zeba Talkhani, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, now lives in England, and recently published a memoir of her life under an oppressive religious regime. As a young girl dreaming of escape, “she connected with Jane Austen, whose heroines had to strategize their way out of arranged marriages,” Talkhani told an interviewer for the London Times.


“Austen was relatable fiction for me, and how amazing is that when you look back at how different my existence was from hers,” Talkhani said. “I felt like I saw myself. She described a world where even if the woman has to give consent to marriage, the consent is pressurized or they are made to feel there won’t be any other option for them.”


Often, we Janeites spend a lot of energy trying to explain why Austen's stories still resonate, even in a society so different from hers. For many South Asian women, it seems, no such explanation is necessary: For them, stories about young women pushed into marriage in order to satisfy family expectations or mitigate economic strains don’t seem like period pieces.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 15 2019 01:00PM

Forty-sixth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen’s brothers were a reproductively prolific lot, at least the four who reproduced at all. With the help of six wives, three of whom perished in the process, they produced thirty-three sons and daughters, most of whom survived to adulthood.


Twenty-five of those little girls and boys arrived during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and three dozen of her surviving letters -- more than twenty percent of the total -- were written to five of them. On the evidence of those letters, and of their recipients’ later reminiscences, Austen seems to have been an excellent aunt, proficient at both friendly teasing and kind encouragement and happily devoid of condescension or sentimentality.


The letter that Austen wrote to her 11-year-old niece, Caroline, exactly 203 years ago today (#143 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a case in point. Apparently, Caroline, like her older siblings Anna and James Edward, had recently turned her hand to fiction and wanted to know the reaction of the family’s published author.


“I have been very much entertained by your story of Carolina & her aged Father, it made me laugh heartily, & I am particularly glad to find you so much alive upon any topic of such absurdity, as the usual description of a Heroine’s father,” Austen writes. “You have done it full justice—or if anything be wanting, it is the information of the venerable old Man’s having married when only Twenty one, & being a father at Twenty two.”


At this distance, it’s impossible to know what Caroline’s story was about, although the telltale name of the heroine suggests it must have been autobiographical. (Except better! Because what eleven-year-old Caroline wouldn’t prefer to be known as Carolina?) And surely Austen was indirectly teasing her own oldest brother, Caroline’s father James, with her references to Carolina’s “aged” and “venerable” father: In 1816, James was a not-precisely-ancient fifty-one.


Still, teasingly or not, advancing age seems to be on Austen’s mind in this letter: Reporting on the recent visit of Caroline’s big brother, James Edward, Austen describes him as “only altered in being improved by being some months older than when we saw him last. He is getting very near our own age, for we do not grow older of course.”


It’s a commonplace middle-aged joke, rueful but light-hearted. But for us, it’s made poignant by hindsight: We know that Jane Austen would grow only one year older before her untimely death. And Caroline’s father, the venerable James, outlived his sister by only two and a half years, leaving Caroline fatherless at fourteen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 11 2019 01:00PM

It’s always encouraging when excellent contemporary writers turn out to have great taste in literature (i.e., taste that agrees with my own). Reassuring. Suggests a well-ordered universe. That kind of thing.


So two weeks ago, I was delighted to read this interview with the wonderful British novelist Kate Atkinson. (If you haven’t read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Case Histories, or Life After Life, you should repair those omissions immediately.)


Asked which book she would take to a desert island, Atkinson couldn't quite decide: “Just William or Persuasion (don’t make me choose!). Both are equally brilliant in their own very, very different ways.”


Just William, better known in Britain than in the US, is the first in an extraordinarily long series of comic short-story collections for children. The books, which appeared from the 1920s to the 1960s, were written by Richmal Crompton, a clergyman’s daughter from the north of England who spent a decade as a schoolteacher, worked for women’s suffrage, and was partially disabled by polio.


Persuasion and its author, of course, need no introduction here. As someone who always finds it hard to decide which Austen novel to enlist for desert island duty, however, I was glad to see that Atkinson is also a bit torn. “It’s always a difficult hypothetical choice between Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice,” she told the Daily Mail. “The latter is the more brilliant of the two, but Persuasion speaks to the heart more.”


The rest of the interview offers further proof of Atkinson’s fine taste, at least in children’s literature: She’s a fan of books I treasure -- The Wind in the Willows and the works of the great E. Nesbit – and dislikes a writer I can’t stand, the dreadful Enid Blyton. Obviously, Atkinson is brilliant. Can’t wait to read her latest novel.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 8 2019 01:00PM

The success of the screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels has been attributed to many factors: romantic plots, attractive stars, witty dialogue, stately mansions. And, of course, great-looking clothes.


No surprise, then, that Austen tourist venues frequently display costumes from the movies, even though, as modern reproductions worn by contemporary actors playing fictional characters, these outfits fall at least three degrees of separation short of historical reality.


Now Janeite costume fans can look forward to another opportunity to wallow in Regency fashion: The Exhibits Development Group, a Minnesota-based company that assembles traveling shows on art, science, history, and pop culture, has put together “Jane Austen: Fashion and Sensibility.” Thus far, no venues have been announced for the exhibition, although EDG’s projected schedule seems to imagine a tour of eighteen sites over six years, starting in the fall of 2020.


The show features forty-nine costumes from eight different filmed adaptations of four Austen novels, but the lion’s share of the items – thirty-five of the forty-nine – come from just two of those adaptations: the iconic 1995 BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, written by Andrew Davies and starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; and the 1995 Ang Lee movie of Sense and Sensibility, written by Emma Thompson and starring Thompson and Kate Winslet.


While more than two-thirds of the featured costumes were worn by women – because let’s face it: who usually gets the more interesting clothes in these movies? – the exhibitors clearly have a savvy eye on their market: Among the smaller number of male garments on display will be the so fetchingly moistened white shirt that Firth wore in the BBC P&P, and the long gray coat and halfway-unbuttoned shirt in which a super-hot Matthew Macfadyen met Keira Knightley at the end of Joe Wright’s 2005 movie of P&P.


Cue swooning.


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