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By Deborah Yaffe, May 27 2019 01:00PM

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


In May of 1817, the gravely ill Jane Austen left her home at Chawton for the last time and traveled to the nearby city of Winchester, where she hoped (vainly, as it turned out) that a new doctor could finally cure the illness that had plagued her for at least a year.


Although Austen survived for another eight weeks, only two letters written from Winchester have come down to us, and one of those only via extracts quoted in the Biographical Notice that her brother Henry appended to the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


Appropriately, the last Austen letter we have in full, written exactly 202 years ago today, was sent to her eighteen-year-old nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, then a student at Oxford’s Exeter College, who would go on to publish the first full-length biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


In that final letter (#160 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), Austen bravely, or wishfully, insists that she is “gaining strength very fast.” With a flash of the playfulness she often brought to her correspondence with nieces and nephews, she vows to complain to the dean and chapter of Winchester Cathedral if her doctor fails to cure her.


But the letter concludes in a subdued and self-lacerating tone more reminiscent of Austen’s grave and soulful prayers than of her witty, self-assured novelistic voice.


“God bless you my dear Edward,” Austen writes. “If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same Blessed alleviations of anxious, simpathizing friends be Yours, & may you possess—as I dare say you will—the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their Love.—I could not feel this.”


Was this just hyperbole, or the conventional religious sentiments that Austen thought would appeal to her nephew, the future clergyman? Or, as she faced death, did a writer whose works have enriched the lives of two centuries of readers truly feel unworthy of her family’s love? It’s a heartbreaking thought.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 23 2019 01:00PM

To a reader, books are an essential feature of any home. A concept taken rather literally by Dutch artists Jan Is De Man and Deef Feed, whose amazing trompe l’oeil mural has transformed the side a three-level apartment building in the Dutch city of Utrecht into. . . a bookcase.


De Man and Feed, who co-own a tattoo and piercing shop in the city, asked people in the neighborhood to nominate favorite books for the painted shelves, with only religious and political choices off-limits.


Since no book collection is complete without its Jane Austen, I’m happy to report that Pride and Prejudice made the cut. (It’s the pale blue book with gold accents on the bottom shelf, third from the right.)


The other English-language titles I could make out form an eclectic bunch: the novels The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and The World According to Garp, by John Irving; the autobiography of Keith Richards; historian Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind; and blogger Mark Manson’s self-help book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck. (Closeups of the books can be found here and here.)


De Man says the project has brought residents of the multicultural neighborhood and selfie-seeking visitors together through a shared love of books. Which is a beautiful idea, even if, these days, it sometimes seems like an optical illusion, too.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 20 2019 01:00PM

Today on “Making Fun of the Internet,” a roundup of the latest Jane Austen-related stupid stuff that has crossed my cyber-transom recently:


* “ ‘We are all fools in love’ wrote Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice.” Such is the inauspicious first sentence of a meditation on love by Pakistani journalist Shah Nawaz Mohal, who goes on to name-drop Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre, Ayn Rand, and the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz while arguing . . . something or other.


I have no idea whether Mohal has correctly quoted all those other people. But I know for a fact that Jane Austen didn’t write the line he attributes to her, which actually comes from Deborah Moggach’s screenplay for the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Will no one around here ever bother to conduct a simple text search?


* “. . . there such much to love about Austen's world. Not to mention she gave us the image of Colin Firth emerging from a lake in a soaked blouse.”


HAHAHAHAHAHA. OK, Isabel Mundigo-Moore: I get that you’re a writer for Yahoo!’s Style pages, not a literary critic (or, apparently, a proofreader). And far be it from me to question your expert claim that such staples of Regency fashion as organza, linen, puffed sleeves, and pearls will be all the rage this summer.


But do you honestly think that Jane Austen gave us wet-shirt Colin Firth? A gift indeed, don’t get me wrong, but one for which we need to thank Andrew Davies, the screenwriter of the 1995 TV miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. Austen had nothing to do with it. It’s not in the book. Nope. Not there. Not even close.


* “The film’s final act meanders into the byways of marriage and inheritance better suited to a Jane Austen soap.” Or so argues New Zealand critic James Robins, reviewing the new Kenneth Branagh movie about Shakespeare’s last years.


Excuse me: a Jane Austen what? Surely, James (may I call you James?), you aren’t implying that Jane Austen wrote soap operas – or, even worse, that stories about marriage and inheritance are inherently soapy. Because she didn’t and they aren’t, unless you think the majority of English novels published in the nineteenth century are soaps.


Or perhaps I should just introduce you to Tanya Gold and let you two settle in for a nice chat. Have fun, guys!


By Deborah Yaffe, May 16 2019 01:00PM

To read the news these days, you’d think that attics across the world were bursting with the previously unsuspected memorabilia of famous English writers.


Earlier this year, we were treated to the news of a newly discovered family album containing photos of Victorian descendants of Jane Austen’s family. And now comes word that a Welsh woman has stumbled across a memorial ring containing a bit of Charlotte Brontë’s hair.

Last month, an episode of the British edition of Antiques Roadshow featured the ring, which the owner found among her late father-in-law’s possessions. Inside its band, the ring is engraved with Brontë’s name and death date (March 31, 1855); a hinged exterior compartment holds a tiny braided lock of mousy brown hair.


The Victorians had an obsession (arguably, a rather creepy one) with setting the hair of dead loved ones in memorial jewelry. So experts seem to believe the Brontë ring is authentic—and the connection to the famous writer ups its value from a mere £25 (about $33) to £20,000 (about $26,000).


Time to scour the attic once more for those missing Jane Austen letter! Surely Cassandra can't have burnt them all. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, May 13 2019 01:00PM

Most Janeites don’t need to hear, yet again, that Jane Austen was not a kindly maiden aunt whose sweet, insubstantial little romance novels provide a wholesome escape from reality. But it’s still enjoyable to listen as smart people discuss her life and work, and thus it is that I can recommend a recent half-hour episode in the BBC’s “Great Lives” radio series.


The segment, which aired last week, features Caroline Criado Perez, the British journalist and activist whose campaign to put a woman on the UK’s currency brought us the Jane Austen £10 note; and Paula Byrne, the scholar whose Austen books include The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things and The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood.


In conversation with host Matthew Parris, Byrne and Criado Perez discuss Austen’s juvenilia, Austen’s family, Austen’s humor, Austen’s misleading public image (“What more annoys me is when people dislike her for the wrong reasons,” Criado Perez says), and—inevitably—Austen’s love life.


Parris begins, “There is a biopic called Becoming Jane. . .”


“. . . oh, God. . . ,” interjects Criado Perez, right before she and Byrne savage the evergreen tale of Austen’s heartbreak over her youthful crush Tom Lefroy as so much sexist bunkum.


“She did have an eye for men,” Parris suggests, noting the sex appeal of Austenian heroes.


“We all have an eye for men, but that doesn’t mean we want to marry them and have their babies,” Criado Perez replies tartly. “Sometimes there are other things in a woman’s life.”


Not that this is news to Janeites. But it still bears repeating.


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