Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, May 31 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral, as all good Janeites know, but it’s another prominent medieval English church that will host an academic lecture about her work next week: Westminster Abbey, perhaps the most famous religious site in the British Isles.


For three evenings next month, the abbey and the British non-profit Art + Christanity are sponsoring a free lecture series on nineteenth-century English female novelists who “use fiction to explore questions of faith, morality and personal adherence to the Church of England.”


In addition to Austen, talks will cover Charlotte Bronte, born a year before Austen’s death, and Charlotte Yonge, who, although less well-known today than either Austen or Bronte, had a far longer and more prolific career than either, dying at the start of the twentieth century.


Next Tuesday’s kickoff talk, “Jane Austen’s Afterlife: Art, Culture and Religion,” will be given by the Rev. Alison Grant Milbank, associate professor of literature and theology at England’s University of Nottingham.


Jane Austen’s religious commitments and influences are unfamiliar to many modern-day Janeites, who live in far more secular cultures than the one that shaped her writing. It should be fascinating to hear a theologian talk about her work – wish I could be there. (And if you are, please let us know what you think!)


As a side note, I felt a little thrill at the title of the lecture series: “Excellent Women,” surely a tribute to the wonderful twentieth-century British writer Barbara Pym, whose most famous novel bears the same title. Pym’s books, with their precise Austenian irony and frequent references to Austen’s characters, often center on quiet, overlooked spinsters whose volunteerism underpins church life – excellent women indeed.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 28 2018 01:00PM

Last month, as blog readers will recall, a non-profit executive and Janeite with the extraordinarily appropriate name of Janet Austin was appointed lieutenant governor of the Canadian province of British Columbia.


This month, she confirmed her Janeite credentials in a twenty-question Proust questionnaire with the Toronto Globe and Mail.


For question #3, “Which living person do you most admire?” Austin named her friend Anne Giardini, chancellor of British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. As we learned last month, at the lunch bidding Austin farewell from her old job, Giardini “gave a talk called ‘Jane Austen talks about Janet Austin’ just using Jane Austen quotes.” According to Austin, the two women “sometimes talk to each other in Jane Austen quotes,” as well.


No surprise, then, that when she reached question #20, “If you could be a fictional character for one day, who would you like to be?” Austin replied, “Well, it’s got to be Jane Austen, so I would have to say Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.”


Personally, I’d think that depends on which day we’re talking about: Although I would rather not be Elizabeth Bennet on, say, the day of Mr. Collins’ proposal, I wouldn’t say no to the honeymoon at Pemberley. Still, we can all applaud the sentiment.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Although Jane Austen was, famously, not a big fan of Bath, London was a different story: Her trips to the metropolis to visit her worldly brother Henry seem to have been delightful whirls of shopping, parties, and culture – much like London tourism today.


The letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#85 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) memorializes a London trip during which Austen entertained herself with a whimsical pastime: seeking likenesses of the eldest Bennet sisters -- Pride and Prejudice had been published four months earlier – among the paintings in exhibitions she visited.


At one relatively unheralded exhibit, “I was very well pleased—particularly. . . with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. . . . exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” Austen writes. “She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.”


(Scholars believe Austen was probably referring to this painting, Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin), by the French portraitist Jean-François-Marie Huet-Villiers).




The following Monday, the day her letter was written, Austen attended a far more famous exhibition, the Sir Joshua Reynolds retrospective at the British Institution in Pall Mall, searching in vain for a portrait of “Mrs. D.,” aka Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. “I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye,” Austen writes. “I can imagine he wd have that sort [of] feeling—that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.”


The 1813 Reynolds exhibition is the subject of What Jane Saw, University of Texas English Prof. Janine Barchas’ fascinating online reconstruction of the paintings Austen viewed, displayed as they were two centuries ago. It’s a striking demonstration of the power that comes from marrying literary-historical scholarship to contemporary technology, and it brings to life the afternoon visit that Austen describes to Cassandra.


Scholarship aside, I find it charming to encounter the Austen of this letter -- another fond author, so wrapped up in her imagined people, with their favorite colors and happy marriages, that they seem to go on living once her story ends, becoming as real to her as the real-life sitters in the portraits she viewed. Devouring fanfic Austen sequels or comparing our co-workers to Austen characters, we Janeites can relate


By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2018 01:00PM

It’s been quite a while since I last discussed the unfortunate phenomenon of faux-Jane Austen quotes, usually originating in Jane Austen movie scripts, proliferating in the Internet echo chamber. Perhaps this pause has lulled you into the belief that my good work, along with that of untold numbers of other Janeites laboring to correct the record, has borne fruit, driving the legions of misquoters into retirement.


Alas, no.


Once again, our text is drawn from Bustle, that rah-rah Girl Power website that seems to take a perverse pride in never, ever double-checking its sources, at least when it comes to Austen. The latest offender: a story headlined, with a word-omitting sloppiness that bodes ill for what follows, “15 Quotes From Books To Use Your Personal Mantra On Bad Mental Health Days.”


Parenthetically, I must note the strange self-contradiction of this particular article, which points out the bankruptcy of feel-good bromides – “[b]eing told to ‘just think happy thoughts’ and ‘try harder’ gets really old after a while, as anyone with mental illness will tell you” – before offering up more elegant versions of the same thing from the likes of Alice Walker, Audre Lord, and Sylvia Plath (!) and urging readers to “[m]emorize them to recite like mantras, and you'll always have an uplifting quote to help you muddle through.”


I admit I feel a teensy bit bad about criticizing the writer, who implies that she is among “those of us who live with mental illness every day.” But not bad enough to stay my hand when, right there at number fourteen among the promised “Quotes From Books,” I find this: " 'It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.' — Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility"


Back in November 2015, I laid the issue of this particular misquotation to rest in what I feel I may describe, with all due humility, as the definitive blog post on the topic. Yet, like a zombie out of a Pride and Prejudice mashup, this mistake will not stay dead. So I must repeat: This is not a line from a Jane Austen novel. It is not even really a line from a filmed adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. It is a garbled version of a line from Andrew Davies’ 2008 TV adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.


I think it’s time that someone created an online listicle discussing how best to cope with the stress and anxiety brought on by finding faux-Austen quotes on the web. It probably won’t appear on Bustle.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 17 2018 01:00PM

Over the years, I’ve swooned about Austen-linked real estate coming up for sale or rent. Perhaps I have said things like, “If money were no object, I’d buy that place in a minute.”


I was kidding, but Canadian Tara Rout apparently isn’t. Rout, an Edmonton lawyer who has written Austen fanfic under the name Melanie Kerr, has launched an insanely ambitious Kickstarter appeal to buy Luckington Court, the stately Wiltshire home that played Longbourn in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


By July 10, Rout hopes to raise $8.5 million, enough to buy the eight-bedroom house -- originally marketed at £9 million ($12.1 million) but now marked down to £5.75 million ($7.7 million) -- and redecorate it so that it precisely resembles the Bennets' Longbourn of the beloved miniseries. Then she plans to turn it into a sort of real-life Austenland: a place where Janeites can – for a price, of course – sip afternoon tea, dance at a ball, stay overnight, or host the ultimate Jane Austen wedding.


Rout has some relevant experience: In Edmonton, she runs a company called Regency Encounters, which has staged local Jane Austen balls for several years, along with what Rout calls, in a radio interview, “epic nerd parties” centered on the Harry Potter and Dungeons & Dragons fandoms.


It would be delightful to see this dream come to fruition but, frankly, Rout’s hopes seem pretty close to delusional. As of last year, reportedly, less than one percent of Kickstarter's campaigns had raised more than $1 million, and only eight had ever raised as much as Rout is seeking.


By yesterday, Rout had attracted pledges of just over $15,000 from nineteen backers, and most of that appears to have come from a single person who opted for the $10,000 wedding-package premium. She's got a lo-o-ong way to go. Still, I guess you never know. Christmas wedding at Longbourn, anyone?


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter