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, Apr 1 2019 01:00PM

I am all in favor of introducing young people to great literature, even great literature they are probably too young to fully appreciate. Heck, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was ten. I doubt I got it all. (For that matter, I still doubt I’ve gotten it all. There’s a lot to get.)

I’m also in favor of little jokes about great literature, like the Pride and Prejudice board book for babies, a counting book that runs from “1. . .English village” to “10. . . 10,000 pounds a year.” We don’t buy this book to get our favorite toddlers started on Jane Austen. We buy it to give our favorite Janeite parents-of-toddlers a giggle at read-aloud time.

But when it comes to a book like the KinderGuides Early Learning Guide to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – published in 2017 but only just now reaching my consciousness – I’m at a loss.

The illustrated forty-five-page book aims to introduce P&P to children ages four to eight, via a short bio of Jane Austen and a simplified plot summary. About a third of the pages are available for online viewing, and . . . well, I will try not to carp.

OK: no, I won’t.

I will just point out four little (except not that little) things:

1. Pace the illustrator, Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes are not blue. They are “dark.” Also “fine.”

2. Although it may be comforting to tell twenty-first-century children that “luckily, Jane was able to make enough money from writing books to take care of herself,” this is simply false. Jane Austen, one of the greatest novelists ever to write in English, never made enough from her writing to support herself. This sucks. But it’s the truth.

3. “How much money you have is a big deal to most people in this book. Although we see that it’s not so important in the end.” Umm. . . we do? I don’t know which edition the KinderFolk have been reading, but it’s crystal clear by the end of the book that money matters plenty. That’s why Elizabeth and Jane are lucky to marry rich men, and Lydia is unfortunate to be stuck with an impecunious one.

4. “Having too much pride makes you think you are better than other people. Darcy and Elizabeth both learn that being humble is always better.” Sigh. Where to begin? Well, let’s just say that this tidy schoolroom lesson (“Don’t be stuck-up!”) vastly undersells the complexity of Austen’s attitude toward pride, humility, and self-esteem.

My point is not (or not only) that inaccuracy, oversimplification, and sentimental moralizing seem to bedevil this project. I suppose all that is an occupational hazard when you’re attempting to summarize a profound and complicated grownup book in language suitable for young children. (Although that still doesn’t excuse the eye-color thing.)

On a deeper level, though, I just don’t see the point of this whole effort to introduce P&P to grade-schoolers. The world is filled with wonderful books aimed squarely at children ages four to eight – no explanatory guides necessary. Luckily, the world also contains six wonderful novels by Jane Austen, all of which are eminently accessible to children just a few years older, if they want to accept the challenge posed by her nineteenth-century vocabulary and sentence structure. And if they aren’t ready for that challenge yet – that’s fine! There’s time! They can read something else for now!

Meanwhile, though, why teach children that classic works of literature must be approached by way of dumbed-down plot summaries denuded of everything that makes their authors spiky, unique, complicated, unsettling? Books aren’t wild animals we must edge up to sideways. We can take them on directly – and we should.

KinderGuides likes to claim that its books are training future readers, but if you ask me, they’re training future CliffsNotes consumers. And we’ve got enough of those already.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 28 2019 01:00PM

The upcoming big-screen adaptation of Emma has acquired a complete cast list, and for those of us who delight in fine British character acting, the news is excellent.

It remains to be discovered whether Anya Taylor-Joy, an interesting actor with a slightly off-center vibe, can pull off the misplaced self-confidence of the title role -- I haven't yet seen an Emma I would consider definitive, unless you count Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. But I have no doubt that the always-fun-to-watch Bill Nighy will be a smashing Mr. Woodhouse, or that Miranda Hart, skilled at blending humor and pathos, will do justice to Miss Bates.

And then there’s the casting of Gemma Whelan, the badass Yara Greyjoy of Game of Thrones, as sensible yet pliant Mrs. Weston. I can’t help thinking how much better – or at least differently – Emma Woodhouse would have turned out if only she’d had Yara for a governess. If that woman told you to get to work on your reading list, you’d get it done.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 25 2019 01:00PM

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

Those of us who feel strongly about books sometimes subject new acquaintances or romantic prospects to a compatibility test: Recommend a favorite work and see how the newbie responds to it. It may be possible to love someone with bad taste in literature, but – well, let’s just say that I’ve never managed it.

Jane Austen’s oldest niece, Fanny Knight, was particularly ruthless about administering the Book Test -- or so we might infer from the letter Austen finished writing her exactly 202 years ago today (#155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

In her previous letter, twenty-four-year-old Fanny had apparently described the reaction of a neighbor, Mr. Wildman, to one of Aunt Jane’s novels. Which she had carefully omitted to tell him was by her aunt, the better to elicit a brutally candid, inconveniently self-revealing response. ("I agree with your Papa, that it was not fair," Austen chided Fanny.)

Fair or not, brutal candor seems to be what Fanny got: Although it’s not clear which book Mr. Wildman read, Austen assures Fanny, “I had great amusement in reading [his opinion], & I hope I am not affronted & do not think the worse of him for having a Brain so very different from mine.”

What Mr. Wildman preferred in a novel can be deduced from Austen’s deathless statement of her own credo: “He & I should not in the least agree of course, in our ideas of Novels & Heroines;--pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” *

Apparently Mr. Wildman had told Fanny that he “wish[ed] to think well of all young Ladies”: perhaps he’d been struggling to do so when confronted with, say, Lucy Steele or Caroline Bingley.

The Mr. Wildman in question was, according to Le Faye’s footnotes, twenty-eight-year-old bachelor James-Beckford Wildman, the master of an estate worth £20,000 a year -- twice as much as Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley. (Talk about a single man in possession of a good fortune!) It’s not hard to imagine poor Mr. Wildman harboring hopes of uniting his sizeable property with that of the heiress next door – until he utterly failed her tricky Book Test.

* Such a great line! Someone should put that on a mug or a totebag.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 21 2019 01:00PM

Today is Purim, the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, on which we eat a big meal, dress in silly costumes, read the Biblical book of Esther, bake triangular cookies, drink too much, and distribute charity to the poor – not necessarily in that order.

Living as she did in a far from multicultural corner of Christian England, Jane Austen never mentions Purim. Probably she’d never even heard of it. But the time is ripe for an Austenian Purim spiel, the comic speech or playlet that forms the centerpiece of many Purim celebrations.

A wealthy landowner with a taste for excessive drinking – a Mr. Grant type, clearly -- is married to either a sulky bitch (Julia Bertram) or a feminist truth-teller (Mary Crawford? Maria Rushworth?), depending upon your interpretation of the original. When she elopes with her dancing-master, he divorces her by act of Parliament and throws a lavish ball to pick a successor. Sweet, pliant Fanny Price piques his fancy, and they marry. When her well-intentioned but overbearing uncle (Sir Thomas) warns her that the village supply of cream cheese is on the point of exhaustion because of the depredations of a ravening villain (Mrs. Norris, natch), Fanny discovers her backbone. She persuades her husband to banish the villain to a distant house with no guest bedroom, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Perfect! Help yourself to an apricot Hamentashen. It's a Moor Park.

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