Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 31 2019 02:00PM

As regular blog readers know, I find few pursuits more enjoyable than the ogling of Jane Austen-related real estate. This week’s wallowing is brought to us courtesy of Country Life, that venerable catalog of How the Other Half – or, really, the Other One Percent – Lives.

It seems that a house is for sale in the fair village of Chawton, Hampshire -- known to Janeites as the site of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.

This house, Chawton’s former rectory, is a seven-bedroom, three-bath affair totaling more than 6,800 square feet of living space situated on seven acres of land. There are gardens! Paddocks! A Coach House for stabling the horses!

The house was first built in the fifteenth century – original beams remain visible – but fortunately has been renovated a time or four since then. After serving as the village rectory, it was bought in the late nineteenth century by Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Austen’s older brother Edward Austen Knight and the inheritor of the Chawton estate.

According to Country Life, the home has come to be known as the Dower House because Montagu bought it for “the then-dowager,” although it’s not clear to me who this was: Montagu’s mother died before he acceded to the estate. (And while we’re on the subject of family: Does anyone know why Montagu inherited Chawton when his father had three surviving older sons?)

The Dower House has a further Austen-ish connection, since, beginning in1802, it was the home of Chawton rector John Papillon, whom Edward’s adoptive mother apparently once suggested as a perfect husband for the eternally unmarried Jane. “I am very much obliged to Mrs Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me--& she may depend upon it, that I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a December 1808 letter (#62 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.”

Alas for property values, Austen never did become mistress of the Chawton rectory: Mr. Papillon’s impending, yet never materializing, proposal seems to have become a running joke in the Austen family. (The Austens' Papillon connections are helpfully summarized on the website of the UK Jane Austen Society.)

Whatever its Austen associations, judging from the online photos, the Dower House looks delightful: spacious yet homey and filled with natural light. The price is a bit steep for most of us -- £1.9 million, or $2.6 million – but probably a bargain for the kind of people who read Country Life with more than ogling in mind.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 28 2019 02:00PM

One of the Janeite world’s most enduring mysteries/controversies concerns a charming eighteenth-century oil painting of a young girl in a white dress holding a green parasol.

It’s the so-called Rice Portrait, which is – depending on whom you ask – either an immensely valuable and important portrayal of one of the world’s greatest writers as a twelve-year-old, or a picture of some unknown young girl of no particular interest to posterity.

For years, the Rice family, descendants of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward Knight, have tried to persuade the world that their 1788 painting shows Jane Austen herself. (If it did, the painting’s value would rise exponentially; amid the current uncertainty, the painting failed to sell at auction in 2007.) For just as long, skeptics have disputed the Rices’ claim, variously questioning the identity of the artist, the style of the sitter’s dress, and the likelihood that anyone would have commissioned an expensive painting of an obscure and less-than-wealthy relative. (Claire Harman, author of Jane’s Fame, helpfully summarizes the issues here.)

The latest round in this ongoing battle became public last week, when the Guardian reported on new documentary evidence that the Rice family believes further bolsters their claim. The evidence in question is an unsigned note, apparently in the handwriting of Austen’s great-niece Fanny Caroline Lefroy, recounting the painting’s provenance.

I have no dog in this fight -- no settled opinion about the identity of the Rice portrait’s sitter. It would be fantastic to have another verifiable image of Jane Austen: as I’ve written before (here, here and here), the arguments that break out from time to time about the accuracy of various representations of her reveal more about contemporary views of her work than about what she actually looked like.

Still, elements of the latest story seem too good to be true. Supposedly, the Lefroy note came from Austen’s writing desk but “had been overlooked. . . until its current owner noticed the small brown envelope containing it was marked ‘history of the portrait of Jane Austen.’ ” It’s a little hard to believe that someone who owned authentic Austen family papers wouldn’t have looked at them rather closely before now – you know, just on the off-chance that what they had was a previously unknown Austen letter worth millions. And an envelope marked “history of the portrait of Jane Austen”? Puh-leeze. Kind of on the nose, don’t you think?

But OK: sometimes things that are too good to be true are nevertheless true. Even if genuine, however, all the note does is memorialize Lefroy’s understanding, c. 1883, of the portrait’s provenance nearly a century after it was painted. It doesn’t prove that what she thought she knew was correct. And a fascinating 2014 article in the TLS – co-authored by freelance filmmaker Henrietta Foster and Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland – raises intriguing doubts about that provenance, showing that a key link in the painting’s chain of custody is a man known as an expert forger and inveterate practical joker.

The Rices have often argued that the family lore identifying the portrait’s subject as Jane Austen was passed down by people with no reason to lie. The Foster/Sutherland article suggests that a single liar was involved, and that his lies may have duped later generations of sincere, if self-deceiving, Austen descendants – possibly including Fanny Caroline Lefroy.

The truth? Who knows? For now, this mystery remains just that: a mystery.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 24 2019 02:00PM

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

Only hindsight makes anything remarkable out of the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her friend Alethea Bigg exactly 202 years ago today [#150(C) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence].

It’s a commonplace account of commonplace matters: the weather is pleasant, various young relatives are turning out well, the Austens would like the Bigg family’s recipe for orange wine. Clearly, Austen’s relationship with Alethea Bigg has survived whatever damage it might have sustained more than fourteen years earlier, when Austen accepted and then rejected the marriage proposal of Alethea’s younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither.

Amid all of the everyday news comes Austen’s account of her own health: “I have certainly gained strength through the Winter & am not far from being well; & I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did, as to be able by care to keep off any serious return of illness,” she writes. “I am more & more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself.”

We can’t know what Bigg made of this account: whether she believed in Austen’s optimism, or ascribed it to wishful thinking, or detected, in the cautious hedging of that oh-so-Austenian phrase “not far from being well,” a suggestion that her self-deception was far from complete.

Whatever Jane Austen and her correspondent realized in January of 1817, within six months, Austen was dead. We know how it all turned out, and that makes Austen’s self-delusion – however successful it may have been -- unbearably poignant.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 21 2019 02:00PM

Few expressions of Janeite commitment are as permanent -- not to mention as painful -- as the Jane Austen tattoo. Therefore, I’d have thought – call me crazy! – that it would be worth taking the trouble to verify ahead of time the accuracy of any Austen quotation you planned to etch onto your skin.

Apparently, not everyone agrees with me. For every Janeite as careful as Alethea White-Previs, whose impressive array of Austen tattoos features several genuine, take-‘em-to-the-bank Austen quotations, there seem to be any number of people willing to commit themselves on the basis of a cursory Google search.

I can only hope no one is following the lead of Lucy Martin, a columnist for the University of Warwick (England) student newspaper, whose recent literary tattoo suggestions included “For those who love romance novels, ‘I love you most ardently’ from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” A line which a) is misquoted from b) a scene that, properly understood, isn’t romantic, in c) a book that is not a romance novel.

But Martin isn’t alone in her apparent inability to text-search before tattooing. In 2014, a BuzzFeed list of “23 Epic Literary Love Tattoos” included not one but two photos of skin art featuring not-in-Austen lines, both from the screenplay of the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice: “We are all fools in love” (#22) and “You have bewitched me body and soul” (#19).

The latter tattoo incorporated a picture of a quill pen, even though screenwriter Deborah Moggach seems much more likely to have used a computer. (Over on Pinterest, a poster noted proudly that the font of her new “You have bewitched me etc.” tattoo mimics “Jane Austen’s handwriting,” in which those words were never written.)

In November 2015, Bustle recommended the “fools in love” line as one of “14 Jane Austen Quotes That Would Make Great Tattoos.” Two months later, the same website featured a picture of the same phrase, prettily inked onto the skin of someone-or-other. “Jane Austen laid down some serious truth bombs in her books, but this quote from Pride and Prejudice is so universal, honest, and accurate, it practically screams ‘Pick me, pick me!’ from inside the pages,” the accompanying caption explained.

Except that you won’t find that quote inside the pages of P&P, because Jane Austen didn’t write it.

Obviously, if you love a line from a Jane Austen movie and want to ink it onto your skin, you should go right ahead. But if your goal is to acquire a literary tattoo, then it might be worthwhile to consult an actual book. And if that seems like too much work to do for your Jane Austen tattoo, maybe you’d better stick to the temporary kind.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 17 2019 02:00PM

The Janeite world is a-twitter (and a-Twitter) this week over the serendipitous discovery of a Victorian photo album filled with pictures of Austen descendants – the children and grandchildren of her brother Edward, who was adopted by wealthy relatives and took their name, Knight.

It’s an irresistible story: Last November, a history buff in Ireland paid $1,000 for an eBay offering -- and discovered that she’d stumbled across previously unseen documentation tangentially related to the world’s trendiest classic novelist. *

Too bad that, inevitably, press coverage has swept right past the tangential nature of the discovery in order to wallow in the usual silly speculation and inaccuracy.

To wit:

--The Daily Mail: “Austen . . . has never been pictured herself** but the remarkable discovery gives historians an unprecedented insight into the inspirations for her most famous characters . . . . the photo album shows the family and places which are said to have influenced her writing.”

Guys, this is a stretch.

Austen loved her nieces – and her relationship with the eldest, Fanny, whose picture appears in the album, was important enough that it’s plausible to speculate about influences – but most of the people pictured here were children, if that, when Austen died in 1817. A family wedding from 1865 does not give historians insight into Austen’s influences fifty years earlier, no matter how gee-whiz it is that the groom lost his arm in a tiger attack in India.

As for the places that influenced her, only Chawton House, the Knight family manse in Hampshire, seems to be pictured here, and it’s not exactly “unprecedented” news that Austen spent lots of time there. Nearby Chawton cottage, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels, is now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, for crying out loud.

For Janeites, it’s ultra-cool to put faces to the names we’ve seen on Austen family trees, but “unprecedented insight” into Austen’s fiction? I don’t think so.

--Jezebel: “Am I the only one who thought Jane Austen’s family was at least Pride and Prejudice-level poor? According to the pictures of her fancy-ass relatives in The Daily Mail, it turns out they were Emma rich. Look at that manor house!”

Sigh. Where to begin?

1. The Bennets of Pride and Prejudice are not poor, whatever Joe Wright’s 2005 movie may have implied to the contrary. They are landed gentry. Mr. Bennet does not have to work. His daughters move in the best circles of their small-pond country world. The Bennet family's problem is not immediate poverty; it’s a lack of security for the future.

2. Jane Austen’s family of origin was also not poor. The Austens were respectably middle class. Unlike the Bennets, however, they were not landed gentry. The Rev. George Austen did have to work, as a teacher and a minister. This is well-documented in roughly a gazillion Austen biographies.

3. But one of Jane Austen’s brothers – the one whose descendants are pictured here – was rich, possibly even Emma rich. (See above.) Again, this is not news.

4. In any case, however, the people pictured here lived long, long after Jane Austen, in a social world far different from her own. Their economic circumstances, while interesting in themselves, don’t tell us much about Austen’s own life.

Still, if you want to ransack the attic again in hopes of finding a previously unsuspected Austen family relic, be my guest. It doesn’t have to offer unprecedented! insights! to be intriguing.

* Novelist and academic Sophia Hillan, the author of a non-fiction account of three Austen nieces who settled in Ireland, mentioned the album in passing in a piece she published last month in the Irish Times. (I mentioned it here.) But the press doesn't seem to have registered the importance of the discovery until a few days ago.

** No big surprise, that, since she died two decades before the invention of photography. (Details!)

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