Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 31 2017 01:00PM

Among the many, many activities taking place on the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death earlier this month was the unveiling of a new Janeite landmark: a life-size bronze of Austen, purportedly the first-ever statue of the author, portrayed striding through the center of Basingstoke, the nearest big town to her birthplace in Steventon.


Blog readers will recall that I was a bit skeptical about this project when it was first announced, since we don’t really know what Austen looked like. But I must say that, as far as I can judge from the images available online, I’m pleasantly surprised by the final product.


Of course, it’s still not possible to say whether the statue is a good likeness of Austen – we’ll never know that about any representation of her, since we don’t have any way of comparing images to the original. But the alert, observant gaze captured in sculptor Adam Roud’s bronze gives, to my mind, an appealing idea of Our Jane.


Roud’s Austen is not elevated on a pedestal; clad in pelisse and bonnet, she mingles with passersby at ground level, as if she’s on her way to do some shopping, or to return the book she’s carrying to a circulating library. I can already imagine the newest line in tourist photos: devoted Janeite walks companionably by Austen’s side, engrossed in conversation.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 27 2017 01:00PM

I marked the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death last week in rather prosaic fashion: giving my house an all-too-infrequent thorough cleaning, while listening to a new audio adaptation of Northanger Abbey.


The cleaning was, as ever, tedious and tiring. The adaptation – a made-for-Audible version headlined by Emma Thompson as the narrator, or, as the credits would have it, as “Jane Austen” – was quite delightful.


It’s an exhaustively complete, scrupulously faithful six-hour version, which allows room for lots of the narratorial voiceover that so seldom makes it into Austen adaptations. We get to hear Thompson read the famous defense of the novel and remark dryly, “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, must conceal it as well as she can.” The other actors, some of them well-known to American audiences and others less so, are also excellent.


If only I had realized that, while I was lugging my vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs to the accompaniment of Henry Tilney’s witticisms, London Janeites were enjoying the recording in style.


Turns out that for seven hours on July 18 – the Austen bicentenary and the release date of the adaptation – Audible offered free rides through the streets of London in so-called “Austen taxis”: carriages pulled by matched pairs of horses and piloted by coachmen in Georgian dress. (More pictures here.) Along the way, the lucky customers who signed up for these elegant commutes listened to excerpts from the NA adaptation.


Sounds quite lovely, doesn’t it? (Assuming, of course, that your coachman was more Henry Tilney than John Thorpe.) I think I would willingly have traded my clean kitchen floor for a ride in an Austen taxi.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 24 2017 01:00PM

When I was researching Among the Janeites, a former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America told me a charming story about attending a celebration of Jane Austen’s birthday in a fancy New York City apartment. When the time came to cut the cake, the maid on duty that day looked around for the birthday girl, asking, “Is the lady present?” “I said to her, ‘In a sense, yes, she is,’ ” he recalled.


Jane Austen’s eternal life was much on Janeite minds last week, as an explosion of media attention greeted the July 18 bicentenary of Austen’s death. Still, as we spoke feelingly of Austen’s immortality, we probably didn’t mean it quite as literally as British Tory politician Andrea Leadsom briefly seemed to.


In a Thursday session of the House of Commons, a Labour MP praised female achievement, listing several famous women who had died recently. Not to be outdone, Leadsom chimed in with an addition to the honor roll: Jane Austen, “one of our greatest living authors.”


It’s pretty clear from the video that Leadsom just misspoke -- amid chortles, she immediately corrected to “greatest-ever authors,” adding, “I think many of us probably wish she were still living” – but in the ruthless world of social media-fueled ridicule, the damage was done.


Bookstore chain Waterstones tweeted that they were moving Austen’s works out of the Classics section and asked if anyone knew how to get in touch with her agent. A British Isles TV channel called Dave (seriously – there’s a TV channel called Dave) tweeted, “BREAKING: Andrea Leadsom devastated to learn of Jane Austen's passing. Cancels today's photo-op with William Shakespeare as mark of respect.”


It was all pretty unfair. But also pretty funny. Have some cake, Andrea.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 20 2017 01:00PM

There are many things I would be willing to do to secure the future of Chawton House Library, one of the Austen world’s great treasures. Starring in my very own wet-shirt-Darcy video is not among those things.


The library's future is in some doubt because, as blog readers will recall, Sandy Lerner -- the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who bought and renovated Chawton House, and whom I profiled in Among the Janeites – decided last year to end her continuing financial support after 2017.


That’s left a major fundraising challenge for Chawton House, which hosts researchers and sponsors scholarly conferences revolving around its priceless collection of early English writing by women.


To coincide with this week’s bicentenary of Austen’s death, the library unveiled a new fundraising website laying out some of the details: A looming sixty-five percent budget gap. An “urgent, large-scale funding campaign.” And -- yes -- a slightly kooky ice-bucket-ish challenge, #TheDarcyLook, wherein participants post a video of their white-shirted selves being doused with water, text a £3 donation to the library, and nominate three friends to do the same.


That particular sugggestion seems to be aimed at male donors; I suppose Chawton House thought it might look a bit strange for an institution dedicated to Austen, that supposed doyenne of female propriety, to instigate a wet-T-shirt contest for women. Even so, I'm not sure about this one -- and I had barely glanced in my husband's direction before he pre-emptively announced his refusal -- but, then, I didn't do the original ice bucket challenge, either. Maybe those Austen-loving kids will be into it?


Chawton House Library has grand plans to expand its facilities beyond the main house, where Austen’s older brother Edward lived and where Austen herself visited often. The vision: “A more recognised, commercially viable destination” offering “larger and more extensive visitor facilities and providing an enhanced experience of the Chawton estate.”


Presumably, that would mean close collaboration with Jane Austen’s House Museum, housed down the road in beloved Chawton Cottage, where Austen lived for the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


A unified, enhanced Chawton site, with everything from Austen relics to rare books – and, presumably, enhanced gift shops as well -- sounds like a magnet for Janeite tourism. But only if we Janeites, wet and dry, come up with the money to keep Lerner's visionary creation alive.



By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 17 2017 01:00PM

Tomorrow marks the anniversary that we all – or, at least, all those of us who are Janeites – have been waiting for since 2017 dawned: the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s untimely death. Already, the occasion has been honored with exhibits, lectures, book releases, competitions, a specially commissioned statue, specially decorated money (both paper and coin), specially decorated benches, frequently invisible public art . . . you name it.


Amid the circus of commemoration, it’s easy to lose sight of what this is all about: Six books. One extraordinary artist.


Yesterday, my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America gathered to honor Our Jane in our own way. We met in an austerely beautiful historic church, ate cake decorated with strawberries, and toasted Jane Austen with iced tea and Diet Coke, thanking her for welding us into a community of fans and friends.




But the heart of the occasion was our performance of scenes from all six of the novels, as well as a bit of the Juvenilia and excerpts from Cassandra’s moving account of her sister’s death. We reveled all over again in Lady Catherine’s pique (“Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”), Fanny Dashwood’s selfishness (“People always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them”), and Catherine Morland’s charming naivete (“Oh! Mr. Tilney, how frightful! --This is just like a book!”)


None of us is likely to win any acting prizes – well, except for the for-real actress who joined us from JASNA’s New York City chapter – but that wasn’t the point. The point was to get back to what started all of this – the words, and the woman who wrote them.


Six books. One extraordinary artist.


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