Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 9 2018 01:00PM

Few are the places with genuine Jane Austen connections. Austen’s birthplace, Steventon Rectory, was razed in the nineteenth century; though some of her temporary homes in Bath survive, her long-term residence in Southampton is gone, replaced by a pub. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, is a treasure, of course, and Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral is worth a pilgrimage, but many of the sites that Janeite tourists visit are movie locations where Austen herself probably never set foot.


So it’s exciting to learn that the newly restored Reading Abbey Gateway will open to the public later this week (see accounts here and here). As Janeites will recall, the Gateway once housed the Reading Ladies’ Boarding School, where the ten-year-old Austen and her older sister, Cassandra, were pupils in 1785-6, the final year of their brief formal education.


Although news accounts imply that visitors will see the very classroom where Austen studied, I doubt this is actually the case. Instead, it seems that in September, the local museum plans to move an already existing Victorian classroom exhibit into the Gateway. Since, as we Janeites are so often called on to point out, Austen was a Regency writer, not a Victorian one, it’s not clear how much relevance this exhibit will have to her own schooldays.


But when it comes to genuine Austen sites, we beggars can’t be choosers. Any readers who get a chance to visit Reading, please let us know what you think of the restored Abbey Gateway!


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 26 2018 01:00PM

The delightful Jane Austen Quilt project culminated earlier this month with the unveiling at Jane Austen’s House Museum of two beautiful quilts made from blocks contributed by Janeites across the globe.


As blog readers will recall, the museum – aka Chawton Cottage, the house where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – launched the quilt project last year to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death. The design was inspired by one of the treasures of the museum’s collection, the Austen family coverlet stitched by Jane, Cassandra, and their mother.


Combining creativity and traditionally female needlecraft, the quilt project strikes me as a charming and appropriate way of paying homage to Austen, a creative artist embedded in a female-run household. (Plus she was an excellent needlewoman, at least according to her nephew's 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.)


The main quilt, known as the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt, measures more than eight feet by five feet and consists of fifty-seven blocks, most of which illustrate some aspect of Austen’s life or work. The second, smaller quilt, known as the Admirals’ Quilt, is composed of abstract geometrical blocks left over from the making of the main quilt.


Unfortunately, the museum blog doesn’t include closeups of every block in the Story Quilt, but from what I can see via blurry on-line zooms, among the designs are blocks featuring the Steventon church where Austen’s father was the minister, the turquoise ring she wore, and the spines of the novels she wrote. A large central panel, created by students from the local elementary school, highlights the community of Chawton, complete with houses, trees, and a friendly horse. (You can get a better look at portions of the quilt here, on the blog of quilter Katrina Hadjimichael, who created one of the blocks.)


Both quilts will be on display at the museum for the rest of this year, and the project has been memorialized in a book, Stories in Stitches: Reimagining Jane Austen’s Quilt.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 8 2018 02:00PM

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


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen had spent her day productively.


“Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter finished exactly 204 years ago today (#98 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.”


To put myself in the correct frame of mind for this blog, I have read The Corsair and mended a pillowcase, since there’s little call for petticoats in my house. (Unlike Austen, I still have a long to-do list, but I did try.)


Byron is a great poet, but The Corsair -- which was published in February 1814, a month before Austen read it -- is not my cup of tea. Yes, the verse is miraculously supple and natural, but you can’t say the same of the story, what with its obscurely-tortured-yet-devastatingly-attractive pirate-hero, its selflessly virtuous heroine, and its homicidal anti-heroine-cum-harem-slave. Apparently, men too can write bad romance-novel plots.


Nevertheless, reading The Corsair – for the first time! My education has been sadly neglected – points up the comedy in Austen’s sentence. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Byron’s swashbuckling saga than the domestic chore of mending underwear. Coupling the two has the salutary effect of puncturing Byron’s pretensions, though Austen may also be poking fun at the lack of drama in her own life.


Meanwhile, as I plied my needle, like so many centuries of women before me, I found myself reflecting -- as perhaps Austen did, too -- on the bankruptcy of the madonna-whore dichotomy into which Byron so neatly fits his female characters.


Of course, Austen’s books contain their fair share of flawed men and good, or not-so-good, women. In case we need reminding that she took a subtler approach than The Corsair, later in the letter Austen reports on her brother’s response to her soon-to-be-published new novel, the story of a virtuous woman who withstands the blandishments of a plausible but problematic suitor.


“Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better,” she tells Cassandra. “He is in the 3d vol.—I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end;--he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 29 2018 02:00PM

Thirtieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen was brimming over with the joy that only an author can fully appreciate: the thrill of holding in her hands a book that she had written.


“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London,” Jane reported to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter written exactly 205 years ago today (#79 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Cassandra was away on a visit to their eldest brother, James, and during her absence the first copy of the newly published Pride and Prejudice had arrived in Chawton.


Already, Austen was anticipating and assessing the responses to her novel. A neighbor to whom the Austens had read the book aloud – without revealing who had written it -- “really does seem to admire Elizabeth,” Austen wrote. “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”


(And who can blame her? If you can’t love Elizabeth Bennet – well, I won’t say that you’re incapable of literary appreciation, but some might.)


Like all writers, Austen also finds herself wishing she’d had one more pass at her manuscript: “There are a few Typical errors--& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear,” she notes. “But ‘I do not write for such dull Elves’ ‘As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’ ”


In context, it’s clear that Austen’s paraphrase of Walter Scott’s poem Marmion is not a global comment on how her work should be read by discerning readers; it’s just a clever, throwaway self-reassurance that her occasional lapses won’t detract from her storytelling.


Still, that hasn’t stopped more than one critic from appropriating the “dull elves” remark as an all-purpose slur on those who purportedly fail to understand Austen’s true meaning, whatever the critic takes that meaning to be. Ingenuity, indeed.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 18 2018 02:00PM

The Jane Austen £10 note has been circulating for only four months, but already its most collectible iterations are fetching inflated prices on eBay.


Back in October, readers will recall, the Bank of England raised money for charity by auctioning off Austen tenners with some of the most desirable serial numbers. Now a slew of Austen notes with allegedly covetable characteristics – notes from early in the print run, notes with tiny printing errors, notes with serial numbers beginning with or ending with or incorporating the years of Austen’s birth (1775) and death (1817) – are available from sellers with presumably less altruistic motives.



My own personal Austen £10 note. Worth £10.



A few days ago, the UK’s Express newspaper reported that a seller on the British version of eBay had persuaded someone to pay £3,600 (nearly $5,000) for an Austen note with a serial number beginning with 1775. Don’t ask me how the super-valuable note differed appreciably from the Austen tenner with a 1775 serial number currently available on the site for £250 – and that one is a package deal with a note bearing an 1817 serial number. The psychology of collectors is a mystery to me, but hey -- everything is worth what somebody will pay for it, right?


Not to worry if £3,600 is too much for you: Right now, Austen tenners seem to be available on UK eBay at almost every price point. You can pay a semi-staggering £490 premium for a note from the first print run, or a modest £1 markup for. . . a note from the first print run. (Go figure. I can’t tell the difference.)


Or you can change a £20 note at your local pub and get two probably-perfectly-respectable Austen tenners for no premium at all. Up to you.


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