Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 11 2017 02:00PM

Twenty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s an occupational hazard of the writing life that people will not infrequently approach you to suggest you take their dictation. “You’re a writer?” new acquaintances used to say to my father, a published novelist. “I have a great idea for a story! Could I tell it to you, and then you’d just write it up?”


How delightful to discover that even the great Jane Austen encountered this form of condescension cloaked in admiration.


In November of 1815, as Janeites will recall, James Stanier Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, learned of Austen’s presence in London from a doctor treating her brother Henry. Clarke and the Prince were both Austen fans, and Clarke invited her to tour Carlton House, the Prince’s London residence, and to dedicate her forthcoming novel, Emma, to the royal personage.


A few days later, Austen followed up with a question about the dedication, and in his reply Clarke took the opportunity to gift her with his own fabulous idea for a novel -- the story of a clergyman “who should pass his time between the metropolis & the Country. . . Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature—no man’s Enemy but his own.” [Letter #125(A) in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence]. A clergyman, in other words, rather like Clarke himself.


Poor Jane Austen. Here’s a kind, well-meaning doofus with connections to a powerful potential patron, and he wants her to write up his earnest, didactic, tedious little idea. Obviously, she’s not going to oblige him. But how to put him off without causing offense?


In the letter she wrote to Clarke exactly 202 years ago today [#132(D)], Austen walks this tightrope with aplomb, combining a generous helping of flattery with a slice of half-serious self-deprecation and leavening the mixture with a pinch of sly wit.


“I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a Clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note,” Austen explains. “But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the Character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man’s Conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing—or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations & allusions which a Woman, who like me, knows only her own Mother-tongue & has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving.—A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient & Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who wd do any justice to your Clergyman—And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”


It’s a little hard to buy the idea that the woman who had already created Henry Tilney, Mr. Collins, Dr. Grant, Edmund Bertram, and Mr. Elton felt herself unequal to portraying a clergyman, or that the writer of some of the best dialogue in English longed to stud her books with learned quotations from science, philosophy, and literature. To a contemporary reader – or, indeed, to anyone familiar with the management of the fragile male ego – it’s pretty obvious what Austen’s up to here.


Clarke, however, apparently didn’t notice: In his reply, he offered a few more plot suggestions and urged her to “continue to write, & make all your friends send Sketches to help you.” [#132(A)] Perish the thought.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 7 2017 02:00PM

How time flies.


It’s been exactly a year since a Scottish art gallery announced that Graham Short, an artist known for his teeny-tiny masterworks, had engraved miniature portraits of Jane Austen on four Winston Churchill £5 notes.


As blog readers will recall, in a deliberate echo of the Golden Ticket sweepstakes in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Short spent the notes in cafés throughout Britain and challenged the spending public to find these needles in the currency haystack. Breathless press reports speculated that, based on the prices Short’s earlier work had commanded, the embellished fivers could be worth as much as £50,000 ($67,000).


Given the amount of currency out there, I was skeptical early on that these four prized portraits – Jane Austen in her familiar cap, encircled by a quote from one of her novels – would ever turn up. Then, in relatively short order, three did. Two of the lucky winners decided to keep the notes as souvenirs; the remarkably generous third winner donated her fiver back to the gallery, with a request that it be used “to help young people.”


Tomorrow, that wish will come true, when the fiver – this one bears the Pride and Prejudice quote "To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love" -- is auctioned off. The auction will benefit BBC Children in Need, a charitable arm of the venerable broadcaster, which makes grants to projects aimed at helping disadvantaged children and youths. Just incidentally, the auction will also provide the first gauge of the Austen fivers’ actual market value, as opposed to their entirely speculative, reporter-determined value.


In July, to commemorate the bicentenary of Austen’s death, Short donated a fifth embellished fiver for display at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. Meanwhile, one last note remains undiscovered somewhere. Check your piggy banks, Brits: you could have a surprise holiday gift in there.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 4 2017 02:00PM

The past year’s drama at Chawton House Library has sometimes seemed more appropriate to one of the Gothic romances Jane Austen satirized in Northanger Abbey than to a sedate center of literary scholarship with impeccable Austenian connections.


Regular blog readers will recall the highlights: A deep-pocketed donor – Silicon Valley multimillionaire Sandy Lerner, who spent $20 million to renovate the decaying Elizabethan mansion once owned by Austen’s older brother Edward – ended her ongoing financial support. The board launched an “urgent” fundraising appeal. The estate’s four beloved Shire horses and their human caretakers were sent packing as a cost-cutting measure. Local animal-lovers protested, and then started an online petition seeking reversal of the decision.


For those of us who think Chawton House Library, with its mission of promoting research into early English writing by women, is one the gems of the Janeite world, it’s all been disturbing and disheartening.


So much the more, then, can we rejoice at a recent piece of good news: The fundraising campaign has yielded its first big result, a two-year, £100,000 ($135,000) grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation, a UK philanthropy that funds projects in many areas, including education, British heritage, and the arts.


“It’s a great boost which shows that we are on the right track, and should act as a catalyst for other funders to follow,” said Chawton’s fundraising director, Jane Lillystone.


Chawton House is certainly not out of the woods yet. According to the library’s financial records, Lerner’s funding in 2015 totaled more than $600,000, so even the generous new grant replaces barely ten percent of that. But it’s certainly a hopeful start. If you want to add your own small mite to the effort, you can find Chawton’s fundraising campaign here.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 30 2017 02:00PM

Pity the poor aristocrat. Your stately home is decaying, your heating bill is through the (leaky) roof, and you lack the millions required to refurbish it all. If only your family hadn’t sold off the jeweled icons to keep themselves in Malvern spring water!


Blog readers will recall that I’m a sucker for stories about cash-strapped heirs to once-great fortunes struggling to live amid the ruins of former glory. (See under: 12th Earl of Shaftesbury.) The renovating-the-dilapidated-manor plot appeals to my childhood dollhouse fixation; the caught-between-rungs-on-the-class-ladder element speaks to my inner Evelyn Waugh fan. And when there’s a Jane Austen connection, no matter how distant? Catnip. (See under: Caroline Knight.)


So naturally I ate up this story (available here, here and here) about a descendant of the Russian royal family who lives in an underheated thirty-room mansion in Kent once inhabited by Jane Austen’s niece Fanny. You’ve got to love someone who can legitimately call herself “Princess Olga,” especially if her father played with the tsar’s children before their gruesome murders and her mother was a “Scots-Scandinavian flour-mill heiress.” (Seriously: Edith Wharton wants her plot back. Right now.)


Provender House, the half-decrepit, half-renovated pile in question, looks like an interesting place, although you wouldn’t catch me spending my days somewhere so freezing that its owner “seems to live in a blue ski jacket to stave off the biting cold in the many unheated rooms.” (Shades of Fanny Price in the East Room with no fire. . .)


As a pedantic Janeite purist, however, I was displeased to find Provender’s website describing a previous owner -- Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, the husband of Fanny Knight – as “9th Baronet and first Lord Brabourne.” The most cursory reader of Wikipedia, let alone any die-hard Janeite, knows that the first Lord Brabourne was in fact Edward and Fanny’s son, best known as an early editor of Austen’s letters. Such sloppiness doesn't bode well for the factual accuracy of the princess' recently published memoir, Princess Olga: A Wild and Barefoot Romanov.


Speaking of wild, I was also excessively diverted by this journalistic speculation, from coverage of Provender in the online magazine Faversham Life: “There is no record of Jane Austen visiting but it is surely extremely likely.” Not so much, actually, since Fanny married her baronet three years after Aunt Jane’s death. But hey – every decaying estate in search of tourist dollars needs its Jane-Austen-slept-here cachet. You can’t blame a strapped aristocrat for trying.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 27 2017 02:00PM

The rabbit guy, it turns out, loved Jane Austen.


Last week, the Guardian reported that the large and valuable library of the late Richard Adams, author of the beloved sort-of-but-not-really-a-children’s-book Watership Down, will be auctioned on December 14.


Among the covetable gems of Adams’ collection is a complete set of Jane Austen first editions. A browse through the online catalogue, however, turns up many more mouthwatering tidbits for book lovers: first editions of Dickens, Coleridge, Wordsworth and George Eliot; a Shakespeare Second Folio; contemporary classics signed by their authors. . . (Find the catalogue here; the Austen books are on pages 36-7.)


Adams was a voracious reader from childhood, long before he aspired to a writing career of his own -- Watership Down, the allegorical and sometimes bloody saga of a group of plucky rabbits in search of a safe home, was published in 1972, when Adams was over fifty. The extraordinary international success of that book and those that followed gave him the money to pursue serious book-collecting.


Although as far as I can recall, her novels are a bunny-free zone, Austen apparently had a special place in Adams’ heart: the auction catalogue quotes from his autobiography, in which he describes his first reading of Emma, when he was a twenty-two-year-old soldier in World War II, as “like a revelation.” The same novel, a perennial favorite, was also one of the last books he read before his death last year, at ninety-six.


“With his undergraduate studies interrupted by war, he found the works of Jane Austen, and particularly Emma, a solace and mainstay – as did thousands of soldiers both before and after him,” his daughter, Juliet Johnson, writes in a touching introduction to the auction catalogue. “And so it went on all his life. To Richard, books were a consolation that broadened your horizons, told you truths about things most people in your life would brush under the carpet or have no experience of, and comfort you when things were bleak.”


The vastness of Adams’ collection apparently surprised his family, and Johnson sounds a wistful note that will resonate with anyone who has liquidated a loved one’s cherished, painstakingly assembled possessions. “It is sad to see so much of it go,” she writes, “but my father would no doubt have taken comfort from his beloved Thomas Hardy, and perhaps have been pleased that after his death these great books will pass to others who will love and treasure them.”


The auction house has valued Adams’ Austen collection at £60,000-£80,000 ($79,000-$106,000). Wanna bet that it will sell for a lot more of the green stuff?


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