Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 22 2017 01:00PM

The past year has brought us a bumper crop of stories about real estate with more or less legit Austen connections. (Mostly less.)

Last spring, we learned we could rent rooms at Goodnestone Park, the Kent mansion of Jane Austen’s brother’s in-laws. Over the summer, we had a chance to buy a converted oast house on a farm where Austen’s father once lived. In November, we learned that the British government would contribute a goodly sum towards renovations of Wentworth Woodhouse, a gigantic Yorkshire mansion whose history Austen may or may not have mined for inspiration. And just last month, we sighed over a real estate listing for the house that played the Bennet family’s Longbourn in the BBC’s beloved 1992 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

And now comes word of a real estate offering with rock-solid Austen connections: a listing for Scarlets, the Berkshire home built in the 1760s by Austen’s maternal uncle, James Leigh-Perrot, and his disagreeable wife, Jane.

The listing provides the usual drool-worthy photos of oak paneling, parquet flooring, huge rooms suffused with natural light, and French doors opening onto acres of gardens. (Only 1.25 acres, actually, but the pictures make it look bigger.) And, compared to the £9 million ($11.7 million) price of Luckington Court, the aforesaid Longbourn stand-in, Scarlets is a bargain at a mere £3.5 million ($4.4 million).

For Janeites, it’s more than a little ironic that Scarletts, as it’s now known –the extra “t” is a post-Leigh-Perrot acquisition – is being advertised for its Austen connections. We can’t help remembering how badly the already ailing Jane Austen took the news of Uncle Leigh-Perrot’s March 1817 will, which left his entire estate, including Scarlets, to his wife, providing no immediate legacy to his sister’s struggling offspring. (Though Scarlets did eventually come down to Austen’s nephew and future biographer, James Edward Austen-Leigh.)

If the house were now to come into the possession of an Austen devotee? Revenge is sweet.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 21 2017 01:00AM

Last fall, you’ll recall, the English town of Basingstoke, located not far from Jane Austen’s final home at Chawton, decided to commemorate the bicentenary of her death by commissioning a series of benches shaped like open books and decorated in Austen-appropriate ways.

The project seemed a bit peculiar to me, but hey – whatever works. I haven’t yet seen up-close pictures of all twenty-four of the finished benches – and, alas, I fear I won’t make it to Basingstoke for an in-person look – but the Royal Mint is now publicizing its own contribution.

The Mint, of course, is marking Austen’s bicentenary in its own way, by releasing a commemorative £2 coin, which can be purchased for anywhere from £10 ($12.63) for the basic edition to £830 ($1,048.63) for the gold version. The Mint’s book bench design is based on the notebook scribbles of the coin’s designer, Dominique Evans, which include Austen quotes, images and associated ideas she apparently considered en route to her final design.

If you get to Basingstoke, send along some pictures of the benches in their natural habitat! And buy a Jane Austen coin while you’re at it.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 19 2017 01:00PM

“The new Darcy Hotel. . . is named for that taciturn hero of Jane Austen’s,” the Washington Times wrote earlier this month, at the outset of an enthusiastic review of the hotel’s seafood restaurant. Disappointingly, the restaurant is called Siren, a name with no P&P associations whatsoever. Instead of, say, Bennet. Or Lady Catherine’s Place. Or Lydia’s Petticoat.

Alas, this dearth of Austen associations is no anomaly, at least as far as I can glean from the website of the hotel, located in Washington D.C.’s upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood. Nary a mention of Austen appears anywhere on the site; without the Times tip-off, there'd be no way of knowing the hotel was named for the literary hero, rather than the character in Thor or the Smashing Pumpkins bassist.* The metal-and-glass décor is described as “updated mid-century modern” – presumably that’s not the mid-nineteenth century – and the his-and-hers silhouettes hanging above the bed in one room photo are rainbowed in neon.

Only the hotel’s amenities evoke that understated-elegance, waited-on-hand-and-foot Pemberley vibe: You can borrow cufflinks from the Haberdashery, order a bespoke suit custom-made during your stay, sip free cocktails every evening, or have a libation created for you in your own room by the “cocktail butler.”

For those of us who might be willing to overlook the thinness of the Austen veneer just so we can say we stayed at The Darcy, prices don’t seem to be excessive, as these things go: Although a mid-week stay begins perilously close to $400 a night and goes up from there, a summer weekend night starts at a more reasonable $179. And with luck, the company will be better than at Lady Catherine’s Place.

* All right, all right. I admit I would never have thought of either of these alternatives without an assist from Google.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2017 01:00PM

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

The letter Jane Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 209 years ago today contains nothing very remarkable, as Austen makes clear from its first line: “Where shall I begin?” she wonders. “Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?”

Jane and the family of her oldest brother, James, were on a visit to their brother Edward’s large family in Kent; Cassandra had stayed behind in Southampton, where the Austen sisters, their mother and their friend Martha Lloyd were living with the wife and baby of yet another Austen brother, sailor Frank.

The letter (#52 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) rattles on about the weather, the journey, the food at the inn, the doings of neighborhood acquaintances, and the welfare of a legion of nieces and nephews. And Jane encourages Cassandra to send back more of the same. “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me,” she notes – possibly in jest, but possibly not.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this letter – and about the three successive letters that Jane wrote to Cassandra during the sixteen days between June 15 and July 1 of 1808 – is their sheer bulk. The shortest of the four letters runs to more than 1,500 words; together, all four total more than 6,800.

Publishers today suggest that a novel should comprise roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words; Austen’s own six range from nearly 78,000 words for Northanger Abbey to nearly 160,000 for Mansfield Park.

In other words, in a little over two weeks of correspondence with her sister, Austen wrote the equivalent of 4 to 9 percent of an entire book. By hand! With a quill pen! My wrist aches just thinking about it. And this doesn’t even count the other letters that Austen mentions along the way: Cassandra’s lengthy replies to Jane’s letters (“every page of yours has more lines than this, & every line more words than the average of mine” – letter # 53); their sister-in-law Mary Austen’s letter to her stepdaughter, Anna; Anna’s reply; and a letter from their brother Henry carrying news about Frank.

There are intimations that Austen chafed at all this letter-writing, perhaps because of the time it took away from her creative work: “As to Martha, she had not the least chance in the World of hearing from me again, & I wonder at her impudence in proposing it,” Jane writes to Cassandra in letter #55. “I assure you I am as tired of writing long letters as you can be. What a pity that one should still be so fond of receiving them!”

But what’s clear is that these women – with an occasional assist from their brothers and husbands – performed the time-consuming, labor-intensive and crucial job of sustaining connections of family and friendship across geographical distances that were far harder to surmount than they are today. It was tedious, unglamorous, unsung work, surely taken for granted by the men in their lives and perhaps by the women themselves. But it was work nonetheless.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2017 01:00PM

In my experience, non-Janeites are blissfully unaware of the vast universe of Austen fanfic in all its magnificent, explicit, pansexual variety. How else to explain the slightly breathless anxiety with which writer-director Byrum Geisler is ushering his film Before the Fall onto streaming video?

See, Before the Fall – apparently no relation to the bestselling book by Noah Hawley, soon to be a major motion picture – is a gay-themed update of Pride and Prejudice! The Darcy and Elizabeth characters are both men! Aren’t you shocked? Aren’t you? Aren’t you?

Me neither.

Gay versions of Austen’s stories date back at least to 2010, when Ann Herendeen published the odd but interesting Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Other Loves, which matches Darcy with Bingley and Elizabeth with Charlotte.

Nine years earlier, Arielle Eckstut and Dennis Ashton, the authors of the hilarious Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, penned a vignette in which the Bingley sisters welcome Jane Bennet to Netherfield in a most surprising fashion – although, admittedly, that one was parody.

And I’m sure that denizens of the online fanfic boards could cite many more unpublished examples of Austen slash fiction. So Geisler’s film – which can be rented for $4.99 through iTunes or Amazon – is hardly the incredible! pioneering! risk! that he seems to think it is.

In a two-minute featurette, viewable at the Huffington Post, Geisler notes the “timeless quality” of Austen’s stories. “Jane Austen just had to have been brilliant,” he opines. Well, yes.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s clear from the plot description that Geisler takes at least one other liberty with the original: not only is his Elizabeth now a man, but Geisler seems to have reversed the relative social standings of his protagonists. Ben Bennet is a wealthy Virginia lawyer, while Lee Darcy is a brooding factory worker. (Based on the trailer, however, I can attest that Darcy is, as he should be, very easy on the eyes.)

“I’m hoping Jane Austen’s fans will see [the film] as a tribute to her and not misusing the source material,” Geisler concludes, a tad anxiously.

Oh, honey. Not to worry. You have no idea what we’ve seen.

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