Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 25 2018 01:00PM

Can I get half credit?


As blog readers will recall, last week I predicted (correctly, as it turned out) that Pride and Prejudice, despite making it into the top ten finalists in PBS’s Great American Read competition, would not win.


On the other hand, I picked Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to sweep a field dominated by twentieth-century historical and fantasy epics, and by books most readers encounter in childhood. I was wrong: as PBS revealed on Tuesday night, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird led the voting from the start, winning forty-eight of the fifty states. (In retrospect: duh. What was I thinking?)


Ultimately, P&P finished fourth – coming in behind the Outlander and Harry Potter series, but edging out LOTR – a pretty good showing, all things considered.


PBS didn’t collect demographic breakdowns of its voters, but given years of research showing that women read more fiction than men do, it’s likely the pool skewed female. The makeup of the winners’ circle suggests as much: five of the top ten (Mockingbird, P&P, Gone with the Wind, Little Women and Jane Eyre) are female coming-of-age tales written by women, while in two more (the Outlander series and, arguably, Charlotte’s Web) female characters are the key protagonists. Even the fantasy epics that round out the list – LOTR, the Harry Potter series, andThe Chronicles of Narnia – feature important female characters, although male protagonists dominate.


So: girl power. And I’d still rather be reading Jane Austen. But hey – it’s all good, as long as we’re reading books.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 22 2018 01:00PM

In September 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, from their brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent. As regular blog readers will recall from last month’s post, Austen seemed to be enjoying her momentary peace and quiet: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” she told Cassandra.


The Godmersham library, both the room and the book collection, were grand enough to suit a prosperous landowner like Edward Austen Knight: At a time when books were true luxury items, he owned more than twelve hundred – non-fiction on a broad range of topics, as well as a good number of novels -- and housed them in a long rectangular room with two fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls.


Edward’s book collection was dispersed and the library itself in ruins by the early decades of the twentieth century. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it’s now possible for Janeites and bibliophiles to hang out there with Jane Austen, at least in imagination: Reading With Austen, a website that reconstructs Godmersham’s library, went live earlier this month.


Like the similar What Jane Saw project, which recreated a famous art exhibition Austen visited in London in 1813, Reading with Austen relies on a combination of old-fashioned scholarly sleuthing and up-to-date digital technology.


Using an 1818 catalogue of the library’s holdings, a team headed by Austen scholar Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Toronto, has situated a digital rendering of Edward’s holdings inside an artistic rendering of what his library may have looked like. Click on a book spine and you call up bibliographical information about the volume and, when available, an image of its title page, dedication, marginalia, and Knight family bookplate.


“When available”: There’s the rub. Only five hundred of the books listed in the 1818 catalogue, over a third of the total, are on loan to Chawton House, the rare-books library housed in Edward Austen Knight’s second home in Hampshire. Another fifty volumes are owned by libraries or museums; a few others have come on the market recently.


Locating, photographing, and, where possible, acquiring the rest is the job of the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), the brainchild of Sabor; Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; and Deborah Barnum, a rare book specialist who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont.


The missing books include – oh, tragic irony! – all Edward’s first editions of Jane Austen’s novels. (You can find their locations in the center of the South Wall by browsing the website’s catalog.)


Absent a few miracles, scholarly and financial, it’s going to take a long, long time for all those lost sheep to find their way home. In the meantime, however, we can all spend a few hours at Reading with Austen, daydreaming in bibliophilic splendor alongside Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 18 2018 01:00PM

When midnight strikes on the west coast tonight, something momentous will take place: Voting will close in PBS’s Great American Read competition.


OK, it’s not really that momentous. In fact, if you ask me, the GAR has been pretty silly all along – from the “statistically representative survey” used to draw up the pool of one hundred nominees (how did they account for the roughly one-quarter of Americans who don’t read books?) to the vote-every-day-if-you-feel-like-it policy, which will inevitably privilege authors with small but passionate fan bases over those with broader but less intense support.


From a blog post that Channel 13 published last week, we have some clue about which books remain in the running . Apparently, at this point, the top ten contenders are, in alphabetical order:


Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

The Chronicles of Narnia (series), by C.S. Lewis

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

The Lord of the Rings (series), by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee


Although I’ve only read about half the books on the full list, I’m clearly picking wisely – or at least lining up with majority taste -- since I’ve read every one of these top ten vote-getters. (OK, not all the Outlander books. But cut me a break -- they’re long. . .) And color me relieved that neither Fifty Shades of Grey nor The Da Vinci Code seems likely to win the top prize. National embarrassment averted!


PBS plans to announce the results of the voting next Tuesday, and my crystal ball is notoriously cloudy. That said, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Pride and Prejudice hasn’t got a prayer of winning.


Obviously, I’m not talking about which book deserves to win. That’s debatable, and probably unresolvable: Is, say, Jane Eyre a better book than The Lord of the Rings? They’re so different that the question doesn’t even make sense, in my humble opinion.


But looking at the top-ten list, a few patterns are readily discernible, and they don’t bode well for Our Jane.


Most obviously, seven of the top ten novels were written less than a century ago – Gone with the Wind (1936), The Lord of the Rings (1937-49), Charlotte’s Web (1952), The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the Outlander series (1990-present), and the Harry Potter series(1997-2007).


Pride and Prejudice (1813) is easily the oldest book on the list, beating out Jane Eyre (1847) and Little Women (1868-69) by decades. The great American reading public clearly prefers its novels set in semi-contemporary times, or at least employing a semi-contemporary vocabulary.


Half the books on the list -- The Chronicles of Narnia, Gone with the Wind, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and the Outlander series -- are also sweeping historical sagas and/or good-against-evil fantasy epics. They’re books with dozens of characters and countless plot twists, books that stuff their appendices with maps and family trees, or spawn companion volumes sorting out the many strands of backstory. “Three or four families in a country village” they ain’t.


And arguably, six or seven of the ten are books that most readers encounter before the age of thirteen. Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series, and Little Women are classed as children’s literature; The Lord of the Rings – and perhaps also Gone With the Wind -- is a favorite of bookish kids everywhere; and To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading in middle schools across the land.


This doesn’t mean they aren’t great books – I love them all! -- but it does mean that they’ve burrowed into the souls of their readers in a way that books encountered later in life can’t often match. Our memories of the books we loved as children come pre-wrapped in wistfulness.


It’s true that a subset of readers encounters Pride and Prejudice in early adolescence. It’s the first Austen novel many Janeites read, and they often pick it up around the age of twelve or thirteen. Still, it’s my impression that P&P isn’t a book that most readers associate with their child-selves, perhaps because its preoccupations -- marriage and money -- are so adult.


In sum: P&P is a nineteenth-century classic of domestic fiction on adult themes. It’s up against a list dominated by twentieth-century epics and gems of children’s literature. Its presence in the top ten is surprising enough; a victory would be downright astonishing.


For what it’s worth, my money is on The Lord of the Rings -- which, as it happens, won the BBC’s 2003 version of this competition.


Although admittedly, Pride and Prejudice came in second.



By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2018 01:00PM

The transformation of Chawton House from purely academic destination into full-service Janeite tourist draw continues: The stately home where Jane Austen’s brother once lived, and which now houses a library of early English writing by women, is bidding farewell to its English-professor executive director and looking for a new CEO.


Chawton’s board hopes to find someone with “a strong track record in commercial delivery and fundraising” and “experience in positive stakeholder management,” according to a job description posted online late last month. Strikingly absent from the listing is any reference to scholarly chops – PhD, background in Austen studies, that kind of thing.


As regular blog readers will recall, Chawton has been in decorous turmoil for two years, since Silicon Valley gazillionaire Sandy Lerner, whom I profiled in Among the Janeites, announced she would end her financial support. In the 1990s, Lerner spent some $20 million to renovate Edward Austen Knight’s dilapidated Elizabethan manor house and for years afterwards continued to spend six-figure annual sums on its upkeep.


Since Lerner’s departure, the board and the outgoing executive director, University of Southampton professor Gillian Dow, have cut costs, sought grants, launched a fundraising appeal, and changed the institution’s name from “Chawton House Library” to just plain “Chawton House,” in hopes of rebranding sober scholarship as fun-filled Austen tourism. (See details of the saga here and here.)


It’s a tricky balancing act: Keeping Chawton, with its extraordinary collection of rare books, alive as a site for serious scholarship, while simultaneously attracting the tourist dollars of the folks who trek down the road to Jane Austen’s House Museum to buy Colin Firth tea towels and snap selfies with Austen’s desk. In a sense, Chawton House is a microcosm of the struggle within the Janeite world between devotees of Classic Author Austen and fans of Pop Culture Jane.


Yes, it's a challenge to walk this line between the academic and the pop, but it's not impossible: the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. does it with great success, simultaneously hosting scholarly conferences and hawking Shakespeare magnetic poetry.


Here’s hoping that Chawton House, a true Janeite gem, can find its footing too. A quick Google search suggests that the announced salary for the new CEO -- £55,000 (about $72,000) -- is no better than average for the heads of smaller charities outside London, so perhaps this will be a job for someone young and ambitious. Applications are due by Friday, so start polishing that resume.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 11 2018 01:00PM

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


Some writers fill their letters with detailed responses to the works they read, providing a fascinating record of their literary tastes and influences.


Alas, Jane Austen was not such a writer. Her surviving letters offer only occasional tidbits about the books she has read, allowing us to deduce her love of, say, Richardson, Crabbe, and the anti-slavery activist Thomas Clarkson, but offering few details about what she found compelling in their work.


That makes the letter Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#91 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) an especially valuable artifact. Austen is on an extended visit with their brother Edward’s family at Godmersham Park in Kent while Cassandra remains home in Chawton; amid news of the comings and goings of relatives and visitors, Austen reports that she has been rereading a well-known contemporary novel, Mary Brunton’s 1811 Self-Control.


I must confess that I have never read Self-Control. For details of its plot -- which features sustained sexual harassment, adultery, a duel, an international kidnapping, and the heroine’s desperate flight from a would-be rapist via Indian canoe – I turned to Wikipedia, ever the lazy student’s friend.


Though little-known today, in its time the novel made a big enough splash that two years earlier Austen had confessed to some trepidation about reading it: “am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled,” she told Cassandra (Letter #72).


By 1813, however, those fears were past. “I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it,” Austen writes. “I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.”


It’s not that Austen entirely eschews the melodramatic elements of Brunton’s plot. Adultery, sexual harassment, and dueling do make their way into Austen’s novels, but she is at pains to confine them within the bounds of the everyday -- because, as she makes clear here, her bottom-line commitment is to the realistic and the natural, which she privileges above the artistically pleasing (“elegantly-written”) and the morally praiseworthy (“excellently-meant”).


It’s not much, I admit, but for those of us starved for any sense of Austen’s literary-critical outlook, it’s something.


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