Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 4 2017 01:00PM

Collecting copies of Jane Austen’s books is a popular Janeite pastime. The wealthy seek out rare and valuable first editions. The globe-trotting track down translations in every country they visit. The artistic look for beautiful, unusual, or completely silly cover designs.


And now we have word of a new miniature edition of Austen’s Juvenilia, packaged in an attractive floral cover. As a bonus, it comes with a Gucci handbag.


I admit it’s possible that the handbag, which retails for $3,500 to $7,500, depending on style and materials, is the main attraction for certain buyers. But I prefer to concentrate on the pocket-size Austen (pictured here – scroll down) that Gucci has thrown in at no extra charge.


Gucci seems to be on a bit of an Austen kick this year: back in February, the invitation to the company’s Milan fashion show came in the form of a vinyl record whose B side featured the rapper A$AP Rocky reading Captain Wentworth’s love letter to Anne Elliot. And during the show itself, models carried clutch purses designed to look like copies of Persuasion (pictured here -- scroll down).


Why Austen, you may ask? Gucci’s web site explains that the Juvenilia are “short stories written by English writer Jane Austen during her teenage years from 1787-1793, a time during which she was free from censorship or societal pressure. The creative chaos and the continuous contradictions which characterize the stories are the same pillars we witness in Gucci’s collections.”


This pitch sounds a bit like a (badly written and commercialized) version of the familiar thesis that Austen was able to express her true self only in her madcap adolescent writings and was later forced to tamp down her authentically anarchic spirit in order to get published.


Whatever you think of that view -- I'm not convinced, but never mind -- the main reason Austen was “free from censorship or societal pressure” while writing the Juvenilia is that, as far as we know, they were never read by anyone outside her family until long afte her death. Presumably, Gucci would prefer a bit more public exposure for its products.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2017 01:00PM

“At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy,” the 20-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister in January 1796. “My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”


Even with no flirtatious suitor in the picture, it’s hard not to channel Jane Austen’s melancholy tears, for today – just six weeks after the bicentenary of Austen’s death -- the day is come that will see the end of the discussion boards at the Republic of Pemberley, the web’s largest Austen fan site for the past twenty years. Although the site’s static content – including the archive of original fan fiction and the compilation of well-researched posts on Austen’s life and times – will remain, evolving discussions among Janeite obsessives have been relocated to Pemberley’s Facebook group.


I was shocked and saddened when I learned the news earlier this month, via an announcement from Pemberley’s volunteer site manager, Myretta Robens, but the fiscal writing has been on the wall for some time now. Five years ago, a change in Google’s ad policy threatened the community’s survival. Three years ago, Pemberley downsized from its expansive original site to a more streamlined version. Last year, only a spate of last-minute contributions saved it from going dark.


When Robens, a New England technology manager, and Amy Bellinger, a Chicago freelance writer, founded Pemberley in May 1997, Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt Austenmania was at its height. By the time I wrote about it in Among the Janeites, years after I’d fallen in love with the place myself, Pemberley was getting five to ten million hits per month from 150,000 unique visitors hailing from 165 countries.


But times change. The Austen frenzy may have cooled – though you wouldn’t know it from the voluminous and enthusiastic coverage of last month’s bicentenary – and other forms of social media have siphoned off some of the community-building impulses that drew so many Janeites to the conversations at Pemberley.


Will Pemberley’s polite and literate ethos flourish on Facebook? Not everyone plans to find out: In the month since Robens announced the changes, a number of Pemberleans have given notice that they won’t be coming along to the new venue -- because of privacy concerns, disdain for Facebook’s corporate policies, or fear that Pemberley’s uniquely civilized form of discourse will be coarsened and corrupted in a more freewheeling social media space.


Although I’ve joined the Facebook group, I’m not acclimated yet. It still feels like a Dashwood-level comedown – renting a room in a noisy boarding house, when we’ve been accustomed to living in a quiet cottage of our own. But Facebook is free, and presumably moderating the discussions there will demand far less unpaid labor from the dedicated volunteers who have run Pemberley for so long.


As of last night, Pemberley’s discussion groups were still active. At the Pride & Prejudice board, posters were debating the likely quality of the planned new ITV adaptation of the novel. At the All Other Austen board, they were recommending Austen biographies and wondering about the size of Anne Elliot’s dowry. On Read & View, they were discussing Poldark, Dunkirk, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid’s Tale.


It felt poignant to eavesdrop on all these conversations, knowing that they would fall silent so soon. The death of a community – or even its metamorphosis into a different kind of community -- isn’t quite like the death of a person, but it’s not entirely dissimilar, either. It’s still an ending, and endings are sad.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 28 2017 01:00PM

Among Britain’s many contributions to world culture, the pub quiz – a trivia bowl stripped of the unpleasantly stressful requirement to buzz in before the other team -- ranks high. You grab a pencil and a couple of friends, head down to the local watering-hole, and prepare for glory or humiliation, depending on how good you are at remembering random geography facts, the records of your favorite cricket teams, or the titles of obscure Elton John songs.


Copious supplies of beer and crisps (that’s potato chips on this side of the pond) may or may not assist in the endeavor. Prizes – sometimes just more beer and crisps – are awarded to the teams with the highest point totals.


I love this stuff. So you can imagine the wail of disappointment with which I greeted the news that a Jane Austen Pub Quiz is taking place this Thursday in a place too far away for me to reach it. In England, in fact, at an Oxford pub called The Head of the River.


The Oxford branch of the Society of Young Publishers, which hosts professional and social events for people new to the world of publishing, is sponsoring this joyous chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination of two of the greatest aspects of Britishness. They promise fabulous prizes and, appropriately enough, a matchmaking service for those arriving without a team of fellow Janeites. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of an encyclopaedic knowledge of Jane Austen must be in want of a pub quiz!” they say. “Join us to sort your Darcys from your Dashwoods,” they add.


I may cry.


I do not currently have plans to be in Oxford on Thursday. But if a Young Publisher would like to send me a plane ticket, I could be persuaded.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 24 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen was never squeamish about money-making. In a November 1814 letter to her niece Fanny Knight (#114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), Austen discussed the likelihood that the recently published Mansfield Park would merit a second edition.


“People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” Austen wrote. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.”


And so I suspect Austen would have been delighted to hear that last month’s commemoration of the bicentenary of her death reaped financial dividends for Basingstoke, the largest town in the vicinity of her birthplace in Hampshire, England.


The Basingstoke Observer noted this week that the town’s tourist traffic was up 80 percent in July, amid the festivities surrounding the Austen anniversary on the eighteenth of that month. Among the likely tourist draws: the public art trail of book-shaped benches with Austen themes; an exhibit at the local museum about the balls the youthful Austen attended in Basingstoke; and the unveiling of a life-size Austen statue in the town center.


Not surprisingly, town officials hope to keep the magic going even after this Austen anniversary year is over. They’re already encouraging visitors to take pictures with the Austen statue and post them online. Their proposed hashtag: #SelfieWithJane. Although I think #PewterForBasingstoke works, too.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 21 2017 01:00PM

The Jane Austen bicentenary is already a month in the rearview mirror, but cute little tie-in pieces are still turning up online – sometimes new, sometimes overlooked in the mad July 18 rush.


Here are three that have caught my attention recently:


-- “If Jane Austen characters used dating apps”: The BBC imagines how Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham would behave in the Age of Tinder. Not surprisingly, Darcy’s profile is sparse – frankly, I don’t think he’d ever stoop to online dating in the first place, but I’ll suspend my disbelief – and yet Elizabeth swipes right anyway. (Hey, the profile photo is of Colin Firth, so who can blame her?) Funniest touch: Wickham texting an unsolicited pic of his, um, sword. Though I suspect Wickham would be smoother than that. Sword pics seem like more of a John Thorpe move.


--“History of Jane Austen (in One Take)”: History Bombs, which produces fast, hip educational videos and supporting materials for classroom use, offers a five-minute rap summarizing the basics of Jane Austen’s life. It’s funny and entertaining, and of course it’s better that kids should meet Jane Austen than not. But surely if you’re teaching history, you shouldn’t make factual errors about even relatively minor matters like Jane Austen’s age at death or the terms on which she published Emma. *


--“Jane Austen’s facts and figures – in charts”: The Guardian offers an intriguing graphic tour through such matters as the ages of Austen’s heroines, the relative incomes of her characters, and the proportion of unhappy marriages portrayed in her novels (42 percent, they claim). I would quibble over some details – Persuasion’s spontaneous after-dinner dance for three or four couples doesn’t qualify as a ball in my book – and it’s a shame that the Google doc laying out the data in more detail seems to have vanished. Still, this feature should be good for starting a few conversations.



* Thanks to Marian Wilson Kimber for bringing this one to my attention.


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