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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 27 2018 02:00PM

The voracious interest in all things Jane Austen has inspired plenty of scholarship about her ancestors and her collateral descendants – Austen ghosts, haunting the places she, and they, once lived.


Herewith a Christmastime roundup of some recent stories about Jane Austen’s past, present and future:


* The ghost of Austens past: I’ve noted before that Jane Austen’s aunt Philadelphia, one of her father’s sisters, is a fascinating and under-studied character. So I read with interest an account of Philadelphia’s Indian connections published on Samaa, the website of a Pakistani satellite news channel.


Not much here is new – and I take with a shakerful of salt the suggestion that Jane Austen’s silence on the subject of India implies family censorship – but it’s always useful to be reminded of how close were the ties that bound the Austens’ country rectory to the wider world of empire.


* The ghost of Austen’s present: Beginning in 2020, Sydney Gardens, the park the Austen women frequented during their peripatetic years in Bath, will undergo a makeover, courtesy of £2.7 million (about $3.4 million) in British government money.


Along with the replanting of flower gardens and the restoration of historic neoclassical structures, “Sydney Gardens will become Bath’s first dementia-friendly park,” according to a news report. Whatever dementia-friendliness entails – the story leaves that up to the reader to imagine – Janeite visitors to Bath will surely enjoy strolling in a Sydney Gardens that more closely resembles the park of Austen’s day.


* The ghost of Austens future: Although Jane Austen had no children herself, four of her brothers reproduced prolifically, and many of these nieces and nephews went on to have interesting lives. Sophia Hillan, an Irish novelist and academic who has written a non-fiction account of three Austen nieces who settled in Ireland, expands the story in a recent piece in the Irish Times.


Hillan's account of the later adventures of Marianne Knight, Austen's niece, and Marianne's own niece, Cassandra Hill, is a tale worthy of a Victorian novel, complete with political agitation, a semi-scandalous marriage, a dollop of proto-feminism, and the careless unkindness of male inheritors toward their female poor relations. Perfect reading for any Janeite’s holiday fireside.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2018 02:00PM

Tomorrow is Christmas, the day on which a larger-than-life personage employing semi-equine transport suddenly appears in our homes, bringing good things for the good and not-so-good things for the naughty.


You may think Jane Austen didn’t have this covered. But you would be wrong.


Yes, it’s true that Christmas comes up only once in a while in Austen’s work, and seldom as an occasion of joy and revelry.


Of the three novels that refer to the holiday, only Persuasion gives us a cheerful family scene. The Christmas section of Mansfield Park highlights Mary Crawford’s inability to enjoy tranquil home pleasures, and as for the fiasco of Emma’s Christmas Eve party. . .


Austen’s proliferation of unhappy, or entirely absent, Yuletides isn’t all that surprising: As Austen scholar Devoney Looser recently explained, for Regency folk, the holiday was a relatively low-key affair, lacking the stockings-trees-and-adorable-children froufrou that was popularized by the Victorians and that still informs our modern conception of the season.


But there is at least one Austen work in which the Christmas season is indeed heralded by the arrival of a larger-than-life personage employing equine transport and, arguably, calling down appropriate rewards and punishments upon the good and the not-so-good. My text is drawn from Lady Susan, Letter 3, as Catherine Vernon writes to her mother, Lady De Courcy:


“My dear Mother

I am very sorry to tell you that it will not be in our power to keep our promise of spending our Christmas with you; and we are prevented that happiness by a circumstance which is not likely to make us any amends. Lady Susan . . . has declared her intention of visiting us almost immediately.”


True, as far as we can tell from Austen's text, the carriage that takes Lady Susan to Churchill, the Vernons’ home, is drawn by horses, not reindeer, and arrives at the front door, not on the roof. And honesty compels me to admit that, apart from one further passing reference, Christmas is never mentioned again in the course of the novella. But aside from all that. . .


Oh, fine: I’ll concede that casting the poisonous Lady Susan as Santa Claus may be something of a stretch. But think about it: an estranged relative turns up unexpectedly in a small town, disrupting family holiday plans and sparking romantic entanglements? Obviously, Lady Susan is the latest Jane-Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie -- and written by Jane Austen herself, no less. Just add hot chocolate and stir.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 20 2018 02:00PM

Eighteen months ago, not a single statue of Jane Austen was on public display anywhere in the world. And now, it appears, we will soon have three within a ten-mile radius.


Back in July 2017, the Hampshire town of Basingstoke, where Austen shopped and danced but never lived, unveiled a bronze figure of the author to commemorate the bicentenary of her death. In June of this year, the nearby village of Chawton, where Austen not only lived but also wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, installed its own, smaller version of the same statue.


And last month, Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, quietly inaugurated a fund-raising campaign for its own Austen bronze, to be installed in the cathedral’s Inner Close. The sculptor is Martin Jennings, who has created public statues of everyone from George Orwell to the late Queen Mother. He envisions Austen backgrounded by a tree, a quill pen, and the famous writing desk on display in nearby Chawton cottage, aka Jane Austen’s House Museum. (I’m not bowled over by the mockup visible in this video, but I’m no art critic, so don’t pay attention to me.)


The cathedral has set an ambitious-sounding fundraising target of £250,000 (about $316,000) for the project, but so far its publicity efforts seem curiously low-key, at least to a pushy American like me. Although I have a Google alert for online mentions of Austen’s name, the campaign never surfaced there; instead, I stumbled across the Winchester effort by accident – only to learn that a JustGiving page has apparently been operational for nearly a month.


It looks as if I’m not the only Janeite in the dark: As of this morning, the crowdsourcing had raised a grand total of £71.65 ($90) from three donors, one of whom cheerfully commented, apropos of exhorting continued effort, “It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do!” (**headdesk**)


Meanwhile, when a local newspaper reporter went looking for a quote last week, “a cathedral spokesman declined to discuss the Jane in the Close project.” Umm – what? It’s two weeks before the year’s biggest gift-giving holiday, and you don’t seize the chance to publicize your effort to raise money to commemorate one of the world’s most beloved novelists? It might be time to shop for a new spokesman.


Perhaps the spokesman is speechless with bemusement (which I share) at the proliferation of images of someone whose face is essentially unknowable. Whether you meet Austen's statue in Basingstoke, Chawton, or WInchester -- or wherever town next chooses to erect a bronze version of Our Jane -- you'll always be meeting a fiction. Which, come to think about it, is actually kind of appropriate.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 17 2018 02:00PM

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


It’s not always easy to tell when Jane Austen, master of irony, wants you to take her words at face value. And perhaps that’s why we’re still arguing about the self-assessment contained in the letter she finished writing exactly 202 years ago today (#146 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). That letter – begun a day earlier, on Austen's forty-first birthday, the last she would ever celebrate – was written to her eighteen-year-old nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen (later Austen-Leigh).


Edward, as the family called him, had just arrived home at Steventon -- where his father, James, the oldest Austen brother, served as rector -- after finishing his high school studies at Winchester College. Like his older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy, Edward was a would-be novelist, and apparently two and a half chapters of his manuscript-in-progress had recently gone missing.


“It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them,” Austen writes in a letter welcoming him home. “Two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something.—I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?—How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”


It’s clear that much of this passage – indeed, much of this whole letter -- is written tongue in cheek. Elsewhere, Austen teasingly encourages Edward to come clean at last about the dissipations of his high school life and, amid much news of the comings and goings of various Austen brothers, directs him not to “be tired of reading the word Uncle, for I have not done with it.”


Obviously, she didn’t really think anyone would suspect her of stealing Edward’s chapters, even if her rave review of his work was an honest critical appraisal and not merely the kindness of a doting aunt encouraging a boy she had known since birth.


So did her irony extend to the apparently self-deprecating two-inches-of -ivory assessment of her own work – perhaps the most famous passage in all of Austen’s correspondence? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I would guess the answer is both yes and no.


Austen surely didn’t long to write with the unpolished exuberance of a teenage boy, and it seems likely that she knew her labors produced the very opposite of “little effect.” Her performance of ladylike modesty is, at least partly, just that: a performance, whose insincerity she perhaps expected Edward to recognize and find amusing.


But there’s enough penetration in the two-inches-of-ivory passage to suggest that Austen wasn’t being entirely ironic. She wasn’t wrong to associate her method with the delicacy and precision of fine brushwork – and certainly she knew that fine brushwork requires great skill. Nor was she wrong to note that her canvas is restricted – though whether that restriction amounts to laser-focus or limitation is a never-ending debate.


Ironic yet serious, self-deprecating yet quietly confident: The very passage in which Austen seems to play down her own artistry bears witness to its inexhaustible subtlety.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 13 2018 02:00PM

Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Jane Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”


Let me paraphrase: Of all authors with a reputation for writing romances, Austen is the most difficult to catch in the act of writing something romantic.


Look, for example, at the latest work of the Internet Truthiness Quote Machine: a recent piece on the website of Travel + Leisure magazine offering “101 Romantic Messages to Keep the Love Alive While You're Apart.” The suggestions include a list of fifty “Romantic Quotes for Love Letters,” two of them attributed to Jane Austen.


Given Austen’s popular reputation as a purveyor of swoony, rose-tinted chick lit about handsome young men courting pretty girls in high-waisted dresses while wandering the grounds of palatial English estates, you’d think it would be quick work to find Austen quotes for such a list.


And yet only one of the two quotes that T+L attributes to Austen was actually written by her, and that one – “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope . . . . I have loved none but you,” from Persuasion – seems an odd choice for a message to an accepted lover, since it bespeaks the writer’s uncertainty that his feelings will be returned.


Meanwhile, the other quote – “To love is to burn, to be on fire”— is not by Austen at all. It’s a line from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which the ITQM has been busily misattributing for years. (For details, check out this excellent blog post by researcher Sue Brewton, a woman whose obsession with misquotation rivals my own. I can’t believe I’ve only just stumbled across the work of this soul sister.)


So of T+L’s two Austen love quotes, one is faux and one is out of context. That record is bad, yes, but hardly unprecedented. As blog readers know, I’ve been banging on about both problems for years. Indeed, one of the leading examples of out-of-context distortions concerns a love quote: As I’ve noted before, the supposedly swoony start to Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, in Pride and Prejudice -- "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” – is, in context, not so romantic after all. *


But for would-be Austen love-quoters, the main problem is that despite her reputation for lovey-doveyness, which largely derives from the movies based on her work, Austen isn’t actually a romance writer: she’s a satirist whose stories happen to concern courtship, the crucial moment of decision in a genteel young woman’s life. Thus it is that these alleged romance novels offer a startling paucity of love scenes that Internet listicle-makers can mine for ardent tidbits.


Janeites are well aware of Austen’s stinginess in this regard. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon propose to the Dashwood sisters offstage; Edmund Bertram sues for Fanny’s hand in a couple of highly ironic summary paragraphs; Catherine Morland is “assured of [Henry Tilney’s] affection” in words that readers must imagine for themselves; and Darcy’s successful proposal is the height of respectful restraint – “My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” I’m partial to Mr. Knightley’s declaration – “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” – but note that this is a love quote about the impossibility of love quotes. Captain Wentworth stands alone among Austen heroes in his forthright avowal of his feelings, and as for the heroines – well, let’s just say that Austen’s description of Emma’s reply to her suitor (“What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”) pretty much covers them all.


Why is it so hard to find certifiably, one-hundred-percent-genuine, heart-warming Jane Austen quotes about love? Mr. Knightley’s proposal offers a clue. Unlike the denizens of our therapeutic age, Austen is suspicious of people who talk fluently about their most intense and private emotions. If you can manufacture beautiful phrases about love, she suggests, you probably don’t have much time left to actually experience it. I shudder to imagine what she would have thought about people who turn to Internet listicles for advice on romantic messaging.



* And lest I find myself tempted to stop obsessing on this topic, just a couple of days after I published this post, the website Everyday Power -- founded in 2010 by a middle-school English teacher who wanted to provide "relevant and meaningful material he felt his students needed to experience" -- produced a list of "50 Love Quotes For Your Husband To Make Him Feel Appreciated." The three Jane Austen quotes on the list include Mr. Darcy's first proposal (twice! Don't ask me), and yet another not-in-Austen line -- “My heart is and always will be yours" -- from Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility screenplay. According to the site, Everyday Power is "a curriculum resource for many schools across the country." The mind boggles.



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