Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, May 7 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s mature novels are not, by and large, very foodie. Although important scenes occur over meals – think Mary Crawford’s unfortunate “Rears and Vices” joke – Austen seldom mentions what dishes the characters are eating at the time. Indeed, a preoccupation with food is usually the marker of a fussy, hypochondriacal, or excessively sensuous nature: the gruel-eating Mr. Woodhouse of Emma, the picky Parkers of Sanditon, the gluttonous Dr. Grant of Mansfield Park.

So it’s slightly odd that Penguin Random House has chosen Pride and Prejudice as one of the two inaugural titles in its “Book to Table Reading Experience,” out this fall, which pairs a classic text with a set of recipes chosen by celebrity chefs.

The new edition of P&P – a book that, if memory serves, includes only one or two fleeting mentions of the food served at the Bennet table and the Bingley ball – will include a set of Martha Stewart recipes for “tea-time treats” like scones, tartlets and macarons. The dishes sound mouth-watering, but you won’t find any of them mentioned in P&P – not least because the fancy high-tea menu that Americans think of as quintessentially British is largely a creation of the post-Austen Victorian age.

Still, Penguin is hardly unique in trying to capitalize simultaneously on the Austen craze and the foodie trend. Over the years, food historians and Austen scholars with varying credentials have brought us The Jane Austen Cookbook, Dinner with Jane Austen, Dinner with Mr. Darcy, and not one but two versions of Tea with Jane Austen (here and here). (My unfortunate attempts at Austen-era cooking are chronicled here.)

The gimmick this time is the format, in which, as Penguin’s website informed us last week, the recipes will appear alongside food-related photos, illustrations, and the “full, unabridged text of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”

Wait – what?

Yes, in its initial form the website listing for Penguin’s new foodie P&P included an unfortunate error (since corrected -- alas for the gods of comedy), no doubt attributable to a less-than-judicious use of cut-and-paste. See, the other recipe-laden book in this new series is, indeed, A Christmas Carol, decked out with holiday recipes created by not only Stewart but also Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, and Trisha Yearwood.

Really, A Christmas Carol is a far more intuitive choice for this series, since the Christmas Present section of the story, especially, is stuffed with evocative descriptions of holiday food, from goose to plum pudding. In fact, we could amuse ourselves coming up with a whole list of books better suited to this project than P&P. (Tom Jones? To the Lighthouse?) Meanwhile, however, I’ll be baking Martha Stewart’s maple-glazed scones.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 3 2018 01:00PM

Apparently, judges just love Jane Austen.

Or so Ohio State University Professor Matthew H. Birkhold claims in a recent article in the online journal Electric Literature. Birkhold argues that, while judicial references to such canonical male authors as Shakespeare, Kafka, Melville, and Dickens predominate, Austen tops the list for female writers.

Sort of, anyway: “The most-cited female authors include Harper Lee, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen,” Birkhold writes. “Only the last, though, is cited not only for one work but across her entire oeuvre.”

Since Harper Lee only wrote one book and Mary Shelley only wrote one that anyone outside of a graduate program has ever heard of, this Austen-as-judge’s-pet trope is starting to look a tad questionable, and we’re only in the second paragraph. Things get even sketchier in the next one, when Birkhold tells us that, since the first judicial reference to Emma in 1978, Austen’s “works have been invoked” twenty-seven times, not to mention the “many” references to Austen that don’t quote any specific text.

Across American courts at all levels and across all jurisdictions, then, we’ve got a single published Austen citation roughly every eighteen months, plus an unspecified number of more general mentions. Offhand, it doesn’t sound like a groundswell, especially when it turns out that half those twenty-seven citations are of the painfully ubiquitous “It is a truth universally acknowledged that [fill in the blank]” variety.

So I’m skeptical of the premise, but – go ahead! Explain why judges mention Jane Austen, however often they do!

Turns out that judges are a lot like pretty much everyone else who goes around mentioning Jane Austen. Either she’s a relationship expert -- “Jane Austen is cited as an authority on the complexity of life, particularly with regard to the intricacies of relationships,” Birkhold writes – or she’s an all-purpose symbol of classiness, refinement, and social distinction: “Judges cite Austen as a shorthand for erudition and sophistication, to demarcate who is a part of high society (often, lawyers) and who is not (often, defendants), reflecting the novelist’s popular reception.”

Can’t argue with the relationship-expert part: obviously, we Janeites think Our Author has profound insight into what makes families and romantic partnerships tick. But I can’t help giggling at the class part.

It’s not just that Austen’s novels often interrogate the very notions of class that too many readers (and, apparently, judges) attribute to her – although, of course, they do.

It’s that, in Austen’s day, many of those who made their living in the law were not considered of the highest social rank. Think of the Bingley sisters, sneering at the Bennet girls’ Uncle Phillips, “an attorney in Meryton.” Getting your hands dirty in the law was just a step above (gasp!) making a living in trade.

Though probably the Bingleys would have thought better of Uncle Phillips if he’d been a judge.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 30 2018 01:00PM

It’s not every day that the first question a newspaper asks of a newly appointed government official is “Are your parents big Jane Austen fans?”

But that’s what a Vancouver Sun reporter asked the non-profit CEO who became lieutenant governor of the Canadian province of British Columbia last week. Since the new appointee’s name is Janet Austin, she’s probably heard this question before.

In any case, the answer is yes: Indeed, the family are such fans that when Janet’s sister Joan* got married, they presented her new husband with a membership in the Jane Austen Society. At Janet’s farewell lunch, a friend “gave a talk called ‘Jane Austen talks about Janet Austin’ just using Jane Austen quotes,” Austin said. “We sometimes talk to each other in Jane Austen quotes.”

No doubt a deep familiarity with Austen’s novels will come in handy in the work of government, where Austin is sure to encounter any number of Lady Catherines, Mr. Collinses, General Tilneys and Mrs. Norrises. Here’s hoping she also meets a few Elinor Dashwoods as well.

* Joan Austin and Janet Austin? The parents couldn't just break down and name one of them Jane?

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 26 2018 01:00PM

Despite my near-total lack of interest in video games, I am always happy to hear of another game-creator developing an Austen-themed product (here and here, for instance), presumably with an eye firmly on the female market.

The latest is Austen Translation, slated for a May 1 release, wherein you play “a young unmarried woman of uncertain means who is closing in on her expiry date.” You attend four social events, during which you must outflank other eager bachelorettes and land a suitable marital prospect. (“Failure to marry is not an option,” warns the governessy British voice narrating the promotional trailer.)

The multiracial mix among both suitors and bachelorettes reflects a progressivism notably absent in Austenworld, and some of the scenarios teased in the trailer do not sound terribly Austenian. “An unscrupulous rival plants a needle in a rival’s hay bale seat”? Even Lucy Ferrars is subtler than that! (Also: hay bales?)

But I’ll happily take marital maneuvering and nasty needles over the usual gory fare of traditionally male-oriented video games. The stakes may be high – even, arguably, life and death – and the emotional abuse may be violent, but at least you won’t have to clean up any blood.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 23 2018 01:00PM

These days, it’s de rigueur in some circles to think of Jane Austen as a closet lefty: subversive social satirist, anti-slavery ideologue, radical feminist critic of the patriarchy. But a recent mini-tsunami of news about Austen fans with decidedly more conservative orientations is a healthy reminder that the Janeite faith has no political litmus test.

Exhibit A: Nerves of steel. . . and the heart of a Janeite?

Tammie Jo Shults is the preternaturally calm and competent pilot who successfully landed Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 last week, after a catastrophic accident that took out an engine and killed a passenger. Apparently, she also has a fondness for Our Jane.

Or so we can infer from a Dallas Morning News article that quotes longtime friend Staci Thompson as saying that she and Shults – a former Navy fighter pilot and devout Baptist -- “still get together to watch Hallmark films and Jane Austen movies.”

OK, the movies are not the books. And I’m not thrilled to have anything Austen – even filmed adaptations – closely linked to Hallmark films, which have a justified reputation for treacly mediocrity. But it’s not surprising to find that a woman who pioneered in a male-dominated field by being twice as good as the guys may have an affinity for a writer who did the same thing.

Exhibit B: Wet shirts and waterboarding?

Gina Haspel, the first female nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is not a popular choice on the left, where her involvement in the post-9/11 torture of terrorism suspects is seen as a fatal taint. But according to the New York Times, the CIA is enthusiastically pushing her candidacy, preferring a known quantity with a long agency career over whatever political partisan they might get otherwise.

To humanize her, CBS News reports, “The CIA has been slowly and systematically pulling back the curtain on Haspel, releasing limited information about the contours of her career and a smattering of her interests, describing her as a polyglot Johnny Cash fan who reads Jane Austen novels.”

I’ve heard plenty of Janeites talk about Austen as an antidote to the chaos and ugliness of the modern world, a vehicle of escape into a kinder, gentler time. It’s not a vision of Austen I necessarily embrace – but if anyone needed such an escape, I’d imagine it would have been a CIA officer overseeing a torture site.

Exhibit C: Caroline Bingley for First Lady?

The Episcopal priest who spoke at former First Lady Barbara Bush’s funeral over the weekend undoubtedly meant well when he sought to connect Bush’s favorite book (Pride and Prejudice! Who knew?) with her famous literacy campaign.

If only he’d had a Janeite – maybe even Bush herself – to help him out before he decided to rely on that line that turns up whenever you Google for Austen quotes about books: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”

Yes, it’s true: A Janeite’s funeral included approving mention of Caroline Bingley. The mind reels.

Luckily, the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr. recovered with a touching picture of the famously straight-talking Bush in heaven, taking full advantage of an opportunity we’d all like to have: “My guess is she’s already hunted down Jane Austen and has said, ‘Well, how did things turn out with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet?’ ” Levenson said. “Or, knowing Barbara as we all do, she may be telling Jane how things should have turned out.”

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