Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 30 2018 01:00PM

Once again, it’s time to play “If I Were a Rich Janeite.” (Cue klezmer music.) The British auctioneer Bonhams has announced that, later this fall, it will offer a first edition of Pride and Prejudice for sale.

Bonhams estimates that the three-volume set -- in original bindings, a big plus for collectors – will fetch £15,000-20,000 (about $19,300-25,740). But Austen items have a history of selling for far more than initial estimates: In 2008, the copy of Emma that Austen presented to her friend Anne Sharp sold for £180,000 ($233,400), more than double the pre-auction estimate, and two years later the same item sold again, for a whopping £325,000 ($421,500).

In 2012, Austen’s turquoise ring brought in £152,000 ($197,000), five times the pre-sale estimate, and in 2014, a copy of Emma in original bindings fetched £48,050 ($62,300).* [On the other hand, when the Sharp copy again came up for sale in 2012, it failed to reach its reserve price of £150,000 ($194,500) and remained unsold.]

Whatever the newly offered P&P eventually goes for at the auction, scheduled for November 28 in London, it’s certain to be out of my price range. Alas. (Cue sad violins.)

Lest we Janeites get too full of ourselves, it should be noted that at the same time Bonhams announced its impending Austen sale, it also publicized two other items it plans to auction: A World War II-vintage Enigma coding machine, and a rare early golf ball. (Delightful as it would be to imagine this random threesome on the same auction block, it seems unlikely that the golf ball and the Enigma machine will join P&P in Bonhams' Fine Books and Manuscripts sale.)

Given the mania for golf, perhaps it’s not surprising that the ball is expected to pull in £12,000 ($15,500), not far off the price for the Austen. And given the mania for WWII history, it’s probably equally unsurprising that the Enigma is expected to draw £100,000-150,000 ($130,000-$194,500), ten times the low estimate for the books. Still, the price differentials are a salutary reminder that, passionate as our fandom may be, it’s not the only fandom out there.

* Confusingly, the auction house described this as a world-record auction price for Emma, despite the far higher prices paid for the Sharp copy.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 27 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s characters and situations feel so real to us that it’s easy to overlook the fact that many of her stories are set in entirely fictitious places. Highbury, Meryton, Kellynch: all completely made up, despite efforts to “prove” that Sanditon is actually the southeast English town of Hastings, or that Darcy’s estate at Pemberley is based on this or that real-life stately home.

Austen creates this illusion of realism in part by sending characters who live in fictional locales on visits to real ones – places like Bath, London, Portsmouth, or Box Hill. (The website of the Jane Austen Society of North America includes a useful breakdown of real and fictitious sites in the novels.)

One of the most memorable of the real-life venues that appear in Austen’s work is Lyme Regis, the site of Louisa Musgrove’s consequential fall halfway through Persuasion. Not surprisingly, Janeites have long been eager to view the precise “steep flight” of steps on the Cobb, Lyme’s famous seawall, where Louisa insists on being “jumped down” by Captain Wentworth and is rewarded with a severe concussion and the moony, poetry-loving Captain Benwick -- a consolation prize if ever there was one.

Atop the Cobb in Lyme Regis

Earlier this month, one Janeite adventurer, British-based writer Catherine Batac Walder, chronicled her efforts to determine which of three possible candidates is the staircase Austen had in mind when she described Louisa’s fall. Seven years ago, when I visited Lyme with a JASNA tour group while researching Among the Janeites, our tour guide rehashed the same debate.

Just as I did, Walder found all three sets of stairs less precarious than the downward-sloping Cobb itself, where the intrepid walker perched on its surface is exposed to the buffeting of sea breezes, with nary a railing or handhold in sight. Still, Lyme is a beautiful and atmospheric place: it’s not hard to understand why Austen, who visited twice with her family, decided to embed this real-life location in the imaginary geography of her last completed novel.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 23 2018 01:00PM

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

The young Jane Austen was a voracious reader. We know this because her earliest works, the Juvenilia, are clever satires of everything she read – the overwrought melodramas with their impossibly handsome heroes and swooning heroines, the partisan histories masquerading as objective fact, the plays stuffed with prosy, circuitous dialogue.

Even the short letter the 20-year-old Austen wrote exactly 222 years ago today (#3 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) shows traces of this parodic impulse. Austen and two of her brothers had left the family home in Steventon the day before, and Jane’s brief note served to inform their sister, Cassandra, that they had arrived safely in London.

“Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted,” Austen writes. “Edward & Frank are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon & help us seek ours. The former we shall never see again.”

In Austen’s comic formulation, she isn’t a beloved younger sister carefully chaperoned by respectable male relatives. She’s the heroine of a sentimental melodrama, abandoned to her own devices in a threatening city where a young woman’s virtue is easily lost.

In reality, the Austens’ London trip was only a brief stopover en route to Edward Austen’s family home in Kent. A visit to Astley’s, the famous Regency equestrian circus, was about as dissipated as it got.

Or was it? Enthusiasts of the Tom-Lefroy-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life theory find it intriguing that while in London, the Austen siblings seem to have stayed with the former MP Benjamin Langlois, Tom’s mentor and great-uncle. Indeed, Austen scholar Jon Spence, author of the book that inspired the biopic Becoming Jane, argues that Austen and Lefroy saw each other there, just seven months after the day on which, Austen wrote, “I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy.”

If so, Austen’s letter contains no hint of such an exciting, not to say melodramatic-novel-worthy, development, which Cassandra would surely have been eager to hear about. Perhaps all the good stuff was in the following week’s letters, which Le Faye informs us are missing. Or perhaps all the drama of the visit took place in Austen’s playful imagination.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 20 2018 01:00PM

Fifteen years ago, Silicon Valley gazillionaire and Janeite Sandy Lerner opened Chawton House, a research library dedicated to the proposition that Jane Austen wasn’t early English history’s only interesting female writer.

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking she was, given how little we hear, even now, about all the women who were scribbling away before and during Austen’s lifetime. What’s to blame for this historical amnesia – and for the lack of visibility, remuneration, and respect that even now plagues female authors?

The list is long, of course (see under: Patriarchy), but an intriguing new project locates one culprit in the entrenched old boys’ network of rare-book dealers and collectors. Over the past three months, a newcomer to that world, London-based writer and rare-book dealer A.N. Devers, has raised more than $40,000 in a Kickstarter appeal that will fund The Second Shelf, an online rare-book shop and quarterly publication dedicated to the work of women writers.

“Book collectors help determine which writers are remembered and canonised, and which are forgotten,” Devers wrote in The Guardian this spring. “The collector trade is a part of a supply line, to readers’ bookshelves, universities, archives and libraries. Historically it has been male-dominated. . . , white, and oriented around a western canon.”

It’s fascinating to think about how collecting itself creates and perpetuates the value, both monetary and intangible, that we accord to the cultural artifacts collectors prize. Surely there’s a dissertation topic in there somewhere. (Read more about Devers’ project, and about gender issues in the book trade, here, here, here, and here.)

The project is ambitious, maybe too much so: Hard enough to launch a fledgling rare-books shop without trying to start a magazine as well. The quarterly, whose first issue is slated for publication next month, will be part rare-books catalog, part female-focused literary magazine, with some big names on the list of contributors. (Details remain sparse, but you can already buy a Second Shelf tote bag and T-shirt.)

Even if Devers has bitten off more than she can chew – time will tell -- you’ve got to love the idea, and the moxie. I learned about The Second Shelf too late to contribute to its crowd-funding campaign, but had I been prompter, I still wouldn’t have been able to afford the mouth-watering prize available to anyone pledging a Lerneresque £20,000 (nearly $25,500): an 1813 second edition of Sense and Sensibility owned by Austen’s close friend and housemate Martha Lloyd. It looks like no one else snapped it up, though, so presumably Devers still has it, if you’re interested.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 16 2018 01:00PM

The death last week of Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul prompted the customary chorus of praise for his writing, as well as the rather less customary chorus of agreement that, all told, he was a pretty awful human being—abusive to women, unkind to colleagues, arrogant about his own achievements, and sometimes racist in his views.

For Janeites, it was all rather familiar: Seven years ago, Naipaul—who was born into an Indian family in Trinidad but spent his adult life in Britain--made headlines worldwide by dissing female writers in general and Jane Austen in particular.

Asked during a 2011 interview at the Royal Geographical Society if he considered any female writer to be his equal, he replied, “I don’t think so.” Jane Austen? Nope: He "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world."

"I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,” he claimed, because of female authors' "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world. . . . And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

It’s hard to know where to begin in critiquing this farrago of stereotypical generalizations and egregious misreading. Like the Writers Guild of Great Britain, which at the time declined to “waste its breath” on a reply, one is tempted to borrow a phrase from that rank sentimentalist Jane Austen and say that Naipaul’s views on the writing of half the human race didn’t deserve the compliment of rational opposition.

Of course, plenty of people voiced such opposition anyway (for instance, here and here): Naipaul was either attacked as an exemplar of the sexism that still prevented women from getting their work published and reviewed, or dismissed as a grumpy old man whose own achievements were long in the past.

I can’t weigh in on Naipaul’s writerly virtues: He represents one of the many gaps in my reading education, though the recent spate of obituaries has convinced me to add him to my list. But if he found the clear-eyed and ironic Jane Austen sentimental, then I guess he wasn’t much of a critic.

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