Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 29 2018 02:00PM

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


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen was brimming over with the joy that only an author can fully appreciate: the thrill of holding in her hands a book that she had written.


“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London,” Jane reported to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter written exactly 205 years ago today (#79 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Cassandra was away on a visit to their eldest brother, James, and during her absence the first copy of the newly published Pride and Prejudice had arrived in Chawton.


Already, Austen was anticipating and assessing the responses to her novel. A neighbor to whom the Austens had read the book aloud – without revealing who had written it -- “really does seem to admire Elizabeth,” Austen wrote. “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”


(And who can blame her? If you can’t love Elizabeth Bennet – well, I won’t say that you’re incapable of literary appreciation, but some might.)


Like all writers, Austen also finds herself wishing she’d had one more pass at her manuscript: “There are a few Typical errors--& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear,” she notes. “But ‘I do not write for such dull Elves’ ‘As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’ ”


In context, it’s clear that Austen’s paraphrase of Walter Scott’s poem Marmion is not a global comment on how her work should be read by discerning readers; it’s just a clever, throwaway self-reassurance that her occasional lapses won’t detract from her storytelling.


Still, that hasn’t stopped more than one critic from appropriating the “dull elves” remark as an all-purpose slur on those who purportedly fail to understand Austen’s true meaning, whatever the critic takes that meaning to be. Ingenuity, indeed.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 25 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s relationship to the romance novel is a vexed topic. For every article calling her the founding mother of the genre (or perhaps the grandmother, with a line of descent through Georgette Heyer), you’ll find just as many insisting that she is a social satirist who just happens to write about heterosexual romance.


My own romance-novel addiction is moderate-to-severe, and, appropriately enough, I developed it while researching Among the Janeites, which required me to read a boatload of Austen fanfic. Before long, I was branching out into non-Austen-inspired Regency romance, and then non-Regency historical romance, and then contemporary romance, and . . . now I have more than two hundred titles on my Kindle, not even counting the Austen spinoffs. (But really! I can stop anytime I want!)


Personally, I would not call Austen a romance novelist: Her stories never have the laser-like focus on the central relationship that is the hallmark of much modern-day romance writing, and she is more interested in recording her heroines’ moral development than in cataloguing the butterflies they feel when they accidentally brush fingertips with their heroes. It’s the Austen movies, with their dashing lead actors and swoony proposal scenes, that have convinced a generation of readers that Austen is a romance writer.


Still, I cannot deny that by making the question of who a young woman should marry into a central preoccupation of fiction, Austen planted a seed that has now flowered into arguably the most vibrant sector of American publishing. And so I was rather charmed by the latest news about The Ripped Bodice, an all-romance indie bookstore in Culver City, California, run by a pair of sisters.


One corner of the shop, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek, houses Fitz’s General Store, “devoted to merchandise—tote bags, calendars, candles—featuring their Chihuahua, Fitzwilliam Waffles (after Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).” (The dog has his own Instagram account, too.)


It’s hard to object to people who: a) like romance novels, b) observe the Janeite tradition of naming pets after Austen characters, and c) have managed to channel the devotion to quasi-Janeite merchandise into a method of supporting independent bookselling. Plus, the dog is pretty cute.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 22 2018 02:00PM

Like all Internet-connected Janeites, I had a good giggle last week about the Onion story headlined, “Man Wishes Women In Crowded Bar Would Let Him Read Jane Austen in Peace.”


In the Onion's characteristically deadpan prose, the piece purported to tell the story of Russell Goldin, a Californian – from the oh-so-appropriately-named city of Modesto -- who could barely get through a page of Pride and Prejudice without being hit on by female patrons of O’Donnell’s Pub. “I came here to drink red wine and be transported to the world of the 18th-century British landed gentry, not make flirtatious small talk,” the fictitious Goldin complained.


I suppose I should sigh at the widespread but fallacious assumption underlying the humor: that no man would ever read Jane Austen – at least, not in public -- for any purpose other than attracting women, presumed to be the sole genuine enthusiasts for Austen’s novels. But I’ll give the always-hilarious Onion a pass: In my book, it can do no wrong.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 15 2018 02:00PM

Last month, the Washington Post drew well-earned Janeite derision when it published an article exploring the astonishing news that Jane Austen wrote about marriage but never married. (Turns out that novelists make up stuff they haven’t experienced personally! Who knew?)


Perhaps news of this teapot tempest didn’t cross the pond: Tomorrow is the London premiere of a show I’ve mentioned before -- “Austen: The Musical” – which is apparently obsessed with the very same non-issue.


"The question we ask and ultimately try to answer in the show,” the musical’s author, Rob Winlow, told the London Evening Standard, “is how come Jane Austen wrote so eloquently about romantic affairs when she had seemingly few loving relationships and never married?"


Leaving aside the fact that, in my humble opinion, this is perhaps the least interesting question that one could possibly ask about Jane Austen, I must take issue with the claim that “she had seemingly few loving relationships.” Austen was part of a large and close-knit family: at a minimum, we are pretty sure that she adored her father, was close to two or three of her brothers, corresponded regularly with her oldest nieces, maintained a number of lifelong friendships with women about her own age, and was almost inseparable from her sister.


This is hardly the portrait of someone whose emotional life was a desert. Unless, that is, your definition of “loving relationship” includes only heterosexual romantic relationships. Which is kind of, you know, sexist.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 11 2018 02:00PM

Some years ago, I attended a picnic sponsored by my local branch of the Jane Austen Society of North America, to which a fellow JASNA member had brought her small dog. Like many Janeites, she had named him after one of her favorite Austen characters. As a result, halfway through the afternoon, we all heard the witness to a moment of canine discourtesy gasp out a truly unexpected sentence: “Mr. Knightley just peed in Deborah’s purse!”


(As indeed he had. Luckily, the purse was washable.)


I’m not a pet-owner myself, but I have long enjoyed hearing about pets with Austen-related names. So I was delighted to stumble upon (a few weeks late, but never mind), this “Pet of the Week” article in the Sunday Post, a Scottish weekly, seeking a home for a black guinea pig named. . . Mr. Darcy.


Guinea pigs leave me cold, as a rule, but this one looks about as appealing as it’s possible for a rodent to be, even if his resemblance to either Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen is notional.


Nevertheless, the animal seems to have taken his famous name very much to heart. According to the article, Mr. Darcy “can be a little scatty upon being picked up,” but “he soon settles and will happily sit on your lap and enjoys being the centre of attention,” even eating out of your hand “if the mood takes him.”


Basically, that’s the plot of Pride and Prejudice right there. Mr. Darcy: difficult at first, but soon eating out of your hand, and always the center of attention.


For potential adoptive owners, the Scottish branch of the SPCA sounded only one cautionary note: “Mr Darcy has previously had tiffs when living with another male guinea pig.”


No word on the name of that unfortunate erstwhile roommate, but my money is on Mr. Wickham.


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