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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 29 2018 01:00PM

New this week: The latest entry in the annals of Jane Austen Bizarro World (or, to be honest, Jane Austen-Adjacent Bizarro World).


Three years ago, it seems, a high-powered literary couple – prominent Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, provost of Oxford University’s Worcester College; and his wife, Paula Byrne, author of the well-regarded 2013 biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – received the first of an eventual seventeen very nasty anonymous letters.


The missives, reminiscent of the poison-pen letters in Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers’ wonderful Oxford mystery novel, were addressed to Bate. But they mostly concerned Byrne, whom the letter-writer described as fat, ugly, vain, semi-literate, poorly educated, self-promoting, widely hated, a bad mother and – oh, unkindest cut! – a vulgar Tweeter. Ouch! (See the story here and here.)


(Inevitably, the over-the-top nature of these insults invites giggles. But I don’t mean to scoff at Byrne’s hurt feelings; nothing can sap your confidence more than wondering who out there secretly hates you.)


The couple reported the matter to the police, who say the letters could constitute harassment. No arrests, apparently, though Bate and Byrne – no doubt deploying their well-practiced powers of literary exegesis – are persuaded the writer is a woman. (They suspect “a former colleague of his,” according to the account in the London Sunday Times. Ah, academia!)


Meanwhile, as befits a story with literary overtones, the Sunday Times’ online comments seem evenly divided between speculation over the identity of the letter-writer and discussion of whether his/her use of the locution “bored of” is a grammatical crime or not. (I say yes. But I’m a pedant.)


Why are we hearing of this kerfuffle only now, more than three years after the first letter arrived, you may wonder? Perhaps it is not coincidental that Byrne is about to publish a novel, Look To Your Wife, wherein the second wife of a famous man receives nasty anonymous letters after she begins letting her hair down on Twitter. Self-promoting? Well, yes – but aren’t we all?


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 5 2017 01:00PM

I love the British press. When it comes to Jane Austen, they can manufacture a story out of the thinnest gossamer. Even recycled gossamer, as it turns out.


Last week, several UK news outlets (see here, here and here) were shocked – shocked! – to learn that the image of Jane Austen that will appear on the new £10 note, set for release in September, is somewhat controversial. The Austen portrait chosen by the Bank of England has been “air-brushed,” “prettified,” or “retouched,” they asserted, quoting recent Austen biographers Paula Byrne and Lucy Worsley.


Regular readers of my blog may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. Back in 2013, when the bank unveiled its prototype of the Austen tenner, Byrne made this identical point about the chosen image. And she wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every Janeite who pays attention noticed that the bank’s Austen image is based not on Cassandra Austen’s well-known sketch of her sister -- arguably the only portrait of Austen’s face made during her lifetime -- but on the gussied-up version of the Cassandra sketch commissioned by the family as a frontispiece to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 memoir of his famous aunt.


Why did the bank choose this particular image? As far as I know, they haven’t explained. Perhaps the National Portrait Gallery, where the Cassandra sketch hangs, was going to charge too much for the rights, as AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan suggested when I wrote about this topic before. (The NPG certainly charged me enough when I put the Cassandra sketch on my website!) Perhaps bank officials thought Cassandra’s peevish Austen conveys insufficient Great Writer Gravitas. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better.


But really -- does it matter? I don’t think so, and here’s why:


It’s fair to object that the Austen on the note looks calmer and sweeter than the Cassandra sketch. It’s fair to object that a calm, sweet Austen doesn’t match your personal mental image of a novelist noted for her biting wit. But as I have pointed out before, it’s not fair to object that the Austen portrait doesn’t look like Jane Austen – because we don’t have any idea what Austen looked like. And therefore, as far as I’m concerned, one fictional image is as good as any other.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 11 2017 01:00PM

In Austen studies, originality is hard to come by. The primary sources – novels, letters, family reminiscences, unfinished work – are relatively sparse, and everyone from amateur enthusiasts to dedicated scholars has pored over them for a century or more. Austen criticism crams the shelves of every academic library, and some two dozen biographers have done their best to recreate Austen’s life and times. Read a few of these Lives of Jane Austen and you’ll soon feel a creeping sense of familiarity.


In that context, it’s hard to know quite what to make of a plagiarism kerfuffle that the British press has ginned up this week.


In one corner: Paula Byrne, author of the well-regarded 2013 biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. In the opposite corner: Lucy Worsley, author of the new biography Jane Austen At Home, due out next week in the UK and this summer in the US.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 4 2013 02:00PM

Pity the poor Bank of England. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into.


Back in July, when the Bank announced plans to feature Jane Austen on the 10-pound note beginning in 2017, it must have seemed an uncontroversial choice, a safe way to satisfy the feminists campaigning to get a woman onto the currency.


Then came the Twitter kerfuffle – Neanderthals using social media to threaten the leader of that feminist campaign with rape and murder – and Janeite criticism of the Bank’s decision to adorn the new banknote with a quote from the odious Caroline Bingley.


And last week a UK radio show, roughly the British equivalent of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” stirred the pot again by broadcasting an argument over the portrait of Austen planned for the new note.

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