Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 4 2019 01:00PM

Remember back in elementary school, when one kid would get an awesome new toy or a cool pair of shoes, and then everybody had to have their own? Today’s equivalent of Beanie Babies, rainbow looms, and sneakers that light up seems to be Jane Austen statues.


In 2017, you’ll recall, Basingstoke commemorated the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, who never lived there, by erecting a life-size bronze in the town center. Then, a year later, nearby Chawton, where Austen actually did live, followed suit with its own smaller version of the same statue.


And now comes word that Bath, where Austen spent the years 1801 to 1806, plans to join the club. The local Jane Austen Centre is apparently talking with city officials about the best location for another life-size bronze, to be based on a waxwork image of Austen “said to be the closest-ever likeness to the author,” according to a report on local-news website SomersetLive.


Bath’s right to an Austen statue is equivocal: On the one hand, she lived there for a substantial period of time, and she set portions of two of her novels there. On the other hand, most biographers think she disliked the place, and her writing output slowed to a trickle during her years there.


As for that waxwork, a 2014 image created by forensic artist Melissa Dring, it owes its reputation for extreme accuracy entirely to the Jane Austen Centre, which commissioned it. Not everyone is equally convinced, and, as I’ve often noted, every claim about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of an Austen image is entirely theoretical, because no one knows what Jane Austen actually looked like.


It’s hard to shake the feeling that the push for a statue in Bath is less about honoring Austen than about publicizing the Jane Austen Centre, which is, depending on your point of view, either a charming introduction to Austen’s life and times, or a kitschy tourist trap.


Still, the centre is putting a feminist gloss on its efforts. "Not only will it be good to honor Austen the author, it will also be good to go a little way to redress the fact that less than 3 per cent of all statues in the UK are of historical, non-royal women,” says managing director Paul Crossey. (At the current rate, 3 percent of all statues in the UK will soon be statues of Jane Austen.)


The enthusiasm for a Bath statue comes barely a month after Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, scotched its plans for yet another Austen statue, in the face of public criticism. I guess that makes the Winchester public the equivalent of the mom who insists that your regular sneakers still have a lot of wear in them and she’s not going to shell out $50 for the ones with the flashing lights. There’s a mom like that in every class.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 23 2015 02:00PM

If you are a Janeite with no 2016 Christmas plans – and a whole wad of cash left over from this year’s gift shopping – the New York Times has a trip for you.


Its suite of fabulous, and fabulously expensive, vacations – they call them “journeys,” natch – which take well-heeled Times readers everywhere from the Panama Canal to the Great Pyramids of Egypt, now includes a week-long tour to Austen sites in England. The trip, “A Jane Austen Christmas,” runs from December 23-29 of next year.


For a mere $7,000 -- not including airfare! -- participants will visit Steventon, Chawton, Winchester and Bath; lunch at The Vyne, in Hampshire, where Austen attended neighborhood balls hosted by her family’s friends the Chutes; and visit Lacock, the picturesque olde tyme village where a host of British costume dramas have been filmed. The itinerary also includes a Christmas-themed musical performance and “a Christmas Day luncheon, complete with Christmas crackers.”


Now, far be it from me to slag off any money-making venture the New York Times uses to subsidize its still-the-best-in-the-world news operation. But: really? A thousand dollars a day for a UK trip that includes both Christmas Day and Boxing Day, when – let’s be honest – the entire country will be completely closed down, sealed off and settled in front of its collective TV set with a giant box of Quality Street chocolates? And all this for Christmas crackers, which you can buy at Target for $8?


The annual summer tour run by the Jane Austen Society of North America (the 2015 one is described here) is a far better value -- more sites, less money. And you won’t catch JASNA committing a howler like the Times’ promise that its Janeite tourists will “visit the rectory where [Austen] spent most of her first 25 years.” That would certainly be quite a draw -- except that the rectory was razed in the nineteenth century. All that remains is an empty field.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 18 2015 01:00PM

Jane Austen festivals are a dime a dozen by now, but Jane Austen Regency Week, the nine-day Austen festival that begins this Saturday, has a special appeal: it’s taking place in the tiny village of Chawton, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, and in the far larger nearby town of Alton.


The schedule includes fairly standard, always delightful stuff: a concert, a film, a choral evensong, walking tours, copious opportunities to eat and shop, talks on everything from fashion to fan fiction, and, of course, a Regency ball. It all sounds irresistibly jolly. The patina of authenticity supplied by the location's impeccable Austen credentials doesn't hurt, either.


And for a giggle, check out page 11 of the festival program: announcements about sober talks on social and military history, juxtaposed with an ad for a “body and face clinic” featuring a too-much-information before-and-after shot of a cellulite-plagued tush. I think the Jane Austen who wrote the madcap silliness of the juvenilia would have been mightily entertained.


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