Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 19 2018 01:00PM

Janeites tend to know quite a bit about Jane Austen: her books, her characters, her family, her life and times. But hey – there’s always more to learn, right?


Next Monday sees the launch of “Jane Austen: Myth, Reality and Global Celebrity,” an online course developed by the University of Southampton in England and co-taught by Gillian Dow, a university English professor who is executive director of the library at Chawton House.


The class – a so-called MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course – requires a modest commitment: three hours a week for two weeks. No college credit is involved, but if you fork over $49, you can take tests and receive a “Certificate of Achievement” if you pass. Or you can just watch the lectures for free.


The instructors – Dow and Kim Simpson, a Southampton University lecturer who is currently a Chawton House postdoctoral affiliate – promise to cover a wide range of topics, from the social and historical context of Austen’s work to the marketing of Austen as a contemporary pop celebrity. Judging from the course’s promotional video, participants will also be treated to some lovely shots of iconic Austen-related locations.


The only prerequisite is “a basic knowledge of [Austen’s] novels,” which shouldn’t pose much of a problem for your average Janeite.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 5 2018 02:00PM

In your average general-interest bookshop, a majority of the titles have probably been authored by men. No surprise there – historically, to quote Anne Elliot, “men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. . . . the pen has been in their hands.”


So I took a certain visceral satisfaction in learning that, for the next five days, London readers will be able to browse through the shelves of an all-women-all-the-time pop-up bookstore. The Like A Woman Bookshop, located on Rivington Street in the Shoreditch neighborhood of east London, is a collaboration between publisher Penguin Random House and bookseller Waterstones to mark two feminist milestones: the annual celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), and the centennial of the 1918 law that gave (some) British women the right to vote.


“The bookshop will celebrate the persistence of women who’ve fought for change: those who fight, rebel and shout #LikeAWoman,” Penguin Random House’s press release says. (Yes, there is a certain irony in the spectacle of a big corporation putting its imprimatur on scrappy anti-establishment rebelliousness, complete with a no-doubt-carefully-vetted hashtag. But you take what you can get.)


Like A Woman’s shelves will be organized on idiosyncratic lines, “not just by genre or category but by the impact the author has had on culture, history or society, including ‘Essential feminist reads,’ ‘Inspiring young readers,’ ‘Women to watch,’ ‘Your body’ and ‘Changemakers,’ “ Penguin Random House says.


It’s not clear to me if Jane Austen will make the cut, since Penguin Random House claims its pop-up shop will stock “the most inspiring and iconic titles in recent times” and all the authors mentioned by name date from the mid-twentieth century or later.


But as Chawton House’s extensive rare book collection makes clear, the literary landscape of Jane Austen’s time was populated with plenty of female writers, some of whom Austen admired greatly. It’s not hard to imagine a time-traveling Jane Austen enjoying the chance to spend this week leafing through the stock in the Like A Woman Bookshop.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 15 2018 02:00PM

They crop up regularly, those Janeite dream jobs. We read the announcements, and we think how lovely it would be to spend hours cataloguing artifacts at Jane Austen’s House Museum, where Austen wrote or revised all her completed novels, or dishing up tea and scones across the street at Cassandra’s Cup.


The latest such announcement, however, tops them all, because this Janeite dream job requires you to live at Chawton House, the restored Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. Yes, that’s right: Get the job of Deputy House Manager and you will live in a stately home where Jane Austen herself was a frequent visitor.


The job runs until December, pays a modest £25,000 (about $34,600) per year, and sounds (click through to the job description) as if it would require quite a lot of work: organizing group tours, running the gift shop, helping out in the tea room, assisting with special events and social media, and taking charge on the weekends. Depending how busy Chawton House gets – and, as blog readers will recall, it’s really, really hoping to get a lot busier – the job could be kind of a grind, for not much money.


And yet, ever since I read an interview with Caroline Knight, a member of the last generation of Austen descendants to live in Chawton House before American gazillionaire Sandy Lerner turned it into a library for the study of early English writing by women, I’ve thought of the house with a certain romantic nostalgia.


Living in a genuine Austen site: What an opportunity for a writer! Just breathing the air could probably ensure, if not literary immortality, then at least a couple of really good sentences. Alas, job applications were due on Saturday, so I guess I’ve missed my chance. I’ll have to look for my good sentences elsewhere.


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