Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 18 2018 01:00PM

A couple of months ago, when Jane Austen’s House Museum unveiled the results of the collaborative quilting project it organized to commemorate the 2017 bicentennial of Austen’s death, I bemoaned the lack of close-up photos for those of us who couldn’t journey to England to view the quilt squares in person.


I’m happy to say that omission has now been rectified: All fifty-three panels in the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt are now viewable in three online galleries, along with information about the theme and creator of each panel.


The panels, which cover aspects of Austen’s life and work, vary widely: Some are abstract, some are representational; some are specific, some more suggestive. Panels portray the church in Steventon, where Austen spent her first twenty-five years; Winchester Cathedral, where she is buried; and the museum itself, aka Chawton cottage, where she wrote or revised all six of her finished novels. Each novel gets a panel of its own, as do the Juvenilia and the unfinished Sanditon. Some panels also tackle themes in Austen’s work, such as elopement, self-control, and women’s precarious legal status.


Of course, a two-dimensional representation of needlework can’t substitute for an in-person viewing – texture and materials come across only imperfectly on screen – but for those of us whose international travel budgets are not what we might wish, this is a serviceable way to experience one of the most delightful Austen bicentenary projects.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

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


The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.


“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”


And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”


Welcome to the club, Martha.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 5 2018 01:00PM

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


Publishers jerk authors around.


This is not exactly news, least of all to authors who have argued over titles and cover art, watched publication dates come and go with no action, or pleaded in vain for increases to the publicity budget.*


Nor is this a modern phenomenon, as the letter Jane Austen wrote exactly 209 years ago today [#68(D) in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence] makes clear.


Six years earlier, in the spring of 1803, Austen – working anonymously through her brother Henry and his lawyer, William Seymour – had sold the manuscript of what eventually become Northanger Abbey to London publisher Benjamin Crosby & Co. for a respectable £10. The book, then titled Susan, was advertised for sale the same year.


And then – nothing. No book ever appeared. It’s hard to imagine a more infuriating and discouraging outcome for a hopeful first-time author.


By 1809, Austen was done waiting. She was about to move into a settled home at Chawton cottage; perhaps she wanted to gather all her unfinished work and get down to some serious revision.


And so she wrote to Crosby & Co. asking that it either publish Susan or dissolve the old contract. “Should no notice be taken of this Address, I shall feel myself at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere,” she wrote. She signed the letter “MAD” – shorthand for her pseudonym du jour, “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” but no doubt also a pointed commentary on her state of mind.


With an alacrity notably absent from the earlier handling of Austen’s work, Richard Crosby wrote back three days later. He denied that the firm had ever promised to publish at any particular time (or, indeed, at all), threatened legal action if Austen tried to publish elsewhere, and offered to return the manuscript in exchange for the £10 previously paid.


Austen may have been MAD before; she must have been enraged when she got this insulting reply. Frustrated, too: It took her another seven years – and the publication of four other novels – before she could find the money to buy back her own work. Which, of course, was finally published in 1818 -- exactly two hundred years ago.


(For a fascinating and detailed account of Northanger Abbey’s publication history, check out Deborah Barnum’s post in blogger Sarah Emsley’s ongoing series about Austen’s last two published novels.)


If this sorry episode demonstrates anything – beyond the fact that publishers have mistreated authors for centuries – it is how much persistence, determination, and commitment it took for Jane Austen to get her books into print. She needed a thick skin and deep reservoirs of MAD. Even for an Austen-caliber genius, talent wasn’t enough.



* #NotAllPublishers, of course. I have no complaints about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Among the Janeites.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 26 2018 01:00PM

The delightful Jane Austen Quilt project culminated earlier this month with the unveiling at Jane Austen’s House Museum of two beautiful quilts made from blocks contributed by Janeites across the globe.


As blog readers will recall, the museum – aka Chawton Cottage, the house where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – launched the quilt project last year to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death. The design was inspired by one of the treasures of the museum’s collection, the Austen family coverlet stitched by Jane, Cassandra, and their mother.


Combining creativity and traditionally female needlecraft, the quilt project strikes me as a charming and appropriate way of paying homage to Austen, a creative artist embedded in a female-run household. (Plus she was an excellent needlewoman, at least according to her nephew's 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.)


The main quilt, known as the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt, measures more than eight feet by five feet and consists of fifty-seven blocks, most of which illustrate some aspect of Austen’s life or work. The second, smaller quilt, known as the Admirals’ Quilt, is composed of abstract geometrical blocks left over from the making of the main quilt.


Unfortunately, the museum blog doesn’t include closeups of every block in the Story Quilt, but from what I can see via blurry on-line zooms, among the designs are blocks featuring the Steventon church where Austen’s father was the minister, the turquoise ring she wore, and the spines of the novels she wrote. A large central panel, created by students from the local elementary school, highlights the community of Chawton, complete with houses, trees, and a friendly horse. (You can get a better look at portions of the quilt here, on the blog of quilter Katrina Hadjimichael, who created one of the blocks.)


Both quilts will be on display at the museum for the rest of this year, and the project has been memorialized in a book, Stories in Stitches: Reimagining Jane Austen’s Quilt.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 1 2018 02:00PM

The most beloved Austen site in England -- Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, the Hampshire home where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – was closed last month. But it’s reopening today with some exciting programming for 2018, which marks the bicentennial of the publication of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


For the next seven months, Chawton’s exhibits will “explore the themes of family and friendship in both Northanger Abbey and in the lives of the Austen family,” on the premise that the Morlands’ big, noisy clergy family might be partly inspired by the Austens’ big, noisy clergy family.


Then, in the last four months of 2018, a year that also marks the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, the museum will launch an exhibit linked to Persuasion, set during the last months of the Napoleonic Wars. The exhibit will look at “the impact of war on Jane Austen's novels, the life of the Austen family, and on the country at large.”


Interesting stuff! Once again, it’s a good year to visit Chawton cottage. But, then, every year is a good year to visit Chawton cottage. . .


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