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, Jan 10 2019 02:00PM

Last Thursday, James McAvoy, the excellent Scottish actor who played Jane Austen’s crush Tom Lefroy in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, paid a visit to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, where he Instagrammed a semi-incognito selfie from the gift shop.


You know it’s a slow Jane Austen news week when you’re reduced to discussing an actor from a bad Austen biopic visiting a faux Austen tourist attraction.


I know, I know: Many, many Janeites love this movie and this museum. I am a killjoy. Toss a blanket over my head and ignore me.


New Year’s Resolution: Stop being a killjoy.

**deep breath**

I will try to do better. Here goes:


If you’re a fan of Becoming Jane – which, based on exactly zero evidence, posits Lefroy as the Big Romance Who Inspired Pride and Prejudice Because Jane Austen Couldn’t Have Just Imagined It – then curl up with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy another viewing! If you love the Jane Austen Centre -- which houses artifacts Austen did not own in a building where she did not live -- please buy another ticket and wallow to your heart’s content! I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours! As Tom Lefroy probably didn't say!


Well, it’s only January. I still have time to get this no-killjoy thing right.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2018 01:00PM

One of the most useful sentences Jane Austen ever wrote is surely this one: “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” (It’s from a March 1817 letter to her niece Fanny Knight -- #155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.)


I think of this line when I come across portrayals of Austen as a purveyor of upbeat, light-hearted escapism, rather than what I take to be her more nuanced and shadowed, albeit still comic, version of reality. So my heart sank a couple of weeks ago when the newsletter of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, turned its attention to a newly popular literary genre that publishers have christened “Up Lit,” because it features “uplifting stories about kindness and community.”


“As we were finding out about this new genre,” the newsletter chirped, “we couldn’t help but feel that a good number of its defining aspects – kindness, compassion, unlikely friendships, broken people who become fixed – are all features of Jane’s novels that we particularly enjoy.”


I’ve got nothing against kindness and compassion – some of my favorite books, not to mention people, endorse these qualities -- but my entire being revolts against the suggestion that Austen’s novels feature a set of saccharine thematics invented by a marketing department. You might even say that this characterization makes me sick. Also wicked.


At the very least, it sets me combing my memory for all the aspects of Austen’s novels that don’t amount to easy uplift. Like, for example, the way that scheming Lucy Ferrars ends up with more money than steadfast Elinor Dashwood. Or the way that misbehaving men from George Wickham to General Tilney to Mr. Elliot face essentially no repercussions for their misbehavior. Or the way that sexually transgressive women (the two Elizas, Maria Rushworth) are tossed aside like worn-out socks.


Of course it’s true that the central characters in Austen’s novels grow morally and emotionally and end up with the people they love (or, like Marianne Dashwood, learn to love the people they end up with). But these wish-fulfilling denouements occur against a social backdrop that is, when you think about it, kind of awful: socially and economically stratified, rife with sexual double standards, and unforgiving to those who go astray. Not, in other words, all that uplifting.


To be fair, the newsletter points out that Up Lit is “not all sweetness and light,” quoting an author saying, of her own bestselling novel, “It’s about facing devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness and then saying: ‘But there is still this.’ ”


Perhaps, then, it’s all a matter of emphasis: Looked at one way, Austen’s novels – or, more accurately, the movie versions of Austen’s novels -- could perhaps be crammed into the Up Lit template. But these pictures of perfection don’t resemble the Austen I love.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 20 2017 01:00PM

The Roald Dahl-flavored tale of the four specially engraved, possibly valuable Jane Austen £5 notes continues to be The Story That Will Not Die (aka The Gift That Keeps On Giving, at least for journalists -- and bloggers -- casting about for material).


Since late last year, when artist Graham Short embellished four Winston Churchill fivers with Our Jane, portrayed in one of his trademark teeny-tiny engravings, and then released the specially decorated notes into the British money supply, we’ve had exciting discoveries, selfless donations, copycat engravers, and a false report of a fifth Golden Ticket on the loose.


But wait! Not entirely false, it turns out. Last month, Short revealed that he had recently visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. A flurry of speculation ensued. Had he paid for his tea and tour with a previously unknown Austen Fiver? Were there not one but two genuine Short Austens still out there to be discovered and cashed in?


Well, it turns out that there is a fifth Austen micro-engraving, but in keeping with the unaccountably charitable bent of everyone associated with this story, Short is donating it to the Jane Austen Centre, where it will be displayed after the formal presentation on July 18, the bicentenary of Austen’s death.


Somehow, it seems appropriate that this completely artificial Austen artifact, created with one eye (at least) firmly fixed on the publicity it could generate, should end up on display at the Bath Jane Austen Centre, Ground Zero for commercially motivated Austenmania.*



* Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’m all in favor of clever artificial Austen artifacts. Like, for instance, the set of Jane Austen Top Trumps that I recently acquired from the Bath Centre. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 27 2017 01:00PM

For an American, a British spouse confers certain advantages. Your tea will always be expertly brewed. Your friends will find the accent irresistible. And your children will learn to play Top Trumps.


Top Trumps is an extremely simple card game for two or more players. The only required equipment is a pack of special themed cards available at a price well within the reach of your average school-age child – at least in 1970s and 1980s Britain, where the game originated.


Initially, the themes of Top Trumps packs included such traditionally boy-friendly topics as cars and weaponry. By the early 2000s, when my British husband was inducting our young son into the Top Trumps fraternity, the line had expanded to include animals, sports, movies and books. Our house overflowed with Top Trumps packs covering Manchester United soccer stars and Harry Potter characters.


Today, my son has outgrown Top Trumps. And truth be told, even had it been available way back when, I’m not sure he’d ever have wanted the newest addition to the genre: Jane Austen Top Trumps, specially commissioned by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England.


Top Trumps game play is straightforward: You peel a card off your stack, read out one of the numerical data points assigned to the character on that card, and – if your number tops everyone else’s – capture your opponent’s card. (Yes, it’s basically a fancy version of War.) Arcane arguments over whether the Top Trumps company has correctly assessed the relative Cunning or Courage rankings of, say, Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger are, of course, part of the fun.


The Jane Austen version, which includes cards for major characters in all six novels, illustrated with photographs of actors who played those characters, will lend itself to such arguments with a vengeance. Fanny Price gets more Wit points than Marianne Dashwood? Emma Woodhouse ranks lower on Attraction than Anne Elliot? Says who? And who decided to illustrate the Frank Churchill card with a picture of Ewan McGregor in the world’s least flattering haircut?


Let the games begin. . .


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