Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 24 2017 01:00PM

When I was researching Among the Janeites, a former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America told me a charming story about attending a celebration of Jane Austen’s birthday in a fancy New York City apartment. When the time came to cut the cake, the maid on duty that day looked around for the birthday girl, asking, “Is the lady present?” “I said to her, ‘In a sense, yes, she is,’ ” he recalled.


Jane Austen’s eternal life was much on Janeite minds last week, as an explosion of media attention greeted the July 18 bicentenary of Austen’s death. Still, as we spoke feelingly of Austen’s immortality, we probably didn’t mean it quite as literally as British Tory politician Andrea Leadsom briefly seemed to.


In a Thursday session of the House of Commons, a Labour MP praised female achievement, listing several famous women who had died recently. Not to be outdone, Leadsom chimed in with an addition to the honor roll: Jane Austen, “one of our greatest living authors.”


It’s pretty clear from the video that Leadsom just misspoke -- amid chortles, she immediately corrected to “greatest-ever authors,” adding, “I think many of us probably wish she were still living” – but in the ruthless world of social media-fueled ridicule, the damage was done.


Bookstore chain Waterstones tweeted that they were moving Austen’s works out of the Classics section and asked if anyone knew how to get in touch with her agent. A British Isles TV channel called Dave (seriously – there’s a TV channel called Dave) tweeted, “BREAKING: Andrea Leadsom devastated to learn of Jane Austen's passing. Cancels today's photo-op with William Shakespeare as mark of respect.”


It was all pretty unfair. But also pretty funny. Have some cake, Andrea.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 17 2017 01:00PM

Tomorrow marks the anniversary that we all – or, at least, all those of us who are Janeites – have been waiting for since 2017 dawned: the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s untimely death. Already, the occasion has been honored with exhibits, lectures, book releases, competitions, a specially commissioned statue, specially decorated money (both paper and coin), specially decorated benches, frequently invisible public art . . . you name it.


Amid the circus of commemoration, it’s easy to lose sight of what this is all about: Six books. One extraordinary artist.


Yesterday, my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America gathered to honor Our Jane in our own way. We met in an austerely beautiful historic church, ate cake decorated with strawberries, and toasted Jane Austen with iced tea and Diet Coke, thanking her for welding us into a community of fans and friends.




But the heart of the occasion was our performance of scenes from all six of the novels, as well as a bit of the Juvenilia and excerpts from Cassandra’s moving account of her sister’s death. We reveled all over again in Lady Catherine’s pique (“Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”), Fanny Dashwood’s selfishness (“People always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them”), and Catherine Morland’s charming naivete (“Oh! Mr. Tilney, how frightful! --This is just like a book!”)


None of us is likely to win any acting prizes – well, except for the for-real actress who joined us from JASNA’s New York City chapter – but that wasn’t the point. The point was to get back to what started all of this – the words, and the woman who wrote them.


Six books. One extraordinary artist.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 13 2017 01:00PM

For visitors to Jane Austen’s House Museum -- aka Chawton cottage -- where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all her finished novels, the memorial plaque that hangs beside the building’s original front door is a touching testimonial to Janeite devotion.


“Jane Austen lived here from 1809-1817 and hence all her works were sent into the world,” the lettering reads. “Her admirers in this country and in America have united to erect this tablet. Such art as hers can never grow old.”


As we prepare to commemorate next Tuesday’s bicentennial of Austen’s death, turns out that this plaque is marking its own important anniversary: It was erected exactly one hundred years ago, on the centennial of Austen’s death.


I learned this fact, along with other interesting details about the plaque’s design, from a post included earlier this year in the “Jane Austen in 41 Objects” series that Jane Austen’s House Museum is running this year. Blog readers will recall that this exhibition, which began in March and continues until December 15, highlights a different item each week, with a blog post explaining its significance in Austen’s life or the museum’s collection.


The memorial plaque -- whose final line is a quotation from G.H. Lewes, the Victorian literary critic best known today as George Eliot's common-law husband -- is #12 in the series (the latest entry, an Austen letter, is #18). According to the museum’s post, the tablet had become somewhat the worse for wear after enduring a century of British weather. To mark this year’s important occasion, the Jane Austen Society of North America provided funding for a restoration – proof that Janeite devotion has survived the past one hundred years with far less damage.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 2 2017 02:00PM

Happy new year, Janeites! For us fans of Jane Austen, 2017 is a big year, the biggest since – well, since 2013, when we celebrated the bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, still Austen’s most popular work.


This year, we have an altogether more melancholy occasion to mark – the two hundredth anniversary of Austen’s death, on July 18, 1817, at the all-too-young age of forty-one. (Depending how you count, it may also be the bicentenary of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in a three-volume set that appeared in December 1817 with a title-page publication date of 1818.)


Across the planet, and especially in Austen’s home country of England, Austen fans will celebrate her life and mourn her death at balls, exhibits, lectures, conferences and festivals. Our shelves will creak under the weight of Austen-related books published to coincide with the anniversary. And in Britain, wallets will fill up with Austen-embellished currency. We may even get to see a new Austen movie.


An unscientific, and undoubtedly incomplete, sampling of what’s ahead:

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 20 2016 01:00PM

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to Washington, D.C., to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s thirty-eighth Annual General Meeting, known to all as the AGM. As usual, my reaction can be summed up in a single word: squeeee!


This will be my ninth AGM – and, curiously enough, the third I’ve attended that focuses on Emma, which celebrates its publication bicentennial this year. (Thus our theme: “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.”)


JASNA’s weekend-long AGMs are always delightful mixtures of the serious (lectures by distinguished Austen scholars); the not-so-serious (craft workshops, Austen-related retail therapy); and the purely social (reunions with those Janeite friends you only see at conferences). It’s the only place I feel completely unironic wearing my Jane Austen earrings, my Jane Austen pendant, my Jane Austen wristwatch and my Regency feathered headdress, all of them purchased at previous AGMs.


This year I’ve got my eye on a session with the creators of the adorable Cozy Classics board books (Emma in twelve words!), and I’m counting on spending one morning visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library’s much-praised exhibition “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” Plus, I just may engage in a bit of additional retail therapy. Because you can never have too many Jane Austen earrings.


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