Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2018 01:00PM

Thanks to her four reproductively prolific brothers – James, Edward, Frank and Charles produced an impressive total of thirty-three sons and daughters, all but five of whom lived into adulthood – the never-married Jane Austen has many, many collateral descendants.


Some of these nieces, nephews and many-times-great iterations thereof have capitalized on their Austen connections. Frank’s daughter Catherine Hubback was the first person to publish Jane Austen fanfic – a completion of the unfinished Watsons manuscript; James’ son, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote the first biography of his famous aunt, the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen.


Later generations published the first collection of Jane Austen’s letters (Edward’s grandson Lord Brabourne); wrote chronicles of the family’s history (Frank’s grandson John Hubback and great-granddaughter Edith Hubback Brown, and James’ grandson and great-grandson William and Richard Austen-Leigh); and helped found the Jane Austen Society of North America (James’ great-great-granddaughter Joan Austen-Leigh).


Last week brought news of the death of another such Austen descendant: ninety-nine-year-old Diana Shervington, a great-great-granddaughter of Edward, who spent the last third of her long life in Lyme Regis, one of England’s most Austen-evocative places. Shervington, a homemaker and potter whose two Austen-descended grandmothers were sisters (yes, that means her parents were first cousins), led an interesting life, judging from the obituaries (see here and here). Check out the tale of her wartime romance with the man who became her husband. Talk about a meet-cute!


Although Shervington’s sister-grandmothers had never known Jane Austen, they knew older relatives who had, and they shared these second-hand memories. And during Shervington’s childhood, her parents spent years at Chawton House, Edward’s former home, caring for an elderly relation who in turn left Shervington some of her Austen relics.


When the late-nineties Austen craze hit, Shervington gained Janeite semi-fame by donating some of those heirlooms to Lyme’s museum and showing others off during talks she gave to visiting Austen fans. Whether her particular brand of reminiscence was to your taste or not – I confess to being in the “not” camp, but nil nisi bonum and all that – it’s sad to see the snapping of another tenuous link to the real Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 7 2018 01:00PM

As a fan of not only Jane Austen but also the Jane Austen Society of North America (member since 1981), I was pleased to see JASNA pop up in an unexpected context recently: as a practitioner of exemplary PR.


“Most recently, I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) and have reveled in the refinement of its messaging,” Janeite Laura Hale Brockway, a writer and editor from Texas, recently noted in the online newsletter PR Daily. “In a world of fake news, spam, and ham-handed marketing techniques, receiving their messages is like feeling the sun on your face on a cold day.”


Brockway goes on to praise JASNA for its welcome letter, its donation thank-you, and its crisis communications, which unfortunately got a workout recently when the registration system for September’s Annual General Meeting in Kansas City crashed on the first day it opened. (Luckily, my registration was processed before the problems cropped up, which is of course all that matters.)


I share Brockway’s admiration for JASNA’s literate and gracious approach. Although, really, Jane Austen demands no less.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 22 2018 01:00PM

For generations of teenagers, including me, reading the young-adult novels of S.E. Hinton – classics like The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now – has been a beloved rite of passage. Hinton published her first book in 1967, while still a teenager herself, and her raw honesty about the intense emotions of adolescence has never lost its freshness.


Didn’t know she was a Janeite, though, until earlier this week, when the coordinator of my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America pointed out a recent Hinton tweet on the subject of Austen-inspired fanfic. (Not a complimentary tweet, either – but more of that in a moment.)


A quick Google search brought me a number of interviews (including this one, from 2005) in which Hinton cops to rereading Austen annually and especially admiring how she uses dialogue to reveal character. Apparently, Emma is Hinton’s favorite.


Hinton has expressed mixed feelings about fanfic based on her own books – she doesn’t read it, usually doesn’t mind it, but can’t help wincing at some of the premises -- but apparently she’s less forgiving about JAFF.


The conversation began on March 4, when Hinton noted, via tweet, that the keepers of Margaret Mitchell’s estate were planning to hire a writer to craft a sequel to Gone with the Wind, in hopes of keeping the copyright alive.


“The concept of public domain is that, after a reasonable period of time to allow a creator to profit from a work, that works [sic] ultimately belongs to everyone,” replied a tweeter called HeatherN. “I think that’s beautiful.”


Hinton begged to differ. “I think it's a crime,” she tweeted back. “The first time (many years ago) I realized people could rip off Jane Austen I was physically ill.”


I’ve read some really, really bad JAFF in my time – don’t get me started! -- so I can sympathize. It’s hard for fans to accept Darcys and Annes and Elizabeths behaving in ways violently at odds with their Austen-created personalities, since these people barely seem fictional to us. It’s like hearing someone insult your sister; you bristle instinctively. Jane Austen's characters seem to belong to each of us alone; it's hard to share.


Still, I’m puzzled by this notion that JAFF writers “rip off” Jane Austen. Hinton doesn’t seem to be talking about a financial ripoff here, although we can all regret that Austen never got to share in the riches her work has helped generate for others.


No, Hinton is talking about a deeper kind of violation. Partly, I think, she sees a violation of Austen's rights of property in her own imaginative creations, and of course I can understand why a living author would find it painful to see the characters she's created and loved appropriated by others. Indeed, we have copyright laws to deal with the profit-making aspect of this situation. But a dead author? She's beyond feeling this pain.


Partly, also, Hinton seems to be suggesting that the existence of JAFF hurts Austen's readers, somehow tainting their experience of her books. And here's where I really don't get it. Austen’s six masterpieces remain forever accessible and unsullied, no matter how many wannabes rewrite, update or sequelize her stories. These books are interpretations, responses, homages – sometimes delightful, sometimes inept – but they can’t touch Austen. She’s still there – and thank goodness for that.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 11 2018 02:00PM

Some years ago, I attended a picnic sponsored by my local branch of the Jane Austen Society of North America, to which a fellow JASNA member had brought her small dog. Like many Janeites, she had named him after one of her favorite Austen characters. As a result, halfway through the afternoon, we all heard the witness to a moment of canine discourtesy gasp out a truly unexpected sentence: “Mr. Knightley just peed in Deborah’s purse!”


(As indeed he had. Luckily, the purse was washable.)


I’m not a pet-owner myself, but I have long enjoyed hearing about pets with Austen-related names. So I was delighted to stumble upon (a few weeks late, but never mind), this “Pet of the Week” article in the Sunday Post, a Scottish weekly, seeking a home for a black guinea pig named. . . Mr. Darcy.


Guinea pigs leave me cold, as a rule, but this one looks about as appealing as it’s possible for a rodent to be, even if his resemblance to either Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen is notional.


Nevertheless, the animal seems to have taken his famous name very much to heart. According to the article, Mr. Darcy “can be a little scatty upon being picked up,” but “he soon settles and will happily sit on your lap and enjoys being the centre of attention,” even eating out of your hand “if the mood takes him.”


Basically, that’s the plot of Pride and Prejudice right there. Mr. Darcy: difficult at first, but soon eating out of your hand, and always the center of attention.


For potential adoptive owners, the Scottish branch of the SPCA sounded only one cautionary note: “Mr Darcy has previously had tiffs when living with another male guinea pig.”


No word on the name of that unfortunate erstwhile roommate, but my money is on Mr. Wickham.


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.


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