Deborah Yaffe

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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.


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.


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