Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 1 2018 02:00PM

Do Jane Austen’s characters keep bars of soap handy for washing? This is one of the many details of Regency life that Austen does not discuss. My electronic search found not a single mention of the word “soap” in any of the finished novels.

Presumably, contemporary readers knew what hygiene habits were typical for the gentry class that populates her novels. Modern readers must rely on historical research, such as the account in this helpful blog post, which suggests that, in Austen’s era, bar soap was an expensive item, more accessible to the upper classes than to the poor.

Or we can just throw history to the winds and patronize our preferred purveyor of “Jane Austen soap” – i.e., attractively colored, scented and packaged bars labeled with Austen-inspired names. Think Jane Austen candles, and you’ll get the idea.

Judging from Google and Etsy, this niche market has practically spawned a cottage industry. There’s lavender-scented Jane Austen Bath Soap – “Suds and Sensibility,” the label reads. Don’t like lavender? Perhaps you would prefer Earl Grey, green tea, or sweet honeysuckle.

Tired of buying your Jane Austen soap from establishments that promiscuously mingle Austen-themed products with those based on the works of other writers, from Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelley to J.K. Rowling and Diana Gabaldon? Then there’s Northanger Soapworks (“handmade soap for the Jane Austen addict”), whose offerings include a tobacco-and-black-tea-scented soap called Captain Wentworth’s Constancy and an orange-scented soap named after Mary Bennet and decorated with a lace pattern.

Some of these soaps look good enough to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re that desperate for Austen-themed hygiene, stick with the Jane Austen toothpaste.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 8 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen and sex: By now, you’ve heard all the arguments.

1. She’s a sex-free zone, where female modesty and male decorum are prized and celebrated. (And thank goodness for that.)

2. She’s a simmering cauldron of veiled sexual references, from Lydia Bennet’s ripped petticoat to Mary Crawford’s accomplished horseback riding. (The Regency was earthy; it’s the Victorians who were repressed prudes.)

3. She’s the ur-romance novelist, whose Elizabeth and Darcy would certainly have had a super-hot married life. (See under: seventy percent of Jane Austen fanfic.)

4. She’s the anti-romance novelist, who keeps pairing her heroines off with condescending father figures. (Sleep with Edmund Bertram? Ick! No, thank you!)

Clearly, what’s been missing from this discussion is a truly delightful piece of merchandise whose existence I learned of only recently: the Austen-themed condom. Turns out that for this year’s fourth annual Independent Bookstore Day, an April event celebrating places that are not Amazon or Barnes & Noble, participating retailers could lay in a stock of “literary condoms” – perfect for the reader in your bed.

Judging from the order form (scroll down for condom reference), only two designs were available this year: the Dickensian “Great Expectations” (no pressure!); and the Austen-themed “Give Me That Darcy,” in a package adorned with a cartoon of a pants-less Regency gentleman using his top hat in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. But Instagram evidence suggests that the line created last year by the San Francisco store The Booksmith also included two other designs: the Alice-inspired “Eat Me”; and “Dive Deep,” illustrated with a picture of a lasciviously grinning Great White Whale, clearly based on Moby Dick. (Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.)

The romantic possibilities here are obvious. We all have tests for our prospective partners – movies or books or songs that s/he must like, or it’s a dealbreaker. Now we can move that conversation to an even more intimate stage: can’t sleep with someone who fails to identify the literary reference on the condom package.

Alas, it doesn’t look like these adorably naughty items are available for purchase by the general public, except through indie booksellers stocking them for the celebration. Just for the record, though, the wholesale price was $47.88 for a package of twelve, or $3.99 per prophylactic. As a boring married person, I haven’t bought condoms in so long that I have no idea if this is a bargain or not. And whatever your views on Jane Austen and sex, I doubt she would have known, either.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 13 2017 01:00PM

Heaven knows there is plenty of weird Jane Austen merchandise out there. (Though I’m not sure anyone has yet topped the Austen book cover hollowed out to conceal a compartment for a secret alcohol stash.) My latest discovery: a self-inking stamp of Jane Austen’s signature.

Self-inking stamps are useful devices. They can spare users the tedium of, say, writing a return address on a thousand envelopes, or marking a tall stack of student papers with a “sign and return” message to parents.

I’m having trouble, however, imagining the context in which you might need to write Jane Austen’s signature many, many times. Autographing a bunch of souvenir Austen head shots? Signing copies of a new edition of Northanger Abbey? Endorsing the royalty checks to which poor, dead Jane is so richly entitled?

Truth be told, I’m having trouble imagining the context in which you might need to write Jane Austen’s signature even once, unless you actually were Jane Austen. And presumably she wouldn’t need the self-inking stamp.

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. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 2 2017 02:00PM

The curators of Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton are hard at work freshening the place up for this year’s commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death. The latest renovation: new wallpaper.

Or, depending how you look at it, old wallpaper. According to its latest blog post, the museum has recently installed replica wallpaper in three different patterns, based on early nineteenth-century fragments discovered in random corners of the house where Austen lived from 1809 until her death in 1817.

The replicas were created by a company that specializes in historic and reproduction wallpapers – I’m tempted to say “only in England,” but perhaps this is a bigger niche than I imagine – using the hand block printing techniques employed in Austen’s era. Apparently, there’s evidence that the frugal and not-exactly-affluent Austens bought a discounted, flawed version of one of the wallpapers and installed it upside down to conceal the mistakes in the pattern

For us contemporary Janeites, however, the most interesting line in the museum’s blog post comes at the end: “Both designs, as well as a third. . . are available for purchase via the museum shop.” *

Yes, a new avenue of Janeite consumerism has opened up. You already own the Jane Austen Action Figure, the mugs, the tote bags, the fridge magnets, the temporary tattoos – even the air freshener and the toothpaste. Now it’s time to redecorate the den.

* Not all the shop’s stock is listed online yet, and the wallpapers seem to be among the missing items. But you can catch a glimpse of the patterns here, decorating the cover of a journal.

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