Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2017 01:00PM

“At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy,” the 20-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister in January 1796. “My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”


Even with no flirtatious suitor in the picture, it’s hard not to channel Jane Austen’s melancholy tears, for today – just six weeks after the bicentenary of Austen’s death -- the day is come that will see the end of the discussion boards at the Republic of Pemberley, the web’s largest Austen fan site for the past twenty years. Although the site’s static content – including the archive of original fan fiction and the compilation of well-researched posts on Austen’s life and times – will remain, evolving discussions among Janeite obsessives have been relocated to Pemberley’s Facebook group.


I was shocked and saddened when I learned the news earlier this month, via an announcement from Pemberley’s volunteer site manager, Myretta Robens, but the fiscal writing has been on the wall for some time now. Five years ago, a change in Google’s ad policy threatened the community’s survival. Three years ago, Pemberley downsized from its expansive original site to a more streamlined version. Last year, only a spate of last-minute contributions saved it from going dark.


When Robens, a New England technology manager, and Amy Bellinger, a Chicago freelance writer, founded Pemberley in May 1997, Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt Austenmania was at its height. By the time I wrote about it in Among the Janeites, years after I’d fallen in love with the place myself, Pemberley was getting five to ten million hits per month from 150,000 unique visitors hailing from 165 countries.


But times change. The Austen frenzy may have cooled – though you wouldn’t know it from the voluminous and enthusiastic coverage of last month’s bicentenary – and other forms of social media have siphoned off some of the community-building impulses that drew so many Janeites to the conversations at Pemberley.


Will Pemberley’s polite and literate ethos flourish on Facebook? Not everyone plans to find out: In the month since Robens announced the changes, a number of Pemberleans have given notice that they won’t be coming along to the new venue -- because of privacy concerns, disdain for Facebook’s corporate policies, or fear that Pemberley’s uniquely civilized form of discourse will be coarsened and corrupted in a more freewheeling social media space.


Although I’ve joined the Facebook group, I’m not acclimated yet. It still feels like a Dashwood-level comedown – renting a room in a noisy boarding house, when we’ve been accustomed to living in a quiet cottage of our own. But Facebook is free, and presumably moderating the discussions there will demand far less unpaid labor from the dedicated volunteers who have run Pemberley for so long.


As of last night, Pemberley’s discussion groups were still active. At the Pride & Prejudice board, posters were debating the likely quality of the planned new ITV adaptation of the novel. At the All Other Austen board, they were recommending Austen biographies and wondering about the size of Anne Elliot’s dowry. On Read & View, they were discussing Poldark, Dunkirk, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid’s Tale.


It felt poignant to eavesdrop on all these conversations, knowing that they would fall silent so soon. The death of a community – or even its metamorphosis into a different kind of community -- isn’t quite like the death of a person, but it’s not entirely dissimilar, either. It’s still an ending, and endings are sad.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 30 2017 02:00PM

An intriguing tidbit popped up recently on my Jane Austen Google alert: Alejandra Carles-Tolra, a young Spanish photographer based in London, recently won a £10,000 prize that will allow her to create a photo essay about – us!


“Carles-Tolra proposed investigating how a group identity impacts on the individual via photographs of ‘Janeites’, a community formed around the world and works of Jane Austen,” the British Journal of Photography reports. Her project, along with those of the other two winners of the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards, will be exhibited in three locations around Britain starting next January.


In past years, Carles-Tolra, originally from Barcelona, has created photographic projects on motorbike riders, female rugby players, and college students enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), among other subjects.


What do Janeites and rugby players have in common? I can’t wait to find out. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 18 2016 01:00PM

Every Janeite has probably fantasized about meeting the woman herself. What would we say? What would we ask her? Would we babble inarticulately like overwhelmed fangirls and -boys, or impress her with our perceptive and cogent analyses of her work?


Now Canadian college student Gabrielle Lesage is inviting the worldwide Janeite fandom to prep our lines for this momentous meeting – you know, just in case. She’s launched a blog, the Dear Jane Project, where Janeites can post letters to Austen telling her what she’s meant to them.


Lesage envisions the project as a way of commemorating Jane Austen in the run-up to next year’s bicentennial of her death. It could be an interesting group self-portrait.


As of early July, Lesage had posted three submissions, the first of which seems to be from her boyfriend (and very sweet it is, too). None is in the form of a letter to Austen – they’re more like mini-essays on the Importance of Jane – but they do reflect the international nature of the fandom: one is from a Canadian, one from an American and one from a Colombian. (Submissions via email to dearjaneproject@gmail.com.)


Austen “is more than a writer who has left us with her novels. Rather, she is a friend and confidant,” Lesage wrote last month on the web site of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. “I cannot help but feel that I have a personal connection with her, and I am sure many people feel that way.”


Indeed they do. Perhaps because Austen wrote about the everyday lives of ordinary people, or perhaps because her own life sounds unintimidatingly ordinary, many readers feel close to her in a way that seems less common with other great writers.


Still, I’m pretty sure I’d babble.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 5 2015 02:00PM

Cyberspace is teeming with smart and interesting Janeites I've never heard of, and this past weekend I stumbled across yet another: Ron Lit, a grad student in English, who posts weekly book videos on YouTube and (on Twitter, where she’s @CatLadyPizza) calls herself a “queer feminist Janeite.”


She seems to have done videos on many of Jane Austen’s novels, plus an episode called “Who’s Your Jane Austen?” which offers a fast, sensible and entertaining take on the varied responses to Austen. (My favorite line: “Fanny Price ends up with the first mansplainer.”)


Neatly summing up the way that Austen’s three-dimensional heroines differ from the cardboard women of so much male-centered art, Ron Lit says, “What Austen’s novels really say to me is you don’t have to be a type. You can be you, and you can be the best version of you.”


A good thought for a new year. . .



By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 29 2014 02:00PM

The New York Times Magazine’s year-end obituary issue drew my attention to a death I’d missed last spring: that of Adrianne Wadewitz, a literature scholar who in 2007 wrote Wikipedia’s “Janeite” entry, in which she gave us credit for being the first fannish subculture.


Wadewitz, a prolific Wikipedia editor, also improved the “Jane Austen” entry and composed entries for a host of lesser-known female writers, bringing a feminist sensibility to a project sometimes stereotyped as a nerdy male preserve.


I’d never heard of Wadewitz before seeing the NYT tribute, but I’m glad to know her name. Wikipedia, the product of the unpaid collective labor of mostly anonymous contributors who together codify that which seems important and lasting, is a microcosm of culture-building. That work can’t lay claim to completeness if it doesn’t include female voices.


Wadewitz died, age thirty-seven, of injuries sustained in a rock-climbing accident.


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