Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.


“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”


And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”


Welcome to the club, Martha.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 10 2015 01:00PM

In 1951, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Soviet spies burrowed deep into the British Foreign Office, realized they were on the brink of detection and arrest. According to Andrew Lownie’s new biography of Burgess, excerpted last week in the Daily Mail, they made hurried plans to flee by boat to France.


“Burgess went out and hired a car, bought a suitcase and raincoat and went home to pack,” Lownie writes. “Into the case went a tweed suit, a dinner jacket and the collected novels of Jane Austen.”


Guy Burgess was a liar and a traitor, but apparently he had good taste in literature: Lownie notes that Burgess had once neutralized a charge of soliciting sex in a rail station men’s room by telling the judge “he’d been inside the cubicle reading George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch.”


Burgess’ apparent attachment to Austen is a reminder that the current female-dominated state of Janeite fandom is a relatively recent development: as Claudia L. Johnson and Claire Harman have noted, the tough-minded, sarcastic Austen used to be seen as a special favorite of male readers, a sort of Raymond Chandler of the marriage plot.


Alas, the denouement of the Burgess/Maclean Austen story isn’t what we Janeites might wish. Just as I was beginning to paint a half-charming, half-sinister mental picture of the two moles, en route to Moscow by way of Paris, Switzerland and Prague, filling their downtime by catching up on the doings of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Lownie told me that, once across the English Channel, “Burgess and Maclean went ashore, leaving their luggage in their cabins” and caught a taxi to Brittany.


Presumably, the Austen was left behind with the tweed and the tuxedo -- just another relic of an England betrayed and abandoned.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 6 2014 01:00PM

The other day, I ran across this attractive Austen-themed craft idea, and it got me thinking about that silhouette.


Now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, it pops up everywhere as a representation of Jane Austen, whose image is famously hard to pin down. (The Jane Austen Society of North America summarizes the issue here, and I’ve written about it here and here.)


Why do we think this silhouette represents Jane Austen? According to Princeton scholar Claudia L. Johnson’s excellent Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, it was “found in 1944 pasted into the second edition of Mansfield Park” and labeled “L’aimable Jane.” The pioneering Austen editor R.W. Chapman thought that closed the case: “Who would insert, in a copy of Mansfield Park, a portrait of any other Jane than its author?”


With apologies to the magisterial Chapman, that’s about as lame an argument as can be imagined. Although the NPG dates the silhouette to circa 1810-15 – early enough to be an accurate representation of Austen -- we have no idea where it came from or when it was pasted into the book. We don’t know who did the pasting or why s/he wrote in French.


Might it have been a Francophone Austen friend fashioning an impromptu author portrait out of a taken-from-life image? Absolutely.


Might it also have been a moony French teenager who found the silhouette at a flea market decades later and decided it looked exactly like her mental image of the author? Could be. No way of telling.


AustenBlog’s Margaret Sullivan, who shares my skepticism about the provenance and accuracy of the image, argues that “the silhouette is charming and we have no problem with it being a symbolic representation of the youthful Jane Austen.” Fair enough. Just so long as we remember that we don’t really know who’s in the picture.


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