Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 1 2019 01:00PM

The dog days of summer are approaching, and perhaps that’s why the amount of Stupid Jane Austen Stuff coming my way seems to have ramped up recently. The hot weather softens the brain, I guess, rendering journalists incapable of CHECKING THE ACCURACY of anything they post online about one of the world’s most famous authors.


Or so I conclude from the following:


1. Bad Quoting: For once, it’s not a movie quote masquerading as a book quote. It’s a book quote understood in a sense diametrically opposed to Austen’s intentions.


“Where would we be without our best friends?” the parenting website Romper asked last month. “It's hard to encapsulate all that your bestie means to you in a speedily written message, but worry not, these sentimental things to text your BFF on National Best Friends' Day will do just that.”


Topping the following thirteen-item list is a one-hundred-percent genuine quote from Northanger Abbey: “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”


Why this quote? Romper explains: “Jane just had a way with words, and if your friends are big bookworms like mine are, they'll likely know the quote.”


Better hope not, since these words come from the mouth of Isabella Thorpe, whose recipe for friendship is two parts cynical manipulation to one part insincere flattery. (Although, come to think of it, Isabella is exactly the kind of person who would text Hallmark-worthy sentiments to her #BFF #reallyyouare #loveyousomuchgirl for a fake holiday like this one.)


2. Bad History: A strikingly unusual four-bedroom house is for sale in Warwickshire, in south-central England. It’s an octagonal building located on the palatial grounds of a medieval abbey. It’s selling for £870,000 (about $1.1 million). The pictures make it look lovely. So far, so good.


Alas, however, the estate in question is Stoneleigh Abbey, which has a peripheral relationship to Jane Austen’s life and work. Thus giving us the following headline on a report about the sale of the octagonal house: “Inside the eight-sided home in Warwickshire that inspired one of Jane Austen’s novels.”


Sigh. Yes, it has often been theorized that Austen based Sotherton Court, the Rushworths’ grand home in Mansfield Park, and especially the family chapel where one crucial scene occurs, on Stoneleigh Abbey and its chapel. The eight-sided house, however, forms no part in this discussion. I’d call it an exaggeration to say that even Stoneleigh itself “inspired” the entire novel, but I’ll cut the headline writers a break . . .


. . . because at least they didn’t write the following, from a different publication’s report on the sale of the octagonal house: “Jane moved to the estate in 1806, before she became a successful novelist, when it was inherited by her mother’s cousin, Reverend Thomas Leigh. He brought Cassandra Austen, Jane’s mother, to live with him at the site as well as Jane and her sister, also called Cassandra. At the time the gardener on the estate was Humphry Repton, who later featured as a minor character in Austen’s third novel Mansfield Park.”


Extraordinary how much misinformation can be packed into a few short sentences. To wit:


--Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister visited Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 while staying for a short time with Reverend Leigh in the nearby village of Adlestrop. They “moved to” Stoneleigh only in the sense that I “moved to” Rhode Island during my four-day vacation there last summer.


--Humphry Repton was not a gardener. He was one of the most famous landscape designers of his era. He did, indeed, undertake improvements at Stoneleigh, but not until a year or two after the Austens’ visit.


--Repton is not a character, even a minor one, in Mansfield Park. He is mentioned briefly during a discussion in chapter 6 of possible improvements to Sotherton.


And to think! All of this is easily verifiable through a few quick Google searches!


3. Bad Biography: Although you have to be careful about what you Google, since you might end up getting your question answered on a site like Study.com, a purveyor of online courses, where I found the following answer to the question “Who was Jane Austen married to?”


“Jane Austen never married. She fell in love with her former neighbor, Tom Lefroy. They spent much time in each other's company, and it briefly looked as if they would marry. However, Tom Lefroy never proposed to Jane Austen, and their relationship eventually ended. For the rest of her life, Jane Austen set Tom up as the standard by which she judged all other suitors. None of them compared to him, so she refused to marry.”


**headdesk**


It’s not even that Tom Lefroy was a visitor to the neighborhood, not a neighbor; or that they actually spent only a handful of hours in each other’s company, not “much time”; or that the depth of Austen’s feelings for him and the reason(s) she never married are unknown, and unknowable. No, it’s the sentimental and purely speculative twaddle about Tom as “the standard by which she judged all other suitors” that really irks me. Repeat after me, children: Becoming Jane was fictionalized. Just because Anne Hathaway says it, that doesn’t make it true.


Suggestion for Study.com: Offer a course in finding accurate information on the Internet.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 13 2019 01:00PM

Most Janeites don’t need to hear, yet again, that Jane Austen was not a kindly maiden aunt whose sweet, insubstantial little romance novels provide a wholesome escape from reality. But it’s still enjoyable to listen as smart people discuss her life and work, and thus it is that I can recommend a recent half-hour episode in the BBC’s “Great Lives” radio series.


The segment, which aired last week, features Caroline Criado Perez, the British journalist and activist whose campaign to put a woman on the UK’s currency brought us the Jane Austen £10 note; and Paula Byrne, the scholar whose Austen books include The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things and The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood.


In conversation with host Matthew Parris, Byrne and Criado Perez discuss Austen’s juvenilia, Austen’s family, Austen’s humor, Austen’s misleading public image (“What more annoys me is when people dislike her for the wrong reasons,” Criado Perez says), and—inevitably—Austen’s love life.


Parris begins, “There is a biopic called Becoming Jane. . .”


“. . . oh, God. . . ,” interjects Criado Perez, right before she and Byrne savage the evergreen tale of Austen’s heartbreak over her youthful crush Tom Lefroy as so much sexist bunkum.


“She did have an eye for men,” Parris suggests, noting the sex appeal of Austenian heroes.


“We all have an eye for men, but that doesn’t mean we want to marry them and have their babies,” Criado Perez replies tartly. “Sometimes there are other things in a woman’s life.”


Not that this is news to Janeites. But it still bears repeating.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 23 2018 01:00PM

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


The young Jane Austen was a voracious reader. We know this because her earliest works, the Juvenilia, are clever satires of everything she read – the overwrought melodramas with their impossibly handsome heroes and swooning heroines, the partisan histories masquerading as objective fact, the plays stuffed with prosy, circuitous dialogue.


Even the short letter the 20-year-old Austen wrote exactly 222 years ago today (#3 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) shows traces of this parodic impulse. Austen and two of her brothers had left the family home in Steventon the day before, and Jane’s brief note served to inform their sister, Cassandra, that they had arrived safely in London.


“Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted,” Austen writes. “Edward & Frank are both gone out to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon & help us seek ours. The former we shall never see again.”


In Austen’s comic formulation, she isn’t a beloved younger sister carefully chaperoned by respectable male relatives. She’s the heroine of a sentimental melodrama, abandoned to her own devices in a threatening city where a young woman’s virtue is easily lost.


In reality, the Austens’ London trip was only a brief stopover en route to Edward Austen’s family home in Kent. A visit to Astley’s, the famous Regency equestrian circus, was about as dissipated as it got.


Or was it? Enthusiasts of the Tom-Lefroy-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life theory find it intriguing that while in London, the Austen siblings seem to have stayed with the former MP Benjamin Langlois, Tom’s mentor and great-uncle. Indeed, Austen scholar Jon Spence, author of the book that inspired the biopic Becoming Jane, argues that Austen and Lefroy saw each other there, just seven months after the day on which, Austen wrote, “I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy.”


If so, Austen’s letter contains no hint of such an exciting, not to say melodramatic-novel-worthy, development, which Cassandra would surely have been eager to hear about. Perhaps all the good stuff was in the following week’s letters, which Le Faye informs us are missing. Or perhaps all the drama of the visit took place in Austen’s playful imagination.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 21 2017 02:00PM

People who do not write fiction often have trouble believing that novelists just, you know, make stuff up. These readers seize upon every real or apparent parallel between events in the author’s life and events in her stories and use these supposed connections to “explain” the work, or the life, or both.


As blog readers will recall, I’ve always found this approach to literary criticism a condescending diminishment of the creative process -- and, when it comes to a genius of Jane Austen’s caliber, downright insulting. But it’s a tendency that has persisted for centuries. Why, it was just last week that I was remarking upon how adeptly Austen handled the delicate problem of an overenthusiastic fan volunteering to give her real-life material for her stories, as if she needed the help.


And now the Twitterverse agrees with me.


Last week, the Washington Post had the misfortune to mark Jane Austen’s birthday with an article that was, to put it charitably, a tired retread of well-worn tales about Jane Austen’s limited romantic history. “Husband-hunting butterfly”? Check. Tom Lefroy? Check. Harris Bigg-Withers? Check.


Then the WaPo headlined the story “Jane Austen was the master of the marriage plot. But she remained single.” Then they tweeted out the headline. Then the Twitterverse ridiculed them (see accounts of the brouhaha, along with some diverting comments, here, here, here, here and here) for suggesting a) that writers can only write out of personal experience; b) that Austen should be thought of primarily as a writer about romance; and c) that marriage is the ultimate goal for women and anything else – say, enduring worldwide literary fame -- is a mere consolation prize.


As these tweetstorms so often are, this one was a little bit unfair -- the WaPo story was pointless and dull, but it didn’t really make the silly claims Twitter attributed to it. (Instead, it made other silly claims. I direct your Janeite attention to the extraordinarily misleading sentence, “Austen’s six novels burnish the institution of marriage.”)


Nonetheless, the exchange was a bracing and entertaining reminder that We Do Not Like It when you mess with Jane Austen. Altogether delightful. Call it an early Christmas present.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 9 2017 02:00PM

Nineteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


If Cassandra Austen had known how much speculation would be spawned by the letter her sister Jane wrote her exactly 221 years ago today, she would surely have consigned it to the flames, along with the uncounted others she burned before her death.


Instead, however, Cassandra preserved it, and as a result it became the earliest Jane Austen letter that has come down to us -- #1 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. I’ve always wondered if the outsize attention this letter has received owes something to that accidental position of prominence: The very first time we encounter the joyful, chatty voice of the twenty-year-old Jane Austen, she’s talking about her crush on a young man named Tom Lefroy.


“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved,” Austen writes to Cassandra, away in Berkshire visiting the family of her fiancé, Tom Fowle. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. . . . He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much, for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs Lefroy a few days ago. . . . After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr Tom Lefroy. . . . he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove – it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.”


Obviously, she liked him. Apparently, he liked her back. A few days later they parted, never to meet again. And largely on the basis of this letter, plus references to Lefroy in two others, a cottage industry has arisen devoted to the proposition that Tom Lefroy, the Irish nephew of Austen’s friend and mentor Anne Lefroy, was the love of Austen’s life, the real-life model for Mr. Darcy, the reason she never married, the muse who inspired her greatest work. . . you name it.


In his 2003 book Becoming Jane Austen, the scholar Jon Spence claimed that Austen and Lefroy had a longer-lasting and more serious relationship than the few references in her letters suggest. The 2007 film Becoming Jane, inspired by Spence’s work, took that thesis and ran with it, positing a romance, a first kiss, a thwarted engagement, an abortive elopement, a selfless renunciation and a poignant late-life reunion.


Since I haven’t read Spence’s book, I can’t say how convincing his scholarship is, but there’s no question that the movie encouraged a generation of filmgoers to conclude that Jane Austen wrote those books of hers (“They’re romance novels, right?”) in wistful tribute to the first love she never got over. Loyal blog readers will recall that I am, shall we say, not charitably inclined toward this thesis, which rests largely on thinly documented speculation about the psychological state of someone who died two centuries ago.


I won’t go so far as to say that I wish Cassandra had tossed the Lefroy letter onto her bonfire. No, I treasure every scrap of Austen’s prose too much for that. But I wish the rest of us could stop speculating about Austen’s love life and go back to reading her books.


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