Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2018 02:00PM

At this point in Jane Austen’s career of pop-culture celebrity, it’s no surprise that every place with even a tangential connection to her life or work wants to publicize said linkage. And thus it is that two tidbits of news crossed my desk in recent weeks:


* The Vyne, a stately sixteenth-century home near Basingstoke, recently unveiled an exhibition about the life of the Victorian-era owner who devoted his entire fortune to saving the house from dereliction, thereby leaving his four daughters dowerless and unmarried.


Austen knew the Chute family, which owned the house for three centuries, until they turned it over to Britain’s National Trust in 1956. (And breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding the monstrous bills associated with its upkeep, according to the family’s current representative, seventy-one-year-old Robin Chute, who remembers sword-fighting with his brother in the Oak Gallery during Christmas visits to the ancestral manse.)


Austen mentions members of the Chute family in her letters, and she attended parties at The Vyne. But is it really the case, as a recent story in the Telegraph asserts, that “it’s thought that she may have based her Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price on Caroline Wiggett, who came to live at The Vyne in 1803 aged three, having been plucked from a pool of poor distant relations and adopted by the childless couple who lived there”?


Could be – Austen biographer Claire Tomalin notes some parallels – but Austen had a closer-to-home model for Fanny in her brother Edward, adopted by the childless Knights in 1783, when Jane was about seven. My antennae always rise at squirrelly attributions like “it’s thought,” which always suggest to me wishful thinking by publicists eager to milk an Austen connection.


Still, judging from the photos accompanying the Telegraph story, the Vyne is a splendid and beautifully restored home. (That library: to die for.) The participants in last summer’s Jane Austen Society of North America tour of Austen’s England visited; alas, my own JASNA tour in 2011 did not.


* Southampton, England, where Austen lived from 1806 until 1809, has installed a bas-relief plaque in her honor in a theater building in the city’s cultural district. An earlier version of the plaque, which was installed in the public library in1917 to commemorate the centennial of Austen’s death, was destroyed by bombing during World War II.


The new plaque features a sculpted adaptation of an 1804 watercolor her sister, Cassandra, made of Austen: not the famous head-and-shoulders portrait of a seemingly irritated Austen in a frilly turban, but a lesser-known representation of a seated Austen, seen from the back. (See both images here.)


For a Janeite, there’s a certain oddity to the plaque’s very existence. Although the Austen sisters indubitably lived in Southampton, sharing a home with their mother, their brother Francis – often away at sea -- and his wife and baby, Austen’s residence there marked a low point in her literary career. She seems to have written nothing during the Southampton years; it was the move to Chawton cottage in 1809 that finally gave her the time, space, and mental breathing-room to write or revise all six of her completed novels.


But you wouldn’t know that from Southampton’s plaque, which features the first line of Pride and Prejudice and a list of Austen’s novels -- right above the name of the Southampton street where she lived when she wasn’t writing any of them.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 2 2018 01:00PM

With their film adaptations and their fanfics and their Austen societies, residents of the Indian subcontinent seem to love Jane Austen just as much as do those of us in the Anglo-American-Australian axis.


So perhaps it is unsurprising that their websites should end up misquoting her just as much as ours do.


Yes, children, it is time once again for our favorite sport, Spot the Spurious Austen Quote -- now in a new international edition!


Last month, not one but two Indian news sites decided to mark the anniversary of Austen’s death by giving her another reason to spin in her grave. At the Indian Express, an English-language daily newspaper published in Mumbai, the tribute consisted of “10 quotes by the author on love and life,” interspersed with biographical tidbits. At iDiva, a gossip-beauty-fashion-relationships website, we were treated to “18 Jane Austen Quotes That Are Mantras For The Millennial Girl.”


Apparently, fact-checking the original text is a lost art in India, just as it seems to be here in the United States.


How else to explain why the Indian Express list manages to include two spurious Austen quotes and one kinda-right-kinda-wrong quote among its ten, for a less-than-impressive score of seventy-five percent?


The mistakes aren’t even original: There’s the ever-popular “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do,” which -- as I have tried in vain to impress upon the Internet -- is not an Austen quote but a garbled version of a line from the 2008 TV mini-series of Sense and Sensibility. There’s the only slightly less hoary “We are all fools in love,” which comes from the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice. And there’s the garbled “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings,” which, as I’ve noted before, is not exactly what Austen wrote in Mansfield Park. (I still gave half-credit for it, because I’m an easy grader.)


Not to worry, though: iDiva has worked hard to get us the very best of Austen, offering “18 handpicked quotes that are totally going to get a nod from that millennial soul in you.” Handpicked! What could be better?


Well, maybe if the hand doing the picking actually knew what it was up to.


Alas, yes: iDiva’s carefully curated selection also includes two spurious Austen quotes. (Lo and behold, they are exactly the same as the two spurious quotes that Indian Express gave us!) But iDiva does better: It also provides us two genuine Austen quotes that it attributes to the wrong book; two slightly incorrect versions of genuine Austen quotes; and two more seriously garbled genuine quotes, one of which – in an impressive twofer – is also attributed to the wrong book.*


On the other hand, iDiva does manage ten certifiably correct Austen quotes attributed to the correct book (three of them overlapping with Indian Express selections). I’m in a generous mood, so I’m giving iDiva credit for its two only-slightly-incorrect quotes, for a total score of sixty-seven percent. Passing – but only just.


What is to be done? How can this international plague of Austen misquotation be rolled back? Is there no cure? No antidote? No vaccine?


Google, you say? No, Google is actually part of the problem: Search for any of those spurious or garbled quotes, and you’ll find a dozen websites assuring you that they are genuine Jane Austen.


Millennial girls, I’m afraid it can’t be helped: If you want to make sure your current mantra is a genuine quote from the novelist Jane Austen, you’re going to have to acquaint yourself with, at the very least, a searchable electronic text of her novels. The horror.



* For the nerdy among us: #1 omits a word; #4 is seriously garbled, probably because it’s a version of a movie line that is based on a book line; #5 has one incorrect word; #7 is a garbled line from Persuasion misattributed to Pride and Prejudice; #8 is spurious; #14 is a Pride and Prejudice line misattributed to Northanger Abbey; #15 is spurious; #17 is a Mansfield Park line misattributed to Pride and Prejudice.




By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 8 2018 02:00PM

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


Two centuries ago, Jane Austen had spent her day productively.


“Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter finished exactly 204 years ago today (#98 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.”


To put myself in the correct frame of mind for this blog, I have read The Corsair and mended a pillowcase, since there’s little call for petticoats in my house. (Unlike Austen, I still have a long to-do list, but I did try.)


Byron is a great poet, but The Corsair -- which was published in February 1814, a month before Austen read it -- is not my cup of tea. Yes, the verse is miraculously supple and natural, but you can’t say the same of the story, what with its obscurely-tortured-yet-devastatingly-attractive pirate-hero, its selflessly virtuous heroine, and its homicidal anti-heroine-cum-harem-slave. Apparently, men too can write bad romance-novel plots.


Nevertheless, reading The Corsair – for the first time! My education has been sadly neglected – points up the comedy in Austen’s sentence. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Byron’s swashbuckling saga than the domestic chore of mending underwear. Coupling the two has the salutary effect of puncturing Byron’s pretensions, though Austen may also be poking fun at the lack of drama in her own life.


Meanwhile, as I plied my needle, like so many centuries of women before me, I found myself reflecting -- as perhaps Austen did, too -- on the bankruptcy of the madonna-whore dichotomy into which Byron so neatly fits his female characters.


Of course, Austen’s books contain their fair share of flawed men and good, or not-so-good, women. In case we need reminding that she took a subtler approach than The Corsair, later in the letter Austen reports on her brother’s response to her soon-to-be-published new novel, the story of a virtuous woman who withstands the blandishments of a plausible but problematic suitor.


“Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better,” she tells Cassandra. “He is in the 3d vol.—I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end;--he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 25 2017 02:00PM

For those of us with school-age children, Christmas week provides a delightful break from the rhythms of the academic calendar: No rising before dawn to meet the school bus, no rushing to squeeze homework in before bedtime, no anxious balancing of multiple extracurricular commitments. Heaven!


But of course, not everyone welcomes peaceful leisure-time – as Jane Austen reminds us in one of the few Christmastime sequences in her novels.


At Mansfield Park, the feverish excitement and romantic maneuvering surrounding the December 22 ball dissipates the next day, as William and Edmund leave on business (seafaring for William, ordination for Edmund). After some Christmas Eve chitchat about the festivities with Mrs. Grant and Mary Crawford, Fanny Price settles contentedly into her usual routines. Mary? Not so much.


“The week which passed so quietly and peaceably at the great house in Mansfield had a very different character at the Parsonage,” Austen tells us in chapter 29. “To the young lady, at least, in each family, it brought very different feelings. What was tranquility and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary.”


Indeed, by New Year’s Day, Mary can no longer stand the company of her own thoughts, and the regrets, worries, and jealousies about Edmund that they bring. She’s off to Mansfield Park to grill Fanny about why her cousin has extended his visit with his friend Mr. Owen.


“Was his letter a long one? Does he give you much account of what he is doing? Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for? . . . How many Miss Owens are there? . . . Are they musical?” she babbles. “. . . . But it is very foolish to ask questions about any young ladies—about any three sisters just grown up; for one knows, without being told, exactly what they are: all very accomplished and pleasing, and one very pretty. There is a beauty in every family; it is a regular thing. Two play on the pianoforte, and one on the harp; and all sing, or would sing if they were taught, or sing all the better for not being taught; or something like it.”


Mary just can’t stop herself; she seems helpless to stem the characteristic flow of witty banter – made suddenly brittle by the sincere emotion that she’s half-ashamed of and can barely acknowledge even to herself. And how does Fanny respond to all this accidentally self-revealing blather?


“ 'I know nothing of the Miss Owens,' said Fanny calmly."


To quote my kids – “Burn!” And they call this woman a doormat! I don't think so. But here’s wishing you a Christmas week full of tranquility and comfort.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 14 2017 02:00PM

The year marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death is almost over, but one more major Austen anniversary lies ahead of us: 2018 is the two hundredth year since the posthumous joint publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.*


Writer, critic, and blogger Sarah Emsley, who has already curated eclectic and insightful blog series for the bicentenaries of Mansfield Park and Emma, will launch a new one on Saturday, Austen’s 242nd birthday. Running over the next six months, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” will include posts from dozens of Austen readers, some academic and some not, analyzing different aspects of these two very different novels.


My contribution is running at the very end, in June, since I’m writing about Captain Wentworth’s letter, perhaps my single favorite passage in all of Jane Austen. Don’t ask me how I snagged this prize; Sarah didn’t even make me arm-wrestle for it.


Emsley has a star-studded Janeite Rolodex; the contributors to her past series have exposed me to new information and ideas about everything from Austen’s religious beliefs to Regency cooking. I’m looking forward to learning more about the novels that bookended Austen’s writing career.



* “What? I’m confused! I thought those books were published in December of 1817!”

Yes, Virginia, they were, but the title page says 1818, so we’re allowed to keep celebrating all next year.


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