Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 19 2017 01:00PM

“The new Darcy Hotel. . . is named for that taciturn hero of Jane Austen’s,” the Washington Times wrote earlier this month, at the outset of an enthusiastic review of the hotel’s seafood restaurant. Disappointingly, the restaurant is called Siren, a name with no P&P associations whatsoever. Instead of, say, Bennet. Or Lady Catherine’s Place. Or Lydia’s Petticoat.


Alas, this dearth of Austen associations is no anomaly, at least as far as I can glean from the website of the hotel, located in Washington D.C.’s upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood. Nary a mention of Austen appears anywhere on the site; without the Times tip-off, there'd be no way of knowing the hotel was named for the literary hero, rather than the character in Thor or the Smashing Pumpkins bassist.* The metal-and-glass décor is described as “updated mid-century modern” – presumably that’s not the mid-nineteenth century – and the his-and-hers silhouettes hanging above the bed in one room photo are rainbowed in neon.


Only the hotel’s amenities evoke that understated-elegance, waited-on-hand-and-foot Pemberley vibe: You can borrow cufflinks from the Haberdashery, order a bespoke suit custom-made during your stay, sip free cocktails every evening, or have a libation created for you in your own room by the “cocktail butler.”


For those of us who might be willing to overlook the thinness of the Austen veneer just so we can say we stayed at The Darcy, prices don’t seem to be excessive, as these things go: Although a mid-week stay begins perilously close to $400 a night and goes up from there, a summer weekend night starts at a more reasonable $179. And with luck, the company will be better than at Lady Catherine’s Place.



* All right, all right. I admit I would never have thought of either of these alternatives without an assist from Google.

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, Feb 27 2017 02:00PM

Once or twice in the past, I have mentioned my aversion to lists of Jane Austen quotes – or mugs with Jane Austen quotes, or, indeed, any items with Jane Austen quotes – that feature quotes that are not actually by Jane Austen. (OK, maybe more than twice.)


I have not dwelt with quite as much vigor on the similarly irritating phenomenon of merchandise featuring out-of-context Jane Austen quotes – for instance, the pendant enclosing those immortal Northanger Abbey lines, “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,” spoken by that paragon of unselfish female friendship, Isabella Thorpe.


Perhaps it is time to remedy this omission. Last week, my Google alert for Austen’s name brought me word of a new (or new to me?) Pride and Prejudice-themed item in the gift shop of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England: a heart-shaped slate wall-hanging that reads, "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." It’s “the ideal romantic gift or decoration,” the promotional copy assures us.


Much as I hate to torpedo the romantic mood, I feel compelled to point out that this line comes from a marriage proposal that was refused – refused, I might add, because it was overbearing, arrogant and insulting. Shortcomings that, just incidentally, Jane Austen makes crystal clear to the alert reader even in this short passage. (“In vain have I struggled”? Why is he fighting his feelings? Because, as he will shortly make clear, he is so acutely conscious of the social inferiority of his love object. “You must allow me to tell you”? What, no one else gets any choices?)


Sure, Mr. Darcy is a romantic icon, but not because of this scene! He’s going to improve, but meanwhile he’s a jerk, and reform-after-jerkiness is kind of the point of the book. I find it annoying when Darcy’s every utterance, even when uttered by his unreformed self, is treated as swoon-worthy; it’s as if the hotness of Colin Firth magically transforms Mr. Darcy into one of those unblemished paragons who, as Jane Austen so memorably remarked, made her “sick and wicked.”


But if you disagree, you can pick up this little item for a mere £10.99. If you wait until summer, you can pay for it using one of the new Jane Austen £10 notes, which feature a quote about the joys of reading from that noted intellectual, Caroline Bingley.



By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 13 2017 02:00PM

Edward IV, who reigned as king of England for most of the period from 1461-1483, was described by contemporaries as an unusually handsome man. But you wouldn’t guess it from looking at the paintings, which suggest he had an extremely long nose and an extraordinarily small mouth.*




This digression into medieval history, brought to you courtesy of my eighth-grade research paper on the Wars of the Roses, was inspired by last week’s tiny Internet furor over a British TV channel’s allegedly expert historical reconstruction of What Mr. Darcy Really Looked Like. (Unsurprisingly, this expert historical reconstruction was timed to draw attention to the channel’s new Jane Austen Season, featuring the rebroadcast of various beloved Austen adaptations.)


Georgian-historian-cum-TV-personality Amanda Vickery and Austen scholar John Sutherland teamed up to investigate the standards of male beauty that would likely have been in Jane Austen’s mind when she created her handsome hero. Surprise! Over the past two centuries, our idea of male beauty has. . . well, let’s just say changed. “Evolved” might denote condescension toward our ancestors’ misguided ideas of hotness. (See under: Edward IV.)


But on to Mr. Darcy. Tall, dark and handsome? Nah. Instead of muscular, square-jawed, altogether hunky Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen, the real Mr. Darcy would apparently have been pale, pointy-faced and narrow-shouldered. (Strapping chests were for common laborers, not gentlemen of leisure.) And he would have powdered his hair! And he would have stood only 5’11”! Frankly, the artist's rendition commissioned for the occasion makes him look like a bit of a dweeb.


I suppose it is churlish to point out that whatever the fashion when Jane Austen began writing First Impressions, by the time Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, powdered hair was passé. Or that 5’11”, while a few inches below the heights of Messrs. Firth and Macfadyen, is above average (i.e. tall) for white men in both England and the United States even today.


(Surely, however, we are allowed to giggle over the RadioTimes headline: “Science reveals what Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy would really have looked like.” You kind of wonder if the headline writer realized that Darcy is fictional, and therefore not easily accessible to science.)


This whole teapot tempest should remind us, again, that Jane Austen’s genius lies as much in what she leaves out as in what she puts in. Was Darcy a Colin Firth hunk, or a pointy-chinned aristocrat? She doesn’t really say. She leaves it to each of us to envision “his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien,” according to whatever historically inflected, invariably subjective standard we choose to apply. She puts our imaginations in service to her story, engaging us in the project of making her fictional worlds real. What did Mr. Darcy "really" look like? You tell me.



* Honesty compels me to admit that these paintings were created decades after Edward’s death. But my point remains: no one looking at them now would say, “Now, there’s a good-looking guy!”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 16 2016 01:00PM

Today’s edition of Jane Austen Craft Projects I Wish I Had Time For features a charming cross-stitch kit based on one of C.E. Brock’s 1895 illustrations of Pride and Prejudice. The picture – black-and-white in the original, but tastefully colored in for stitching purposes -- shows Darcy looking down his nose at Elizabeth and telling Bingley, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.”


C.E. Brock and his brother H.M. Brock are among the most famous illustrators of Austen, though I’ve always found their work a bit too pretty-pretty to suit my taste for a spikier Austen. The original of the cross-stitch picture can be seen here; Maggie Sullivan’s Molland's website compiles the Austen illustrations of both Brocks, along with e-texts of all the novels.


You will already have noticed that Yiota’s XStitch, the family-run business that markets this kit through Amazon, doesn’t know how to spell “Elizabeth,” as in Bennet. (This is especially unfortunate since its mailing address is on “Austen Road” – in, of all English counties, Jane Austen’s own Hampshire.)


But I’m in a kindly mood this week, so I will forgive them this trespass and return instead to imagining myself living a life that includes time for cross-stitch.


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