Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 10 2017 01:00PM

During World War I, historians tell us, Jane Austen’s novels were sometimes prescribed to traumatized British soldiers as a remedy for shell-shock, anxiety and despair. And now, it seems, the benefits of the Austen Cure are about to become available to another jumpy, unsettled demographic: lonely dogs and their guilt-ridden owners.


Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon, has just announced a new program, Audible for Dogs, whose spokesman is dog whisperer Cesar Millan. And among the titles Millan recommends for canine consumption (figuratively speaking, I hasten to add) is a 2015 recording of Pride and Prejudice, read by British actress Rosamund Pike, who played Jane Bennet in the 2005 P&P film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.


The idea of Audible for Dogs is to give man’s best friend a soothing substitute for His Master’s Voice when said master is out of the house for long periods of time. Just set up a digital speaker, crank up an audiobook featuring the calm, consistent tones of someone whose voice resembles that of the primary dog-owner, and voila: no more guilty worries that lonely, neurotic Fido will spend your absence peeing on the carpet, chewing your Manolos, or annoying the neighbors with incessant barking.


Such is the idea, anyway. Millan and Audible claim to have backed up their hunch with a month-long study featuring one hundred volunteer dog-human pairs, but forgive me for a teensy bit of skepticism about the objectivity and scientific rigor of this experiment.


For Janeites, the key question is clear: Although Pride and Prejudice is often suggested as a good introduction to Austen for human readers, is the same true for canine ones? I’m concerned that Millan may have set these four-legged neophytes up for failure by choosing a book that, as far as I can recall, contains no mention of dogs at all.


Given that omission, it hardly seems fair to stack P&P up against some of the more canine-centric titles on Millan’s list, including Soldier Dogs, A Dog’s Purpose, and The Art of Racing in the Rain. Wouldn’t he have been better off choosing Northanger Abbey, whose hero greets visitors accompanied by “the friends of his solitude, a large Newfoundland puppy and two or three terriers”? Or Sense and Sensibility, whose anti-hero Willougby, though lacking in moral fiber, at least has the good taste to own “the nicest little black bitch of a pointer” that Sir John Middleton has ever seen?


But really, the answer is obvious: Dogs are clearly the only readers who should be introduced to Jane Austen by way of Mansfield Park. To human readers, Fanny Price may seem insipid, and Edmund Bertram's cluelessness may cry out for a slap upside the head. But what canine companion, nursing feelings of neglect and abandonment as its owner departs for a long day at the office, won’t be charmed by Lady Bertram’s excellent judgment in “thinking more of her pug than her children”?


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 27 2017 01:00PM

I marked the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death last week in rather prosaic fashion: giving my house an all-too-infrequent thorough cleaning, while listening to a new audio adaptation of Northanger Abbey.


The cleaning was, as ever, tedious and tiring. The adaptation – a made-for-Audible version headlined by Emma Thompson as the narrator, or, as the credits would have it, as “Jane Austen” – was quite delightful.


It’s an exhaustively complete, scrupulously faithful six-hour version, which allows room for lots of the narratorial voiceover that so seldom makes it into Austen adaptations. We get to hear Thompson read the famous defense of the novel and remark dryly, “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, must conceal it as well as she can.” The other actors, some of them well-known to American audiences and others less so, are also excellent.


If only I had realized that, while I was lugging my vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs to the accompaniment of Henry Tilney’s witticisms, London Janeites were enjoying the recording in style.


Turns out that for seven hours on July 18 – the Austen bicentenary and the release date of the adaptation – Audible offered free rides through the streets of London in so-called “Austen taxis”: carriages pulled by matched pairs of horses and piloted by coachmen in Georgian dress. (More pictures here.) Along the way, the lucky customers who signed up for these elegant commutes listened to excerpts from the NA adaptation.


Sounds quite lovely, doesn’t it? (Assuming, of course, that your coachman was more Henry Tilney than John Thorpe.) I think I would willingly have traded my clean kitchen floor for a ride in an Austen taxi.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 29 2017 01:00PM

A little over two centuries ago, Jane Austen famously recorded her acquaintances’ opinions, pro and con, of Emma and Mansfield Park. So perhaps she would have enjoyed browsing the catalogue of an auction held this week to benefit Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, a charity that runs literary events, gives grants and prizes to authors, and engages in outreach to students in disadvantaged public schools.


In keeping with the All Jane Austen All The Time theme of this bicentenary year, the RSL’s online and live auctions, which wrapped up on Tuesday, featured nothing but Austen-related items -- eighteen of them, including drawings, annotated film scripts, and special offers, such as a book-club visit from an Austen expert or tea with a recent Austen biographer.


Among the most covetable items were handwritten comments on Austen by famous authors – Kazuo Ishiguro on Mansfield Park; Margaret Atwood and British children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson on Pride and Prejudice; Ian McEwan on Northanger Abbey. Some of the comments were adoring (“I’ve learnt so much from this supreme novelist”-- Ishiguro) and some were impish (“Were underage readers of this book, such as myself, doomed to a series of hopeless liaisons in which unpleasant men turned out to be simply unpleasant?”— Atwood). And one commenter was as harsh as Austen’s young acquaintance Fanny Cage, whose response to Mansfield Park was “did not much like it. . . nothing interesting in the Characters––– Language poor”: Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin said he finds Austen “a bit stuffy and dull.”


Perhaps not coincidentally, bidding on the worshipful Ishiguro item closed at £1,899 (about $2,433), whereas the carping Rankin went for a mere £150 ($192).


Were I richer than I'm ever likely to be, I wouldn't have minded bidding on that Atwood letter. But my personal favorite among the items was the cartoon by British artist Posy Simmonds, who imagined Jane Austen weighing whether to return from the afterlife to enjoy the accolades now heaped upon her. Simmonds’ Austen envisions what awaits her – impertinent prying into her sex life, stultifying feminist lit-crit jargon, fans prattling about Colin Firth and calling her “Jane” – and decides to stay put.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 23 2017 01:00PM

Regular blog readers will recall that I find the very concept of “Jane Austen-inspired” smells, flavors and visuals – as in Austen perfume, toothpaste or knitting patterns – bizarre and problematic. I accept that this is because I am a blinkered and limited human being.


Clearly, however, others are far less bemused by Austen-inspired brand extension than I am. The latest evidence of this fact is the Jane Austen textile design competition co-sponsored by the Whitchurch Silk Mill, a historic nineteenth-century factory located not far from Steventon, the Hampshire village where Jane Austen was born and lived until she was twenty-five.


Earlier this week, the mill announced that a textile pattern designed by Nicole Calliste, a student at the Winchester School of Art, had won a contest “to produce a design which reflected Jane Austen’s enduring influence for a modern-day audience.” (Like so much else going on in Hampshire this year, the competition is part of the commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death.)


Calliste’s design, which she will weave on a handloom at the mill, was inspired by the curious and imaginative Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. “This is the sort of fabric a young woman of great imagination and creativity may have chosen today,” the mill’s director says.


By June, the pattern will be for sale in the mill’s gift shop, incorporated into pencil cases and other items. Judging from the newspaper photo, it’s a bright and appealing textile. But if you didn’t already know it was Austen-inspired, could you tell? I couldn’t – but, as we’ve already established, I’m blinkered and limited.


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.



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