Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 5 2017 01:00PM

I love the British press. When it comes to Jane Austen, they can manufacture a story out of the thinnest gossamer. Even recycled gossamer, as it turns out.


Last week, several UK news outlets (see here, here and here) were shocked – shocked! – to learn that the image of Jane Austen that will appear on the new £10 note, set for release in September, is somewhat controversial. The Austen portrait chosen by the Bank of England has been “air-brushed,” “prettified,” or “retouched,” they asserted, quoting recent Austen biographers Paula Byrne and Lucy Worsley.


Regular readers of my blog may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. Back in 2013, when the bank unveiled its prototype of the Austen tenner, Byrne made this identical point about the chosen image. And she wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every Janeite who pays attention noticed that the bank’s Austen image is based not on Cassandra Austen’s well-known sketch of her sister -- arguably the only portrait of Austen’s face made during her lifetime -- but on the gussied-up version of the Cassandra sketch commissioned by the family as a frontispiece to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 memoir of his famous aunt.


Why did the bank choose this particular image? As far as I know, they haven’t explained. Perhaps the National Portrait Gallery, where the Cassandra sketch hangs, was going to charge too much for the rights, as AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan suggested when I wrote about this topic before. (The NPG certainly charged me enough when I put the Cassandra sketch on my website!) Perhaps bank officials thought Cassandra’s peevish Austen conveys insufficient Great Writer Gravitas. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better.


But really -- does it matter? I don’t think so, and here’s why:


It’s fair to object that the Austen on the note looks calmer and sweeter than the Cassandra sketch. It’s fair to object that a calm, sweet Austen doesn’t match your personal mental image of a novelist noted for her biting wit. But as I have pointed out before, it’s not fair to object that the Austen portrait doesn’t look like Jane Austen – because we don’t have any idea what Austen looked like. And therefore, as far as I’m concerned, one fictional image is as good as any other.


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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 20 2014 02:00PM

Margaret C. Sullivan*, known for the past decade as the editrix of AustenBlog, picked her first Jane Austen paperback off a drugstore’s book rack because the cover caught her eye.


It’s fitting, then, that Sullivan’s hugely entertaining new book, Jane Austen Cover to Cover, should survey two centuries of Austen book covers. From a now-valuable Mansfield Park first edition in simple cardboard bindings to a hilariously wrong-headed 1965 paperback of Northanger Abbey (“The terror of Northanger Abbey had no name, no shape – yet it menaced Catherine Morland in the dead of night!”), these pages are a browsable bounty for any Janeite.


Sullivan contributes short, often witty descriptions of the covers she includes, as well as informative sidebars on such matters as Regency-era book production and period fashion. Appropriate Austen quotes are sprinkled throughout.


Austen is the original crossover artist–revered by scholars, adored in Hollywood, enjoyed by readers of every age, nationality and esthetic or political persuasion–and the book covers collected here reflect the range of responses to her work.


Sullivan gives us Austen as cheesy romance novelist (brooding heroes, swooning heroines, pulpy cover blurbs), Austen as elegant epitome of British heritage (stately homes, decorous oil portraits, iconic locations), and Austen as gum-cracking pop diva (Marvel Comics, movie tie-ins, bloodied zombie victim).


Gorgeously minimalist or arrestingly quirky modern editions rub shoulders with mid-century camp, like the bearded Captain Wentworth who, as Sullivan trenchantly notes, “looks like he fell off an Old Spice bottle.”


On one cover, a staid Fanny Price stand-in plies her needle; on another, a disembodied male hand caresses the jawline of a faceless young woman, illustrating an Emma that seems to have wandered in from the Teen Romance section. (“Perhaps it intends to depict the scene wherein Mr. Perry, the apothecary, checks Harriet Smith’s glands when she is home sick with a cold?” Sullivan speculates.)


All in all, it’s enough to light an acquisitive fire in the heart of even a Janeite with limited shelf space. Surely I could find room for that 2000 Modern Library edition, the one with Elizabeth Bennet in a red dress. . .



* Full disclosure: I interviewed Sullivan for Among the Janeites, I’ve enjoyed socializing with her at JASNA events since then, and AustenBlog gave my book an extremely generous review. (Oh, all right, since you insist: here’s the link.)




By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 4 2013 05:31PM

Maggie Sullivan's AustenBlog, though relatively quiet over the past year or so, has been a go-to source for news about Jane Austen and pop culture since 2004. When I first began thinking about writing a book on Jane Austen fans, I was partly inspired by Sullivan's incisive critique of Claire Harman's Jane's Fame, which, the review noted, treated contemporary Austen fandom in little depth.


"It would have been really interesting to have One Of Us, a Janeite who is “not afraid to be seen wallowing” as Ms. Harman put it, write an overview of the State of the Fandom, even a constructively critical one," Sullivan wrote. I quoted that line in my book proposal.


So it's very satisfying to report that AustenBlog finds Among the Janeites to be "the most thoroughly enjoyable Austen-related book we’ve read in some time." I've been reading AustenBlog daily for years now, and this accolade means a lot to me.


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