Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 22 2019 01:00PM

The cathedral city of Winchester, England, seems to have a love-hate relationship with Jane Austen. Or so we might assume from the odd juxtaposition of two recent bits of news.


Earlier this year, as blog readers will recall, Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, scrapped plans to erect an expensive statue in her honor, after a torrent of public criticism. Around the same time, however, the cathedral unveiled a new tourism package featuring a “Jane Austen themed tour.”


For £18.50 (about $24), visitors get a guided tour of the cathedral, offering “an intimate and often amusing insight into [Austen's] life”; a walk through the Inner Close to the College Street house where she died, which is not open to visitors; and afternoon tea in the cathedral’s refectory. (Scones and clotted cream! Hurrah!)


Critics of the statue plan noted that Austen had only a tenuous connection to Winchester – she came to the city to seek medical treatment and died less than two months later – and the cathedral’s tour arrangements inadvertently confirm this inconvenient fact: Visitors meet their guide at 11:25 am and are finished with Austen and ready for tea by 1 pm. The afternoon is allocated to “free time to explore Winchester.”


Still: scones, clotted cream, and one of England’s most beautiful cathedrals. A soupçon of Jane Austen is just a bonus.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 4 2019 01:00PM

Remember back in elementary school, when one kid would get an awesome new toy or a cool pair of shoes, and then everybody had to have their own? Today’s equivalent of Beanie Babies, rainbow looms, and sneakers that light up seems to be Jane Austen statues.


In 2017, you’ll recall, Basingstoke commemorated the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, who never lived there, by erecting a life-size bronze in the town center. Then, a year later, nearby Chawton, where Austen actually did live, followed suit with its own smaller version of the same statue.


And now comes word that Bath, where Austen spent the years 1801 to 1806, plans to join the club. The local Jane Austen Centre is apparently talking with city officials about the best location for another life-size bronze, to be based on a waxwork image of Austen “said to be the closest-ever likeness to the author,” according to a report on local-news website SomersetLive.


Bath’s right to an Austen statue is equivocal: On the one hand, she lived there for a substantial period of time, and she set portions of two of her novels there. On the other hand, most biographers think she disliked the place, and her writing output slowed to a trickle during her years there.


As for that waxwork, a 2014 image created by forensic artist Melissa Dring, it owes its reputation for extreme accuracy entirely to the Jane Austen Centre, which commissioned it. Not everyone is equally convinced, and, as I’ve often noted, every claim about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of an Austen image is entirely theoretical, because no one knows what Jane Austen actually looked like.


It’s hard to shake the feeling that the push for a statue in Bath is less about honoring Austen than about publicizing the Jane Austen Centre, which is, depending on your point of view, either a charming introduction to Austen’s life and times, or a kitschy tourist trap.


Still, the centre is putting a feminist gloss on its efforts. "Not only will it be good to honor Austen the author, it will also be good to go a little way to redress the fact that less than 3 per cent of all statues in the UK are of historical, non-royal women,” says managing director Paul Crossey. (At the current rate, 3 percent of all statues in the UK will soon be statues of Jane Austen.)


The enthusiasm for a Bath statue comes barely a month after Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, scotched its plans for yet another Austen statue, in the face of public criticism. I guess that makes the Winchester public the equivalent of the mom who insists that your regular sneakers still have a lot of wear in them and she’s not going to shell out $50 for the ones with the flashing lights. There’s a mom like that in every class.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 28 2019 02:00PM

Is it possible to have too much Jane Austen? Apparently, the good citizens of Winchester, England, think it is.


Last fall, Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen is buried, launched a curiously muted campaign to raise £250,000 (about $328,000) to erect an outdoor statue of her designed by a prominent sculptor. What followed was a storm of public criticism -- much of it aired in the local newspaper's letters column -- from people who disliked the look of the proposed statue, hated the idea of cluttering up the serene environs of the cathedral close, experienced sticker shock at the price tag, and/or believed the money would be better spent on other things.


Last week, cathedral administrators bowed to the criticism and dropped the idea. “There are other priorities within the Cathedral and city that need to be the focus of attention and energy at this time,” they wrote.


Winchester was always a peculiar locale for an elaborate tribute to our beloved writer: Austen journeyed to the city only to seek medical treatment, lived in lodgings there for less than two months, and is buried in the cathedral merely because she died nearby. It’s a fairly tenuous connection, as at least one Hampshire resident noted in a letter to the local newspaper objecting to the statue plan.


“The Cathedral already has Jane Austen’s gravestone and Winchester has the house she died in,” wrote Reefat Drabu, the president of the local chapter of the British Federation of Women Graduates, which promotes women’s education. “The two seem adequate and certainly reflect her relationship with Winchester.”


Ouch! But accurate, I must admit.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 20 2018 02:00PM

Eighteen months ago, not a single statue of Jane Austen was on public display anywhere in the world. And now, it appears, we will soon have three within a ten-mile radius.


Back in July 2017, the Hampshire town of Basingstoke, where Austen shopped and danced but never lived, unveiled a bronze figure of the author to commemorate the bicentenary of her death. In June of this year, the nearby village of Chawton, where Austen not only lived but also wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, installed its own, smaller version of the same statue.


And last month, Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, quietly inaugurated a fund-raising campaign for its own Austen bronze, to be installed in the cathedral’s Inner Close. The sculptor is Martin Jennings, who has created public statues of everyone from George Orwell to the late Queen Mother. He envisions Austen backgrounded by a tree, a quill pen, and the famous writing desk on display in nearby Chawton cottage, aka Jane Austen’s House Museum. (I’m not bowled over by the mockup visible in this video, but I’m no art critic, so don’t pay attention to me.)


The cathedral has set an ambitious-sounding fundraising target of £250,000 (about $316,000) for the project, but so far its publicity efforts seem curiously low-key, at least to a pushy American like me. Although I have a Google alert for online mentions of Austen’s name, the campaign never surfaced there; instead, I stumbled across the Winchester effort by accident – only to learn that a JustGiving page has apparently been operational for nearly a month.


It looks as if I’m not the only Janeite in the dark: As of this morning, the crowdsourcing had raised a grand total of £71.65 ($90) from three donors, one of whom cheerfully commented, apropos of exhorting continued effort, “It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do!” (**headdesk**)


Meanwhile, when a local newspaper reporter went looking for a quote last week, “a cathedral spokesman declined to discuss the Jane in the Close project.” Umm – what? It’s two weeks before the year’s biggest gift-giving holiday, and you don’t seize the chance to publicize your effort to raise money to commemorate one of the world’s most beloved novelists? It might be time to shop for a new spokesman.


Perhaps the spokesman is speechless with bemusement (which I share) at the proliferation of images of someone whose face is essentially unknowable. Whether you meet Austen's statue in Basingstoke, Chawton, or WInchester -- or wherever town next chooses to erect a bronze version of Our Jane -- you'll always be meeting a fiction. Which, come to think about it, is actually kind of appropriate.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 18 2018 01:00PM

A couple of months ago, when Jane Austen’s House Museum unveiled the results of the collaborative quilting project it organized to commemorate the 2017 bicentennial of Austen’s death, I bemoaned the lack of close-up photos for those of us who couldn’t journey to England to view the quilt squares in person.


I’m happy to say that omission has now been rectified: All fifty-three panels in the Jane Austen Community Story Quilt are now viewable in three online galleries, along with information about the theme and creator of each panel.


The panels, which cover aspects of Austen’s life and work, vary widely: Some are abstract, some are representational; some are specific, some more suggestive. Panels portray the church in Steventon, where Austen spent her first twenty-five years; Winchester Cathedral, where she is buried; and the museum itself, aka Chawton cottage, where she wrote or revised all six of her finished novels. Each novel gets a panel of its own, as do the Juvenilia and the unfinished Sanditon. Some panels also tackle themes in Austen’s work, such as elopement, self-control, and women’s precarious legal status.


Of course, a two-dimensional representation of needlework can’t substitute for an in-person viewing – texture and materials come across only imperfectly on screen – but for those of us whose international travel budgets are not what we might wish, this is a serviceable way to experience one of the most delightful Austen bicentenary projects.


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