Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 10 2017 01:00PM

More than eighty years ago, a famous art historian commissioned two famous painters (one of them related to an even more famous writer) to paint him a china dinner service. They obliged, creating a set of fifty plates bearing the likenesses of famous women – including Jane Austen.


And now the fifty Famous Ladies plates – commissioned by Kenneth Clark and painted in 1932-33 by Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, and her lover and artistic partner Duncan Grant -- are for sale from a London art gallery, for a mere £1.3 million (nearly $1.7 million).


Clark and his wife must have thrown huge dinner parties: The Famous Ladies are only a part of the full 140-piece dinner service that Bell and Grant painted on plain white Wedgewood china. Some preliminary sketches for the work are owned by Charleston, the East Sussex farmhouse where Grant and Bell lived, and where members of the Bloomsbury Group often visited.


The Ladies are divided into four subsets: twelve noted beauties, including Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn and an anonymous “Miss 1933”; twelve actresses, including Greta Garbo, Lily Langtry, Adelina Patti, Anna Pavlova and Sarah Siddons; twelve queens, including the Biblical Queen of Sheba, the Native American Pocahontas, the seventeenth-century Swedish Queen Christina, the medieval English Princess Mathilda, and Queen Mary, grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II; and twelve writers, including Sappho, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf (natch) -- and our very own Austen. (Two additional plates feature likenesses of Bell and Grant. No, Grant was not a Famous Lady, but I guess he gave himself a pass.)


Judging from the photos available online, the plates are striking and original, and the inclusion of Austen is just another piece of evidence proving that Jane-love didn’t begin with Colin Firth. (For engrossing and sometimes bizarre stories about early Janeites, I recommend the newly published The Making of Jane Austen, by Arizona State scholar Devoney Looser, one of the people profiled in Among the Janeites.)


Alas, I can’t find the Austen plate in any of the online illustrations, but if someone else has better luck, please post a link below! Virginia Woolf is a perceptive critic of Austen; I’d love to see how Vanessa Bell envisioned our author.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 8 2016 01:00PM

Fifteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.


“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Virginia Woolf famously declared, insisting on the material prerequisites of the imaginative life.


Did Jane Austen have access to what Woolf saw as the fundamental building blocks of literary achievement? I would say yes: though Austen never had much money or much privacy, during her most productive years, she had enough of both – the secure home provided by first her father and later her brother Edward; the dedicated work space in the Chawton Cottage sitting room. During the Bath and Southampton years, when money was stressfully tight and living arrangements were chaotic and insecure, Austen’s writing output slowed to a trickle.


Austen herself may have glimpsed Woolf’s insight, or so it seems from a letter to her sister that Austen began exactly two hundred years ago today (#145 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Updating Cassandra on the comings and goings of family houseguests, Austen admits to a craving for a few days of peace and quiet. “I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the House,” she writes. “And how good Mrs. West* cd have written such Books & collected so many hard words, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment! Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb.”


As Austen notes, the great impediment to creation is distraction: when practical cares fill your head, they crowd out imaginative invention. The greatest gift that Cassandra and the Austens’ housemate Martha Lloyd gave to Jane Austen was their willingness to do most of the household chores, leaving her mind free of mutton and rhubarb. The most precious room of all lies between the ears.




* Jane West (1758-1852) was a prolific author of novels, poetry and conduct books, best known today for her 1796 novel A Gossip’s Story, which is seen as an inspiration for Sense and Sensibility. West was also a wife and the mother of three sons – hence Austen’s astonishment at her rate of literary production.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 30 2015 01:00PM

So it turns out there’s a cliffside hotel with amazing views of the Pacific where all the rooms are named after famous writers and, since no one gets a TV, a radio, a landline or even Wifi, there’s pretty much nothing to do all day except read.


Oh, and did I mention that one of the rooms is named for Jane Austen?


No, this is not my imaginary dream-fantasy vacation spot. This is an actual place in Newport, Oregon, called the Sylvia Beach Hotel. You can stay in a Virginia Woolf Room with a view of a lighthouse! How perfect is that?


I happened across this little slice of paradise via my daily Google alert for Austen mentions, which yielded a traveler’s tale of a stay in the Jane Austen Room. “Austen is right next door to the Melville room,” wrote Washington State gardening blogger Tangly Cottage.


I like to imagine sensible Jane running into brooding Herman in the hallway, perhaps on the way down to the dining room. (Did I mention that this hotel also serves breakfast and dinner?)


“Mr. Melville, I do hope you do not always write doomy seafaring stories,” she might say, in the polite yet firm manner that we Janeites know she must have had. “I think it is the misfortune of dread-filled allegorical tales with intense religious overtones to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoy them completely. The strong feelings which alone can estimate them truly are the very feelings which ought to taste them but sparingly.”


And then she would recommend some lighter reading promoting a greater faith in the ultimately just and well-ordered nature of the universe – the kind of thing found in the hotel’s Agatha Christie room, perhaps.


And he would listen attentively, seeming grateful for the interest implied, and – though with a shake of the head, and sighs declaring his little faith in the efficacy of any books on existential misery like his –would jot down the titles of Murder on the Orient Express and Peril at End House, promising to procure and read them.


Alas, such an encounter is only possible in fantasy, since Melville was born two years after Austen’s untimely death. Still, if I’m ever on the Oregon coast, I hope to stop by the Sylvia Beach Hotel’s Jane Austen Room.


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