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, May 29 2017 01:00PM

Any plans late next month? No? Then head over to the web site of Jane Austen 200 – the clearinghouse for events scheduled this year in Hampshire, England, to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death – and enter the sweepstakes.


The prize is a three-night, late-June stay in Winchester and Basingstoke, along with free tickets to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried; Chawton cottage, now a museum of her life; Chawton House Library, located in the mansion once owned by her brother Edward; and a book talk by historian, curator and TV presenter Lucy Worsley, author of a new Austen biography. Plus £100 (about $130) towards travel expenses.


OK, it’s obvious that this package is more of a draw for British Janeites, who a) can probably get to Winchester for not much more than £100; and b) had probably heard of Worsley before the recent plagiarism kerfuffle. But hey – three free nights in England is three free nights in England, right? And entering is a breeze, requiring only the answer to an Austen trivia question of such laughable simplicity that it’s practically an insult to Janeite intelligence.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 11 2017 01:00PM

In Austen studies, originality is hard to come by. The primary sources – novels, letters, family reminiscences, unfinished work – are relatively sparse, and everyone from amateur enthusiasts to dedicated scholars has pored over them for a century or more. Austen criticism crams the shelves of every academic library, and some two dozen biographers have done their best to recreate Austen’s life and times. Read a few of these Lives of Jane Austen and you’ll soon feel a creeping sense of familiarity.


In that context, it’s hard to know quite what to make of a plagiarism kerfuffle that the British press has ginned up this week.


In one corner: Paula Byrne, author of the well-regarded 2013 biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. In the opposite corner: Lucy Worsley, author of the new biography Jane Austen At Home, due out next week in the UK and this summer in the US.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 8 2015 01:00PM

Lucy Worsley is a member of the uniquely British species known as the TV Historian – not a historian who writes about television, but rather a historian who derives her fame from hosting television shows on historical topics. The Brits, possessors of a long and glorious history, love these kinds of shows. Apparently they even enjoyed Worsley’s recent program on “the art of horse dancing.” (Don’t ask me. I don’t know either.)


Promoting her new BBC series on the history of romantic fiction, which begins on UK TV tonight, Worsley opined recently that, in our hookup-crazy culture, romance may be dead.


“How could Jane Austen have written her novels about the slow, exquisite torture of love in an age of Grindr and Tinder, when bored singletons search for one-night stands with a few clicks of their mobiles?” she told Radio Times (in an interview that is apparently not on line but is quoted here.) “Austen’s heroines worked hard to find The One by overcoming obstacles of social class, parental disapproval and the law. But these days it’s far too easy for romance to flourish.”


(An aside: Is “romance” really what Tinder promotes? And who are these Austen heroines who faced legal obstacles to their matrimonial pursuits? Beats me.)


Let us acknowledge that Worsley is correct in noting that contemporary romance-writers must throw up different roadblocks to love -- instead of parental disapproval or unequal social class, perhaps psychological hang-ups and work-family conflicts. And yes, making this seem plausible requires some artistry: as a semi-devoted romance reader, I have sometimes found myself sighing with exasperation at the gyrations required to separate two protagonists who have already had The Best Sex Ever by chapter 5.


But let us proceed to the heart of the matter: does the existence of hookup culture make Austen’s stories mere quaint curiosities with no relevance to our own time?


Well, you know how I’m going to answer that question.


As a long-married, middle-aged person, I’m unqualified to judge the validity of Worsley’s reflections on contemporary culture. (Yes, honey, I do know what Tinder is. But only because I’ve read about it. Really!) As a longtime Austen reader, however, I reject the suggestion that her world is entirely filled with virtuous, restrained folk who know nothing about the instant gratification of sexual desire.


It’s true that some, though not all, of Austen’s heroines (and heroes, for that matter) experience slow, exquisite love-torture. But all around them people like Lydia Bennet and George Wickham, Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford, Penelope Clay and William Elliot, John Willoughby and Eliza Williams, are jumping into bed with an alacrity that suggests imprudent, lust-driven sex may have been invented a few years before the smartphone.


Indeed, it’s the very availability of such Regency hookups that makes the protagonist’s decision to behave differently into a real ethical choice, rather than a morally neutral default setting.


It’s true that Austen’s social context ensured that imprudent sex could never be as consequence-free, at least for the women involved, as it can be now. But its siren song was surely just as alluring. Jane Austen never saw a mobile app, but she still has plenty to teach us about romance in an age of casual sex.


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