Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 18 2019 01:00PM

Pity poor Colin Firth. His IMDB page lists more than seventy-five film and TV credits in a career stretching back thirty-five years, and yet we mostly remember only one of them.


And thus it was that last week, when the British actor and comedian Miranda Hart released the latest three-minute installment in a daily video series designed to raise money for charity, she had herself filmed sitting in front of a roaring fire, reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to . . . you know who.


Janeite fantasy though this scenario may be, the skit is on the lame side. (Though I did giggle at the moment when Hart, rebuffed after trying to steal a kiss from Firth, covers her embarrassment by turning to the camera and indignantly protesting, “Can people stop kissing Colin Firth? That’s really inappropriate!”)


Still, the whole thing proves that Firth can be a good sport about this Mr. Darcy thing, at least when it’s in the service of a good cause. “I've never resented it,” he told an interviewer in an intermittently resentful-sounding 2007 conversation. “If it wasn't for him, I might be languishing. I dare say it will be my saving grace when the only employment available to me is opening supermarkets dressed in breeches and a wig.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 14 2019 01:00PM

The bitterest pill that Janeites must swallow is the knowledge that Cassandra Austen kept dozens – nay, perhaps hundreds! – of her sister Jane’s letters for decades after the novelist’s untimely death, only to burn them in 1843, two years before Cassandra herself died.


We cannot forgive her.


It doesn’t matter how often we remind ourselves that most of the Austen letters that have come down to us are extant only because Cassandra lovingly preserved them. It doesn’t matter that Austen must have written hundreds of letters to other relatives and friends who apparently used those precious documents to line their birdcages and light their fires within moments of reading them. It doesn’t even matter that the greater sin may well have been that of Austen’s officious niece Fanny-Sophia, who waited until the 1865 death of her father, Austen’s older brother Francis, to incinerate the letters from Jane that he had carefully preserved for half a century.


No, we can’t forgive Cassandra. We can’t forgive her because we value every scrap of information about Jane Austen, and because those scraps are so few. But we also can’t forgive her because we assume that she must have destroyed the good stuff – the revelations about love affairs and political opinions and family scandals that are markedly absent from most of Austen’s surviving correspondence. After all, Cassandra was Jane’s closest friend and confidante! If there was good stuff to be had, surely Cassandra must have been privy to it!


Last month, however, we got a salutary reminder that just because something is missing doesn’t mean that it’s incendiary. Six previously missing lines from an 1813 letter Jane wrote to Cassandra turned up in an autograph album auctioned two years ago – and they concern . . . sheets and towels.


"By the time you get this, I hope George & his party will have finished their Journey,” Austen wrote from London, at the end of what is now known as Letter #87 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence. “God bless you all. I have given Mde. B. my Inventory of the linen, & added 2 round towels to it by her desire. She has shewn me all her storeplaces, & will shew you & tell you all the same. Perhaps I may write again by Henry."


I am by no means the first to notice the life-imitates-art similarity of this whole episode to Catherine Morland’s realization that the mysterious manuscript she has discovered in the Northanger Abbey cabinet is nothing but a washing-bill. Like Catherine, we Janeites have to confront the sad fact that, most of the time, daily life includes more laundry than scandal.


So did Cassandra destroy the good stuff, or just a bunch of old laundry lists? We’ll never know – and for that we’ll never forgive her.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 11 2019 01:00PM

Just a few days after my uncharitable swipe at those who promulgate Austenian misinformation, a reminder of human fallibility crossed my screen.


Two years ago, it seems, a young Brit named Max Baker won a coveted slot on a British TV quiz show called Pointless. I can’t quite grasp the rules – the game seems to be some odd combination of Jeopardy! and Family Feud – but there’s little doubt about the incompetence of Baker’s play.


On his first question, confronted with several sets of literary characters and asked to name the books they came from, Baker answered, “Pride and Prejudice.”


Unfortunately, the character list he chose as Austen’s was not the one consisting of Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Charles Bingley. No, Baker instead selected the trio of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, and Zaphod Beeblebrox.


As every British lad of a certain age knows, these folks – while they do indeed hail from an immortal comic novel set in a world far different from our own – people the pages of Douglas Adams’ 1979 classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


As you’d expect, the poor Baker boy was roundly ridiculed. The studio audience chortled, the Twitterati mocked, the Daily Express wrote about the Twitter mockery, and plenty of people contacted Baker directly to share their scorn.


And to what does Baker attribute his idiocy? Nerves. “I was absolutely petrified . . . . I froze,” he explains in a piece published last week. “The bright lights and the eyes of the audience focusing on me, I completely panicked and had a total mental block.” And so he blurted out the first title that came into his head.


For the record, I get it. Long ago in the mists of time, I was a TV quiz show contestant, and I too blew an important answer. It happens. We must try to be less critical of our fellow human beings as they attempt to navigate this crazy world of ours.


On the other hand: while on-the-spot, national-TV nerves are an excuse for stupid errors, no such excuse is available for those who blog and post and tweet their way to Austenian misinformation. Those people have time to check their facts. Even without a third arm to help them.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 7 2019 02:00PM

Jane Austen, it seems safe to say, is one of the most famous writers who ever lived, especially in English-speaking countries. Yet out there in the internet/social media world, Austen-related mistakes and misinformation flourish, providing a near-perpetual irritant to any Janeite with a pulse.


In ascending order of egregiousness, here are the latest Austenian blunders to cross my screen:


1. Brainiac blooper: Last week, the British TV quiz show The Chase – which pits a professional trivia expert against a team of eager amateurs – posed a Jane Austen question: "Which Regency author created the character Miss Bates?"


I pass over the laughable simplicity of this question, answerable based solely on its first three words. (What? You think a modern-day quiz show is going to ask about Fanny Burney or Maria Edgeworth?) I pass over the exceedingly lame answers offered by the contestants (Georgette Heyer for the professional quizmeister, George Eliot for the team of amateurs).


No, the error that caused a teapot-sized tempest in Britain concerned the tweet emitted after the fact by another of the show’s resident experts, Mark Labbett: “#thechase Jane Austin, still relevant today.” It didn’t take long for one of his Twitter followers to correct his misspelling, which Labbett immediately blamed on autocorrect.


Hmm. I’m skeptical, but we’ll let it go this time, Mark. We have bigger fish to fry.


2. Colonial Jane: Over at women.com, a warm-and-fuzzy, female-centric website, writer Kelley O’Brien took it upon herself to create a list of “8 Modern Romance Novels That Jane Austen Would Definitely Read.”


Now, I am a fan of several of the books she lists, one of which – Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – is, in my humble opinion, a modern classic (and not a genre romance novel – but we can save that argument for another day).


For the purposes of this conversation, I will also allude only briefly to my intense skepticism about the likelihood that Jane Austen would have read, let alone enjoyed, the three books on this list that deal with same-sex romance. Much as we might like to recruit our beloved author to the ranks of right-thinking progressives, there is not an iota of evidence in her books or letters to suggest that she disagreed with the nineteenth-century Church of England’s teachings on homosexuality, which were . . . about what you would expect from the established church in a country that did not decriminalize homosexual sex between consenting adults until 1967.


No, for today, I will dwell only on the following mind-boggling sentence, in which O’Brien purports to explain why she has assembled her Austen-approved booklist: “Well, because, as one of the great American writers, Jane Austen's opinion matters.”


I have no words.


3. What’s In a Name? The India-based website Telangana Today decided earlier this week to offer us a quick history lesson: Apparently, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions! Who knew! (OK, all of us.)


Here’s something I bet you didn’t know, though: “The original title was initially rejected by its publishers and the author was asked to rewrite and make a title change, Pride and Prejudice, after which the novels kept disappearing from the shelves faster than ever.”


Let me be clear: This account is entirely fictional. False. Invented out of whole cloth. Bearing no relationship to reality.


First Impressions was Austen’s working title for a book that became P&P roughly fifteen years after it was first begun. There is no evidence that she was still calling it First Impressions by the time she submitted it for publication, or that publisher Thomas Egerton had anything to do with the title change.


Let me repeat: This website made up this story.



Does any of this matter? Well, obviously there are worse sins than telling millions of people that Jane Austen spelled her name with an “i,” or was an American, or changed the title of her most famous book because someone else made her do it. But really: In the age of Google and Wikipedia, it’s so easy to get this stuff right. Why not give accuracy a try?



By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 4 2019 02:00PM

Back when I was in elementary school, ranking one’s friends – best friend, second-best friend, third-best friend – was a popular pastime.


But then I got older, and I realized that because people are individuals with different strengths and weaknesses, it doesn’t make sense to rank them on some imagined mono-dimensional scale. I love my close friends for their unique combinations of qualities – combinations that make them entirely incomparable and unrankable.


I feel the same way about writers. Since I wrote a book about Jane Austen fans, everyone assumes Jane Austen must be my favorite writer. But she isn’t. She’s one of my favorite writers. She has qualities that, say, Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte can’t match. But they have qualities that she can’t match, either.


All of which is by way of explaining why today’s post on my Jane Austen blog is about George Eliot.


Turns out that this year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Mary Ann Evans, who would grow up to write, under the name of George Eliot, seven striking and important novels, at least two of which are among the greatest ever written in English. Middlemarch — erudite, profound, empathetic, moving, unforgettable -- is coming with me to my desert island, right alongside Persuasion.


For 2019, Eliot’s birthplace, the Warwickshire town of Nuneaton, is planning the kind of extravaganza that we Janeites experienced two years ago, when we marked the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Nuneaton’s plans call for an art competition, a street fair, an interactive walking trail, a couple of new theatrical adaptations, and a Victorian-themed Christmas celebration, tied to Eliot’s November 22 birthday.


Sadly, Eliot’s boosters have so far been unable to raise the money necessary to turn outbuildings on the farm where she grew up into a visitors center that might serve as a draw for fans. (The latest plan: raising the money literally brick by brick.) Their travails underline the foresight of the founders of the UK Jane Austen Society, which was created in 1940 with the express purpose of buying and preserving Chawton cottage, where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


Imagine the Janeite world without the place now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum.* Unthinkable! I’m crossing my fingers that one day we’ll have a similar shrine to the work of George Eliot, who is, after all, one of my favorite writers.



* Incidentally, the moving line on the memorial plaque outside Chawton cottage -- "Such art as hers can never grow old" -- comes from an 1859 essay by the literary critic George Henry Lewes, who just happens to have been George Eliot's common-law husband. He's also the guy who recommended Austen to Charlotte Bronte, with -- um -- less than positive results.


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