Deborah Yaffe

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Keeping up with the Jameses

By Deborah Yaffe, May 6 2019 01:00PM

Some weeks, the Austen-related news tidbits that come my way are scattered and disparate, lacking any unifying theme. And then there’s last week:


* E.L. James, author of the phenomenally popular and extraordinarily badly written Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, is a Janeite. Or so we learn from her recent interview with the Arizona Republic, undertaken to promote her new novel, the first not to feature the brooding, insanely sexy twenty-something billionaire Christian Grey and his fetish for handcuffs, whips, and spankings.


Naming romance writers who influenced her, James lists the Brit Jilly Cooper and the Americans Catherine Coulter, Brenda Joyce, Laura Kinsale, Johanna Lindsey, and Judith McNaught. And then there’s this: “I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, and I would say that Emma is one of my favorite books.”


Emma is a nuanced, exquisitely written exploration of a woman’s coming-of-age during a year of near-plotless daily life in an English village. At first blush, it’s hard to think of a book less like the overwrought Fifty Shades trilogy, whose event-packed narrative careens from Seattle to Aspen to the French Riviera and features a deranged stalker, a revenge plot, an arson, a helicopter crash, a car chase, a kidnapping, and lots and lots (and lots) of explicit sex, much of it kinky.


But maybe I’m not thinking broadly enough. Influence is a subtle thing, after all. Perhaps Mr. Knightley’s frequent chastisement of Emma for her bad behavior bears more resemblance to Christian Grey’s erotic spankings than I’ve realized. (Badly done, indeed! Remind me again of our safe word?) After all, Jane Austen never does tell us what goes on during that seaside honeymoon. . .


* Back in the day, the Republic of Pemberley forbade the denizens of its late, lamented discussion boards from commenting on the personal lives of actors in Jane Austen adaptations. (Presumably, this rule was designed to scotch gossip about the romance between Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, who dated briefly while starring opposite each other in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.)


Luckily for me, this rule does not apply here at my blog, where I am free to ask why no one told me of an apparently well-known tidbit of celebrity news: the five-year-old romance between actors Lily James and Matt Smith, who met while filming the execrable 2016 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.


Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care about this particular pairing. I liked Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown. I’ve seen James in several things, and I think she is perfectly adequate, if somewhat overrated. If they're happy together, I'm happy for them. But—a relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Collins? Now that’s news! It’s like a scary fanfic come to life.


* What, no third Jamesian bullet point to officially make this an Austen Trend? Surely Lebron must be a closet Austen fan. . .


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