Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 2 2018 01:00PM

With their film adaptations and their fanfics and their Austen societies, residents of the Indian subcontinent seem to love Jane Austen just as much as do those of us in the Anglo-American-Australian axis.

So perhaps it is unsurprising that their websites should end up misquoting her just as much as ours do.

Yes, children, it is time once again for our favorite sport, Spot the Spurious Austen Quote -- now in a new international edition!

Last month, not one but two Indian news sites decided to mark the anniversary of Austen’s death by giving her another reason to spin in her grave. At the Indian Express, an English-language daily newspaper published in Mumbai, the tribute consisted of “10 quotes by the author on love and life,” interspersed with biographical tidbits. At iDiva, a gossip-beauty-fashion-relationships website, we were treated to “18 Jane Austen Quotes That Are Mantras For The Millennial Girl.”

Apparently, fact-checking the original text is a lost art in India, just as it seems to be here in the United States.

How else to explain why the Indian Express list manages to include two spurious Austen quotes and one kinda-right-kinda-wrong quote among its ten, for a less-than-impressive score of seventy-five percent?

The mistakes aren’t even original: There’s the ever-popular “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do,” which -- as I have tried in vain to impress upon the Internet -- is not an Austen quote but a garbled version of a line from the 2008 TV mini-series of Sense and Sensibility. There’s the only slightly less hoary “We are all fools in love,” which comes from the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice. And there’s the garbled “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings,” which, as I’ve noted before, is not exactly what Austen wrote in Mansfield Park. (I still gave half-credit for it, because I’m an easy grader.)

Not to worry, though: iDiva has worked hard to get us the very best of Austen, offering “18 handpicked quotes that are totally going to get a nod from that millennial soul in you.” Handpicked! What could be better?

Well, maybe if the hand doing the picking actually knew what it was up to.

Alas, yes: iDiva’s carefully curated selection also includes two spurious Austen quotes. (Lo and behold, they are exactly the same as the two spurious quotes that Indian Express gave us!) But iDiva does better: It also provides us two genuine Austen quotes that it attributes to the wrong book; two slightly incorrect versions of genuine Austen quotes; and two more seriously garbled genuine quotes, one of which – in an impressive twofer – is also attributed to the wrong book.*

On the other hand, iDiva does manage ten certifiably correct Austen quotes attributed to the correct book (three of them overlapping with Indian Express selections). I’m in a generous mood, so I’m giving iDiva credit for its two only-slightly-incorrect quotes, for a total score of sixty-seven percent. Passing – but only just.

What is to be done? How can this international plague of Austen misquotation be rolled back? Is there no cure? No antidote? No vaccine?

Google, you say? No, Google is actually part of the problem: Search for any of those spurious or garbled quotes, and you’ll find a dozen websites assuring you that they are genuine Jane Austen.

Millennial girls, I’m afraid it can’t be helped: If you want to make sure your current mantra is a genuine quote from the novelist Jane Austen, you’re going to have to acquaint yourself with, at the very least, a searchable electronic text of her novels. The horror.

* For the nerdy among us: #1 omits a word; #4 is seriously garbled, probably because it’s a version of a movie line that is based on a book line; #5 has one incorrect word; #7 is a garbled line from Persuasion misattributed to Pride and Prejudice; #8 is spurious; #14 is a Pride and Prejudice line misattributed to Northanger Abbey; #15 is spurious; #17 is a Mansfield Park line misattributed to Pride and Prejudice.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 30 2018 01:00PM

Pride and Prejudice isn’t just Jane Austen’s most famous and popular novel. Of all her stories, it’s also the best suited to modern-dress adaptations, whether for page or screen.*

In my not-so-humble opinion, that’s because the plots of Austen’s other novels rely far more on cultural assumptions that have shifted radically. Why can’t Edward Ferrars break his engagement to Lucy Steele without dishonor? Why does Fanny Price object to amateur theatricals? What’s so scandalous about the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax?

It’s not that it’s impossible to update the crucial plot points of other Austen novels in ways that make sense in a world of greater sexual freedom, altered gendered roles, modern economic arrangements, and less exacting views of morality and obligation. But it’s difficult. It takes a degree of thoughtfulness and care that not every fanfic writer or screenwriter is prepared to apply.

Thus my. . . concern about the recent announcement of plans for A Modern Persuasion, a new indie film that purports to update Austen’s last completed novel to the world of corporate publicity in New York.

Our heroine, to be played by Alicia Witt, is “a happily single and self-confessed workaholic who, after steadfastly rising to the top of the ladder. . . finds herself coming home every night to her cat,” according to Deadline Hollywood. Then her ex hires her company, and she must deal with her broken heart while learning and growing and all that jazz.

Yeah, I agree with you: So far, I’m not feeling a lot of Persuasion here, except for the old-flames-meet-again situation, which is hardly exclusive to Jane Austen. And there might be a reason for that lack of Persuasion-y flavor: The central issue in Austen’s plot – Anne Elliot’s decision, years earlier, to allow herself to be talked out of marrying the man she loved – is extraordinarily difficult to update to the modern world.

Lady Russell’s fears about Anne’s early marriage to a man with uncertain prospects make perfect sense for her time. They make virtually no sense in a world in which young women can get jobs of their own, count on reliable birth control, and collect life insurance and Social Security payouts on husbands who die while pursuing risky professions.

In a world like that, an Anne Elliot who caves in to Lady Russell-style persuasion comes across as either a snob or a doormat, and Austen’s Anne is neither of those. You can write the character that way for updating purposes, of course, but then you have to work harder to make her sympathetic and her regrets believable. The Persuasion updates I’ve read – off-hand, I can only think of perhaps half a dozen, compared to groaning shelves of P&P updadtes -- address this issue with mixed success.

So color me skeptical about the likely success of A Modern Persuasion. Not that my skepticism will keep me from buying a ticket, of course.

* Which isn’t to say that all those adaptations are top-notch. No, indeed. See under Unleashing Mr. Darcy.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 26 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters

As a novelist, Jane Austen was one of the greatest writers who ever put pen to paper. As a poet? Not so much.

The Austens were a literary family – reportedly, Austen’s mother was a dab hand at humorous verse, and as Oxford students, two of her brothers founded a magazine – so it isn’t surprising that Austen sometimes took a holiday from her true vocation and tried her hand at poetry.

Only a few of the results have survived, and although all are interesting to those of us for whom every scrap of Austen’s writing is a sacred talisman, as poetry – well, frankly, they aren’t very good.

The letter/poem that Austen wrote to her naval brother Frank, then in China, exactly 209 years ago today (#69 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a perfect example: as poetry, doggerel; as biography, delightful.

Austen writes the letter (which consists entirely of fifty-two lines of verse) to congratulate Frank on the recent birth of his second child and first son, who she hopes will turn out just like his father: a high-spirited boy who will grow into a kind and responsible man. She indulges in some jokey references to Frank’s childhood and then concludes with a glowing report on Chawton cottage, which the Austen women had moved into just three weeks earlier:

“Our Chawton home, how much we find

Already in it, to our mind;

And how convinced, that when complete

It will all other Houses beat

That ever have been made or mended,

With rooms concise or rooms distended.”

Today we know, as she could not, how important that “Chawton home” would become over the last eight years of Austen’s life. Chawton cottage -- now officially called Jane Austen’s House Museum -- was the place where she established the peaceful routines that enabled her to write or revise all six of her completed novels and send them out into the world.

It’s thrilling to glimpse her at the beginning of that fruitful journey – even if that glimpse comes by way of some pretty clunky verse.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 23 2018 01:00PM

Last summer, not long after the July 18 bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, officials in the English town of Basingstoke announced that tourist traffic had risen eighty percent, as fans flooded in to commemorate their favorite author in her home county of Hampshire.

Now a report by a tourism non-profit has put a price tag on the economic boost the Austen anniversary brought to the county: nearly £21 million in direct spending and new jobs generated by the estimated 265,500 extra visitors attracted by commemorative events.

Those events included an exhibit in Winchester that brought together six portraits, acknowledged or disputed, of the author; a walking trail in Basingstoke of book-shaped benches decorated in Austen themes; the erection in the Basingstoke town center of the first-ever statue of Austen; the unveiling in Winchester Cathedral of the new British £10 note featuring a portrait of Austen; and special or continuing displays at Jane Austen’s House Museum and Chawton House.

All the excitement “had a clear positive effect on visitor numbers at various visitor attractions,” according to the report from Tourism South East, as quoted in a press release issued by Hampshire tourism officials. Visits to embattled Chawton House more than doubled, and attendance numbers at the exhibition space featuring the Austen portraits also rose significantly.

Naturally, county officials would prefer not to wait until 2025, when the world will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Austen’s birth, for a repeat of last year’s moneymaking.

So this year Hampshire is showcasing its contributions to technology and engineering. Among them: The Spitfire – the fighter plane in which brave Royal Air Force fighters held off Nazi bombers during the 1940 Battle of Britain – was invented in Hampshire and introduced into use eighty years ago next month.

I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to find out whether courtship novels or fighter planes provide the bigger tourism payoff.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 19 2018 01:00PM

It’s been almost four years since we had a reason to put “Jane Austen” and “beauty pageant” in the same sentence. Frankly, we were overdue.

Back in September 2014, you’ll recall, the future Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev proclaimed herself a Janeite via a much-ridiculed on-screen caption proclaiming that she “loves anything Jane Austin [sic].”

Luckily, our current Austen-in-a-tiara moment includes no such embarrassing blooper. Instead, we are free to bask happily in the knowledge that the first black Miss Universe Great Britain, a 25-year-old Anguillan-born trainee barrister named Dee-Ann Kentish-Rogers, is an Austen fan.

Kentish-Rogers was crowned at a pageant held in Wales last Saturday, where she came tops in a field of 32. She will compete for the sixty-six-year-old Miss Universe title – never before won by a British woman, as far as I can tell – in the Philippines in December.

As seems de rigueur for pageants these days, Miss Universe is an uneasy combination of appallingly retro – swimsuit competition, anyone? – and determinedly feminist: Kentish-Rogers’ fellow contestants included one who wants to conduct cancer research, a second who participates in equestrian show jumping, and a third who recently launched a swimwear business. Kentish-Rogers herself has competed internationally in the heptathlon.

For our purposes, however, it’s her literary taste that really matters. “My love for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice spurred me to move to the United Kingdom in 2013 to study law at the University of Birmingham,” she told the UK’s Daily Star in a story that ran on the day of the pageant.

Given that the Star’s package featured headlines referring to the pageant competitors as “STUNNING babes” and “drop dead gorgeous” alongside a slideshow with many, many swimsuit shots, it is reasonable to wonder how much their readers cared about the future Miss Universe GB’s taste in books. But never mind. We care.

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