Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 12 2018 02:00PM

Long, long ago – wait, was it only 2009? – a clever young man named Seth Grahame-Smith interpolated zombie references into the text of Pride and Prejudice and sold a gazillion copies of the resulting mashup.

Ever since, the temptation to take Jane Austen’s out-of-copyright masterpieces and dress them up with references to. . . whatever. . . has seemed inescapable. We’ve had Sense and Sensibility with sea monsters, Mansfield Park with mummies, P&P with added Jews, and Emma with previously unsuspected vampires.

This year, just in time for Valentine’s Day, a British TV channel called Drama* has brought us yet another addition to this trend: Pride and Prejudice reimagined for the social media age. No, not another update of the story to our own times: Drama’s version is the 1813 text, except with Facebook, WhatsApp, email and selfies accompanying the carriage rides and formal balls.

“We're seeing if technology would ruin the 'art of romance' in classic love stories,” Drama explains on its website, which offers a free download of this new P&P, along with social-media-enhanced versions of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

From my skim of the enhanced Austen, the changes seem much as they were in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: sometimes amusing, mostly cosmetic, and likely to become tiresome when stretched to book length. Darcy spends his time at the Meryton Assembly swiping on Tinder instead of dancing with the locals. Elizabeth captures his insult to her beauty in a Snapchat video. Mr. Collins’ letters arrive via email. Lady Catherine threatens to unfollow Elizabeth if she persists in her designs on Darcy. After Wickham leaves Meryton, rumors circulate that he “had created a secret online account under the name ‘The Militia Stallion’ which he used first to entrap, then to ghost certain ladies.” And a ringing cellphone interrupts both of Darcy’s proposals.

The only major plot change I detected was Drama’s decision to correct Jane Austen’s unaccountable error in omitting the now-famous scene of Darcy diving into the Pemberley lake and emerging in a clinging wet shirt. Yes, at last this moment, invented by Andrew Davies for the BBC’s iconic 1995 P&P adaptation, has made it onto the page. And this time, Elizabeth takes a smartphone photo of Darcy in post-lake deshabille, captions it “OMG,” and posts it online, inadvertently setting off “a Twitter storm of epic proportions.”

So what's the answer to Drama's question? Does social media ruin “the art of romance”?

Not really. As soon as Darcy switches off his phone, that second proposal goes about as well as you'd expect.

* As blog readers will recall, it was Drama that -- exactly a year ago, also just in time for Valentine’s Day -- earned a tidy little publicity windfall for its rebroadcast of beloved Austen adaptations by commissioning an artist’s rendering of the “real” Mr. Darcy. The dweeby result, based on the investigations of a historian and an Austen scholar, made clear that the standards of male beauty in Austen’s time differed dramatically from our own Firth-and-Macfadyen-inflected preferences.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 8 2018 02:00PM

Is Jane Austen hard to read?

“Absolutely not!” I hear you Janeites saying. “She’s a master of precise and lucid prose! Her dialogue sparkles! Her novels are models of economical storytelling!”

Okay, okay! You know I agree with you! But I still shook my head when I was reminded recently, via this blog by writer Nick Douglas, of a three-year-old post about the supposed “reading levels” of famous books.

Journalist Shane Snow evaluated a number of works using the Flesch-Kincaid reading tests, which purport to determine how easy it is to read a given book and how much formal education is required to understand it. Jane Austen came in at about a fifth-grade reading level, and so easy to understand that a twelve-year-old could do it.

On the one hand, who could disagree? Many Janeites got started on Austen’s novels at just about that age.

On the other hand, the internet is filled with people complaining about how hard Austen is. “Impenetrable prose that makes my head throb with pain when I try to read it,” complains one commenter on a (pro-Austen) post titled “Why the F*ck Do People Love Jane Austen So Much? A Primer.” “I cannot truly imagine anybody having a genuinely pleasant or easy time reading such ugly, technically-demanding sentences,” adds our anti-Janeite. “It’s like reading a computer-program printout.”

In the Yahoo! Answers column, replies to the question “Are books by Jane Austen difficult to read?” range from “Not at all” to “Jane Austen was a brilliant writer but she used a slightly pedantic language and turn of phrase which is not always readily understandable now.”

Another reply warns, “The dialogue and descriptions can be very drawn out. . . .There are probably pages of her works you could skip over because the details really don't matter that much.” (Where are those long descriptive passages this reader objects to? They must have been accidentally left out of my editions.)

Although I disagree with these responses, I don’t find them completely mystifying. Austen’s nineteenth-century vocabulary differs from our own; her balanced, Johnsonian sentences don’t fit today’s preference for the brief and telegraphic; her plots turn on tiny incidents and subtle emotions, not huge melodramatic events; and the social context in which her characters move is largely alien to us. That’s a combination that can leave inexperienced or unmotivated readers in the dust.

So how, then, can Austen’s works be simultaneously fifth-grade level and impenetrably pedantic? The problem surely lies in trying to determine reading level via a quantitative formula that takes account only of the lengths of words and sentences. Much of what makes Austen’s works more difficult than those of, say, J.K. Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book comes in at a similar reading level, is unquantifiable; it has to do with the relative unfamiliarity of the syntax and the profusion of meanings packed into even the simplest words.

Take one of my favorite Austen sentences: “The stupidity with which he was favored by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.” (Ch. 22 of Pride and Prejudice)

Most of the words are short – indeed, only five consist of more than two syllables – and in common usage; while the sentence is long, it is conveniently divided in two by a semi-colon. Still, it’s not hard to imagine an incautious reader puzzling over what “establishment” refers to in this context, or tripping over “disinterested,” whose true meaning – not a synonym for “uninterested”! – is often missed.

And it takes a modicum of attention to pick up the humor in the first half of the sentence (“favored by nature” – priceless!) and the ironic sting when the high-flown idealism of “pure and disinterested desire of. . .” is brought thumpingly back to earth by the materialistic pragmatism of “an establishment.”

To be fair, according to Microsoft Word, this sentence taken by itself comes in at an eleventh-grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid index. (Did you know that Word has a reading-level function? Thanks to Nick Douglas, I do now!) Meanwhile, the blog post you’ve just been reading scores at nearly a tenth-grade level – considerably harder than Pride and Prejudice as a whole. Go figure.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 29 2018 02:00PM

Thirtieth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Two centuries ago, Jane Austen was brimming over with the joy that only an author can fully appreciate: the thrill of holding in her hands a book that she had written.

“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London,” Jane reported to her sister, Cassandra, in a letter written exactly 205 years ago today (#79 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). Cassandra was away on a visit to their eldest brother, James, and during her absence the first copy of the newly published Pride and Prejudice had arrived in Chawton.

Already, Austen was anticipating and assessing the responses to her novel. A neighbor to whom the Austens had read the book aloud – without revealing who had written it -- “really does seem to admire Elizabeth,” Austen wrote. “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”

(And who can blame her? If you can’t love Elizabeth Bennet – well, I won’t say that you’re incapable of literary appreciation, but some might.)

Like all writers, Austen also finds herself wishing she’d had one more pass at her manuscript: “There are a few Typical errors--& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear,” she notes. “But ‘I do not write for such dull Elves’ ‘As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’ ”

In context, it’s clear that Austen’s paraphrase of Walter Scott’s poem Marmion is not a global comment on how her work should be read by discerning readers; it’s just a clever, throwaway self-reassurance that her occasional lapses won’t detract from her storytelling.

Still, that hasn’t stopped more than one critic from appropriating the “dull elves” remark as an all-purpose slur on those who purportedly fail to understand Austen’s true meaning, whatever the critic takes that meaning to be. Ingenuity, indeed.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 25 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s relationship to the romance novel is a vexed topic. For every article calling her the founding mother of the genre (or perhaps the grandmother, with a line of descent through Georgette Heyer), you’ll find just as many insisting that she is a social satirist who just happens to write about heterosexual romance.

My own romance-novel addiction is moderate-to-severe, and, appropriately enough, I developed it while researching Among the Janeites, which required me to read a boatload of Austen fanfic. Before long, I was branching out into non-Austen-inspired Regency romance, and then non-Regency historical romance, and then contemporary romance, and . . . now I have more than two hundred titles on my Kindle, not even counting the Austen spinoffs. (But really! I can stop anytime I want!)

Personally, I would not call Austen a romance novelist: Her stories never have the laser-like focus on the central relationship that is the hallmark of much modern-day romance writing, and she is more interested in recording her heroines’ moral development than in cataloguing the butterflies they feel when they accidentally brush fingertips with their heroes. It’s the Austen movies, with their dashing lead actors and swoony proposal scenes, that have convinced a generation of readers that Austen is a romance writer.

Still, I cannot deny that by making the question of who a young woman should marry into a central preoccupation of fiction, Austen planted a seed that has now flowered into arguably the most vibrant sector of American publishing. And so I was rather charmed by the latest news about The Ripped Bodice, an all-romance indie bookstore in Culver City, California, run by a pair of sisters.

One corner of the shop, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek, houses Fitz’s General Store, “devoted to merchandise—tote bags, calendars, candles—featuring their Chihuahua, Fitzwilliam Waffles (after Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).” (The dog has his own Instagram account, too.)

It’s hard to object to people who: a) like romance novels, b) observe the Janeite tradition of naming pets after Austen characters, and c) have managed to channel the devotion to quasi-Janeite merchandise into a method of supporting independent bookselling. Plus, the dog is pretty cute.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 22 2018 02:00PM

Like all Internet-connected Janeites, I had a good giggle last week about the Onion story headlined, “Man Wishes Women In Crowded Bar Would Let Him Read Jane Austen in Peace.”

In the Onion's characteristically deadpan prose, the piece purported to tell the story of Russell Goldin, a Californian – from the oh-so-appropriately-named city of Modesto -- who could barely get through a page of Pride and Prejudice without being hit on by female patrons of O’Donnell’s Pub. “I came here to drink red wine and be transported to the world of the 18th-century British landed gentry, not make flirtatious small talk,” the fictitious Goldin complained.

I suppose I should sigh at the widespread but fallacious assumption underlying the humor: that no man would ever read Jane Austen – at least, not in public -- for any purpose other than attracting women, presumed to be the sole genuine enthusiasts for Austen’s novels. But I’ll give the always-hilarious Onion a pass: In my book, it can do no wrong.

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