Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 15 2019 01:00PM

As regular blog readers know, I have found it difficult to say anything positive about the recent spate of Jane Austen-inspired TV movies. The Hallmark channel has brought us four in the past few years, and they have all been pretty terrible.


But that changes right now! Because here’s one good thing you can say about those Austen-inspired TV movies: They get made really fast.


It’s been nine months since we learned about PBS’ upcoming Sanditon series, and five months since we heard of the new feature film based on Emma. Filming is underway for both projects, but no release dates have been announced. By contrast, we’ve recently been told that the Lifetime movie Pride & Prejudice: Atlanta will hit our TV screens on June 1, barely seven months after the project was announced. That’s efficiency!


This version of P&P, you may recall, features an all-African-American cast, with Mr. Bennet the pastor of a Southern Baptist church and Mrs. Bennet the author of a self-help marriage manual. How good will it be? The jury is out until June 1. But at least that’s soon.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 1 2019 01:00PM

I am all in favor of introducing young people to great literature, even great literature they are probably too young to fully appreciate. Heck, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was ten. I doubt I got it all. (For that matter, I still doubt I’ve gotten it all. There’s a lot to get.)


I’m also in favor of little jokes about great literature, like the Pride and Prejudice board book for babies, a counting book that runs from “1. . .English village” to “10. . . 10,000 pounds a year.” We don’t buy this book to get our favorite toddlers started on Jane Austen. We buy it to give our favorite Janeite parents-of-toddlers a giggle at read-aloud time.


But when it comes to a book like the KinderGuides Early Learning Guide to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – published in 2017 but only just now reaching my consciousness – I’m at a loss.


The illustrated forty-five-page book aims to introduce P&P to children ages four to eight, via a short bio of Jane Austen and a simplified plot summary. About a third of the pages are available for online viewing, and . . . well, I will try not to carp.


OK: no, I won’t.


I will just point out four little (except not that little) things:


1. Pace the illustrator, Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes are not blue. They are “dark.” Also “fine.”


2. Although it may be comforting to tell twenty-first-century children that “luckily, Jane was able to make enough money from writing books to take care of herself,” this is simply false. Jane Austen, one of the greatest novelists ever to write in English, never made enough from her writing to support herself. This sucks. But it’s the truth.


3. “How much money you have is a big deal to most people in this book. Although we see that it’s not so important in the end.” Umm. . . we do? I don’t know which edition the KinderFolk have been reading, but it’s crystal clear by the end of the book that money matters plenty. That’s why Elizabeth and Jane are lucky to marry rich men, and Lydia is unfortunate to be stuck with an impecunious one.


4. “Having too much pride makes you think you are better than other people. Darcy and Elizabeth both learn that being humble is always better.” Sigh. Where to begin? Well, let’s just say that this tidy schoolroom lesson (“Don’t be stuck-up!”) vastly undersells the complexity of Austen’s attitude toward pride, humility, and self-esteem.


My point is not (or not only) that inaccuracy, oversimplification, and sentimental moralizing seem to bedevil this project. I suppose all that is an occupational hazard when you’re attempting to summarize a profound and complicated grownup book in language suitable for young children. (Although that still doesn’t excuse the eye-color thing.)


On a deeper level, though, I just don’t see the point of this whole effort to introduce P&P to grade-schoolers. The world is filled with wonderful books aimed squarely at children ages four to eight – no explanatory guides necessary. Luckily, the world also contains six wonderful novels by Jane Austen, all of which are eminently accessible to children just a few years older, if they want to accept the challenge posed by her nineteenth-century vocabulary and sentence structure. And if they aren’t ready for that challenge yet – that’s fine! There’s time! They can read something else for now!


Meanwhile, though, why teach children that classic works of literature must be approached by way of dumbed-down plot summaries denuded of everything that makes their authors spiky, unique, complicated, unsettling? Books aren’t wild animals we must edge up to sideways. We can take them on directly – and we should.


KinderGuides likes to claim that its books are training future readers, but if you ask me, they’re training future CliffsNotes consumers. And we’ve got enough of those already.


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 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?



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