Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 20 2018 01:00PM

Fifteen years ago, Silicon Valley gazillionaire and Janeite Sandy Lerner opened Chawton House, a research library dedicated to the proposition that Jane Austen wasn’t early English history’s only interesting female writer.


A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking she was, given how little we hear, even now, about all the women who were scribbling away before and during Austen’s lifetime. What’s to blame for this historical amnesia – and for the lack of visibility, remuneration, and respect that even now plagues female authors?


The list is long, of course (see under: Patriarchy), but an intriguing new project locates one culprit in the entrenched old boys’ network of rare-book dealers and collectors. Over the past three months, a newcomer to that world, London-based writer and rare-book dealer A.N. Devers, has raised more than $40,000 in a Kickstarter appeal that will fund The Second Shelf, an online rare-book shop and quarterly publication dedicated to the work of women writers.


“Book collectors help determine which writers are remembered and canonised, and which are forgotten,” Devers wrote in The Guardian this spring. “The collector trade is a part of a supply line, to readers’ bookshelves, universities, archives and libraries. Historically it has been male-dominated. . . , white, and oriented around a western canon.”


It’s fascinating to think about how collecting itself creates and perpetuates the value, both monetary and intangible, that we accord to the cultural artifacts collectors prize. Surely there’s a dissertation topic in there somewhere. (Read more about Devers’ project, and about gender issues in the book trade, here, here, here, and here.)


The project is ambitious, maybe too much so: Hard enough to launch a fledgling rare-books shop without trying to start a magazine as well. The quarterly, whose first issue is slated for publication next month, will be part rare-books catalog, part female-focused literary magazine, with some big names on the list of contributors. (Details remain sparse, but you can already buy a Second Shelf tote bag and T-shirt.)


Even if Devers has bitten off more than she can chew – time will tell -- you’ve got to love the idea, and the moxie. I learned about The Second Shelf too late to contribute to its crowd-funding campaign, but had I been prompter, I still wouldn’t have been able to afford the mouth-watering prize available to anyone pledging a Lerneresque £20,000 (nearly $25,500): an 1813 second edition of Sense and Sensibility owned by Austen’s close friend and housemate Martha Lloyd. It looks like no one else snapped it up, though, so presumably Devers still has it, if you’re interested.


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, May 21 2018 01:00PM

It’s been quite a while since I last discussed the unfortunate phenomenon of faux-Jane Austen quotes, usually originating in Jane Austen movie scripts, proliferating in the Internet echo chamber. Perhaps this pause has lulled you into the belief that my good work, along with that of untold numbers of other Janeites laboring to correct the record, has borne fruit, driving the legions of misquoters into retirement.


Alas, no.


Once again, our text is drawn from Bustle, that rah-rah Girl Power website that seems to take a perverse pride in never, ever double-checking its sources, at least when it comes to Austen. The latest offender: a story headlined, with a word-omitting sloppiness that bodes ill for what follows, “15 Quotes From Books To Use Your Personal Mantra On Bad Mental Health Days.”


Parenthetically, I must note the strange self-contradiction of this particular article, which points out the bankruptcy of feel-good bromides – “[b]eing told to ‘just think happy thoughts’ and ‘try harder’ gets really old after a while, as anyone with mental illness will tell you” – before offering up more elegant versions of the same thing from the likes of Alice Walker, Audre Lord, and Sylvia Plath (!) and urging readers to “[m]emorize them to recite like mantras, and you'll always have an uplifting quote to help you muddle through.”


I admit I feel a teensy bit bad about criticizing the writer, who implies that she is among “those of us who live with mental illness every day.” But not bad enough to stay my hand when, right there at number fourteen among the promised “Quotes From Books,” I find this: " 'It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.' — Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility"


Back in November 2015, I laid the issue of this particular misquotation to rest in what I feel I may describe, with all due humility, as the definitive blog post on the topic. Yet, like a zombie out of a Pride and Prejudice mashup, this mistake will not stay dead. So I must repeat: This is not a line from a Jane Austen novel. It is not even really a line from a filmed adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. It is a garbled version of a line from Andrew Davies’ 2008 TV adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.


I think it’s time that someone created an online listicle discussing how best to cope with the stress and anxiety brought on by finding faux-Austen quotes on the web. It probably won’t appear on Bustle.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 10 2018 01:00PM

If only “literary Darwinism” had existed when I was in school, I might have liked science a whole lot more. Yes, according to a story on the BBC’s website last week, a new branch of scholarship is “asking what exactly makes a good story, and the evolutionary reasons that certain narratives – from Homer’s Odyssey to Harry Potter – have such popular appeal.”


The gist of the explanation is that stories give us practice at social strategizing, allowing us to imaginatively navigate complex situations that may arise in our real lives and figure out which responses work, and which don’t. Stories that highlight the importance of cooperation and the social costs of selfishness are especially enduring, the thinking goes, because they help communicate and reinforce norms that smooth the waters of communal life.


Needless to say, Jane Austen gets recruited to support this theory. Apparently, Pride and Prejudice is an example of a classic story trope wherein the baddies are those who abuse their power or seek “social dominance at the expense of others” (think Caroline Bingley) whereas the heroic figures are less interested in individual achievement and social climbing (think Elizabeth Bennet).


P&P also shows Austen to be an “intuitive evolutionary psychologist” because she understands that, while women ultimately prefer “stable ‘dad’ figures (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility),” they are also drawn to the Wickhams and Willoughbys. “The ‘dads’ might be the better choice for the long-term security and protection of your children, but according to an evolutionary theory known as the ‘sexy son hypothesis’, falling for an unfaithful cad can have [its] own advantages since [he] can pass on [his] good looks, cunning and charm to his own children, who may then also enjoy greater sexual success,” the article notes.*


“I think that’s part of the key for these stories’ longevity,” argues University of Michigan scholar Daniel Kruger. “[It’s why] Jane Austen wrote these novels two hundred years ago and there are still movies being made today.”


I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, it would be futile to argue that a human activity as primary and enduring as storytelling has no evolutionary roots. On the other hand, though, it seems mindlessly reductive to suggest that evolution explains “why Jane Austen wrote these novels” and why they still appeal to us today.


We all like stories, but only a minority of us write them, so there must be more to Jane Austen’s motivation than some primal human drive. Surely the powerful need for self-expression is at least as compelling a force as social utility when it comes to a life choice like Jane Austen’s.


As for the appeal of Austen’s stories, even in her own time, she was hardly alone in noticing the potent appeal of bad boys and the countervailing pull of stable, honorable men. But nobody’s lining up to buy tickets to Samuel Richardson adaptations. And while the tropes she helped develop may feature in a boatload of contemporary romance novels, few of those books have achieved Austen-level acclaim or popularity.


Why is that? Because while the success of a work of art may owe something to its ability to tap into deep-seated, even hard-wired, human social needs, ultimately it takes more than that for a story to endure. Call it genius or artistry, an eye for a powerful image or an ear for snappy dialogue: whatever you call it, your explanatory framework has to account, somehow, for quality. By and large, it’s the good stuff that lasts.



* I feel I should point out to all you evolutionary psychologists that publicizing the fact that your field has produced something known as the “sexy son hypothesis” could serve as an excellent recruiting tool for a certain kind of student.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 12 2018 01:00PM

Back when I was writing Among the Janeites, I happened across two Facebook groups whose titles encapsulated a common set of attitudes about Austen’s novels. One was called “I am going to marry one of the men in Jane Austen’s novels.” The other was called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of love.”


I recalled those now-defunct nests of Janeite Facebookers earlier this week, when my Google Alert sent me word of an opinion column in inews.com, the online version of the British daily newspaper i, headlined “Jane Austen’s novels have ruined me for dating modern men.”


It’s about what you’d expect: The author, a British journalist and fiction writer named Emily Hill, complains that she’s single at thirty-four because guys today, with their multiple dating apps and caddish behavior, can’t measure up to Mr. Darcy. “At no point has any man – proud, haughty or otherwise – stormed into my presence to declare ‘in vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,’ ” she mourns.


I hate to be one of those officious Janeites who goes around telling everyone else that they’re reading the books wrong, but – Emily, I think you might be reading the books wrong.


It’s Hill’s choice of Darcy quote that’s a giveaway. As we Janeites know, that quote comes from Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth – the insulting one, in which he tells her he tried his best not to love her because of her unsuitable family but finally had to give in, against his better judgment.


As I’ve pointed out before, Austen does not mean this scene to be a swoon-worthy romantic moment. Like other Austen scenes that seem to fit neatly into a romance-novel template, it’s intended more as a warning: Danger! Don’t try this at home! It’s surely not a good sign that Hill even speaks semi-approvingly of the weak and unreliable Willoughby, “who at least gave Marianne in Sense and Sensibility the most exciting months of her life.” *


It’s odd to find a self-proclaimed Austen addict hankering after love-at-first-sight, sweep-me-off-my-feet, Willoughby-and-Marianne romance when the books seem – to me at least – self-evidently critical of such relationships. Most of the Austen heroines are temporarily waylaid by exciting strangers who seem to check all the Conventional Romantic Hero boxes: good-looking, charming, self-confident, smooth. But every Austen heroine marries someone else: a man she’s had time to get to know, whose family or friends she has met, whose character she has seen tested. If Hill equates love with instant passion and then bemoans her inability to find it, I don’t think it’s Austen who can be blamed.


Meanwhile, anyone paying close attention to Austen’s novels will notice that many of the established marriages she portrays are unhappy mismatches (the Bennets) or making-the-best-of-it pairings of a reasonably bright partner with a fairly dim one (Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram). Sure, there are exceptions – the Crofts, the Gardiners, the Westons – but it’s hard to escape the conviction that Austen partially shares the views of that ruthless marital pragmatist Charlotte Collins, née Lucas: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”


So are Austen’s happy endings pure fairy tales, as Hill suggests? Is it true that “if one looks at [Darcy] objectively, he behaves like no man ever did on earth”? Or that Austen’s lifelong spinsterhood points its own lesson: “Look to the life and the fiction starts to fall apart”?


I’m not going to deny that Austen’s happy endings have a fairy-tale dimension, but Hill misidentifies the fantasy elements. It’s fantasy that an a) rich and b) handsome man from c) a distinguished family would get to know, let alone fall in love with, a d) not-rich woman e) far outside his social sphere. Especially in Pride and Prejudice, it’s the social context that supplies the Cinderella-style fantasy.


But let’s say you’ll suspend your disbelief that far. Is it really fantasy that a mature and responsible man confronted with bitter evidence of his failings in the eyes of someone whose opinion he values would undertake a moral inventory and try to do better? I guess I’m not cynical enough to say so.


Perhaps because I missed the online dating moment, Austen’s heroes don’t seem so unrealistic to me. With the notable exception of Darcy, most of them aren’t fabulously wealthy or especially good-looking. Their leading qualities are kindness, wit, generosity, and moral seriousness. I’ve met plenty of men like that. I even married one of them.




* It gets worse: Hill also speaks longingly of the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, a book I love but would hardly take as a relationship guide.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter