Deborah Yaffe

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Austen quizzing

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 4 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen is no stranger to the quiz-show world, on either side of the pond: As blog readers will recall, just four years ago, she got a whole Jeopardy! category to herself, a few months before a team of Cambridge University students drew on their Janeite knowledge to win Britain’s much-loved University Challenge quiz competition.


And now comes word that a contestant on another venerable UK quiz show, the BBC's Mastermind, plans to make Jane Austen her specialist subject in a pending semi-final match.


Last month, twenty-five-year-old Madeline Grant, who works as a digital officer for a rightwing think tank in London, won an initial round of Mastermind, in which players compete to answer questions testing both their general knowledge and their expertise in a subject of their own choosing.


In her initial victory, Grant specialized in Harry Potter, but in the semi-final – the date of which, as far as I can tell, has not yet been announced – she’ll take on Austen. (This being Britain and not America, the winner of the Mastermind final receives an engraved glass bowl and a large helping of glory, but no money.)


Four years ago, Grant made her first appearance on Mastermind, missing out on a semi-final berth by a single point. For that outing, she specialized in the novels of E.M. Forster. You will not be surprised to hear that she was an English major at Oxford.


Before any of her quiz-show appearances, back when she was a mere slip of a girl of nineteen, Grant was at the center of a ridiculous media kerfuffle, of the kind so dear to the hearts of British tabloid readers: As an undergraduate, she ran for election to a job in the Oxford Union debating society, famous as a testing-ground for budding UK politicians, using a joking, slightly off-color slogan that referenced a portion of the female anatomy.


(Okay, okay. Since you insist. The slogan was “I don’t hack, I just have a great rack.” Hacking being the practice of ruthlessly seeking to advance one’s personal political or journalistic ambitions in a student organization.)


At the time, Grant claimed she intended to poke fun at the Union’s pretensions, which, as a former Oxford student myself, I can attest are legendary. Then the organization confirmed her point by summoning her to a disciplinary tribunal and fining her for “bringing the Union into disrepute” by employing an allegedly sexist slogan.


Apparently, the Union’s officers are unfamiliar with the concept of satire. Luckily, it will not be they who must appear in front of a large TV audience to answer questions about a consummate literary satirist.


Alas, it’s difficult to (legally) watch BBC TV here in the US, so I may have to rely on YouTube video pilfered after the fact to match Janeite wits with Grant. But needless to say, I will be rooting for her to take home the Mastermind title, if only so she can stick it to the pompous future politicians of the Oxford Union.


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