Deborah Yaffe

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Context is everything

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 27 2017 02:00PM

Once or twice in the past, I have mentioned my aversion to lists of Jane Austen quotes – or mugs with Jane Austen quotes, or, indeed, any items with Jane Austen quotes – that feature quotes that are not actually by Jane Austen. (OK, maybe more than twice.)


I have not dwelt with quite as much vigor on the similarly irritating phenomenon of merchandise featuring out-of-context Jane Austen quotes – for instance, the pendant enclosing those immortal Northanger Abbey lines, “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature,” spoken by that paragon of unselfish female friendship, Isabella Thorpe.


Perhaps it is time to remedy this omission. Last week, my Google alert for Austen’s name brought me word of a new (or new to me?) Pride and Prejudice-themed item in the gift shop of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England: a heart-shaped slate wall-hanging that reads, "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." It’s “the ideal romantic gift or decoration,” the promotional copy assures us.


Much as I hate to torpedo the romantic mood, I feel compelled to point out that this line comes from a marriage proposal that was refused – refused, I might add, because it was overbearing, arrogant and insulting. Shortcomings that, just incidentally, Jane Austen makes crystal clear to the alert reader even in this short passage. (“In vain have I struggled”? Why is he fighting his feelings? Because, as he will shortly make clear, he is so acutely conscious of the social inferiority of his love object. “You must allow me to tell you”? What, no one else gets any choices?)


Sure, Mr. Darcy is a romantic icon, but not because of this scene! He’s going to improve, but meanwhile he’s a jerk, and reform-after-jerkiness is kind of the point of the book. I find it annoying when Darcy’s every utterance, even when uttered by his unreformed self, is treated as swoon-worthy; it’s as if the hotness of Colin Firth magically transforms Mr. Darcy into one of those unblemished paragons who, as Jane Austen so memorably remarked, made her “sick and wicked.”


But if you disagree, you can pick up this little item for a mere £10.99. If you wait until summer, you can pay for it using one of the new Jane Austen £10 notes, which feature a quote about the joys of reading from that noted intellectual, Caroline Bingley.



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