Getting it wrong
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?