Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 7 2020 01:00PM

Those of us who set ourselves up as arbiters of correctness in matters of Jane Austen quotation never run short of opportunities to criticize. All over the internet, people are bobbling Austen’s words, or attributing quotes from Austen movies to Austen novels, or wrenching accurate quotes out of context, thereby distorting their meaning.

But if you’re ready to criticize, you must also be ready to praise. And thus it is that I tip my hat to one Zisilia Alvsa, whom the self-help website Wealthy Gorilla credits as the creator of a listicle called “100 Best Fake Friend Quotes of All Time.” Because right there at #5 is a completely authentic, entirely apposite Northanger Abbey quote: “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.”

Last year, this self-congratulatory passage, which is spoken by the selfish, utterly insincere Isabella Thorpe, clocked in at #2 on my list of Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes. You’ll find it cited everywhere, irony-free: sighed over as a true testament to love, or immortalized as a “friendship quote” on t-shirts, fridge magnets, and tote bags.

In fact, as Alvsa has noticed, Isabella’s words are the exact opposite of a “friendship quote”: they’re the sentiments of someone more interested in looking like a good friend than in being one. Now, if only more listicle writers were interested in reading Austen carefully, rather than in just looking as if they had.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 3 2020 01:00PM

Dispiriting as the last six months have been, Janeites have encountered some notable silver linings in the gloomy cloud cover. We’ve been treated to several virtual Jane Austen festivals, an online production of Laura Wade’s acclaimed adaptation of The Watsons, even a Zoom-enabled pub quiz.

Next up is “Pride and Prejudice: A Virtual Play,” produced by Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre, a thirty-eight-year old company that specializes in theatrical adaptations of literary works. Lifeline has done P&P three times before, most recently in its 2011-12 season, but this version appears to be a special pandemic edition adapted to the constraints of Zoom and social distancing.

Beginning on September 10, the show will be available for viewing over four weekends in September and October; ticket buyers can watch as often as they like from Thursday through Sunday of the chosen weekend. Although the suggested ticket price is $20 per household, viewers are invited to pay whatever they wish.

The forty-five-second trailer available online gives few clues to the nature of the adaptation, although the actors’ contemporary clothes and ubiquitous cell phones suggest a modern-day update rather than a period drama. No complaints here—I love a good modern-day Jane Austen update! Bring on the silver linings!

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen seems to have spent as little time as possible in the kitchen, leaving the cooking to the women she lived with and the servants they supervised.

And, frankly, that’s a good thing: As Mr. Darcy might have said, Austen employed her time much better. “Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb,” she wrote in an 1816 letter (#145 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of the correspondence), apropos of her I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it astonishment at Jane West, a contemporary who churned out novels, poems, and conduct books while running a household and raising three sons.

Given Austen’s complete lack of interest in culinary chores, it’s bemusing to find her name attached to a high-end kitchen line (“simple and refined. . . a sense of space and openness. . . . solid maple with a smooth painted finish. . .”) advertised by a Dublin company, Nolan Kitchens. “A kitchen for people who would rather write than cook”? No, it’s probably just as well they didn’t choose that slogan, although for Janeites, the illustrative Austen quote they did select isn’t much better: “There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,” a typically vapid and dishonest remark from Emma’s Mrs. Elton, who is forever casting about for entertainment – a dinner, a strawberry-picking expedition, an exploring party -- that will get her out of the house.

Of course, literary-minded kitchen remodelers with a good-size budget – Nolan’s “signature kitchens” run to €18,000-€25,000 (about $21,000-$29,000) -- aren’t limited to the Austen line: Nolan Kitchens also offers designs named for Hemingway and “Brontë” (possibly Charlotte, since the quote on that page is attributed to her, although I’m told that Brontë proficients suspect she didn’t actually write it). Those who want something completely different can choose kitchen designs alleged to recall Newton, Hepburn (Audrey, not Katharine), or a mysterious “Harvey,” whose page is adorned with a quote from Steve Jobs. (William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood? Seems an unfortunate association for a room filled with knives. . .)

Obviously, these names have been selected because of their aura of all things classy and upscale: “Austen” becomes shorthand for the manicured gardens and drawing-rooms on display in filmed adaptations of her novels, just as “Hepburn” implies chic cosmopolitanism and “Hemingway” suggests rugged masculinity (bullfighting next to the Sub-Zero!)

Still, as usual with these randomly Austen-themed products, I’m at a loss to understand why one set of tiled backsplashes, marble countertops, and custom cabinetry should be understood to evoke novels of manners, while another set recalls, say, the discovery of gravity or the Yorkshire moors. It’s all joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb to me.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 27 2020 01:00PM

By now, we would all be happy to consign 2020 to the trash bin of history. Let’s reboot! Remake! Recycle and replace!

Alas, another four months must pass before we can turn in this awful year for an upgrade. But the same spirit of renovation is afoot in Greater Austenland, as we await several Austen-themed projects that represent not so much a break with Janeite history as a refurbishment thereof:

* Has your DVD of the iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, wet shirt – become a tad battered after decades of (over) use? Then you’re in luck: The BritBox streaming service is marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beloved BBC adaptation by offering a remastered edition of the series “in stunning 4K,” the ultra-high-definition TV standard.

Imagine: an even crisper version of Colin Firth’s . . . eyes! The remastered P&P will begin streaming on September 25.

* Last year, rumor had it that we might get a new TV show based on Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s immortal 1995 movie, which updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. And now it seems the project is moving along: The showbiz bible Variety reports that NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service has signed on to carry the as-yet-untitled series.

Luckily for those of us who consider Clueless a perfect creation that should be messed with around the time hell needs a Zamboni, this new version is projected as a significant departure: Instead of focusing on Cher, the well-meaning but officious Emma Woodhouse avatar, it will center on Dionne, Cher’s wisecracking, fashion-forward best friend. I’m still skeptical, but hey: at this point, anything new, or even new-ish, sounds good to me.

* The best-Mr.-Darcy debates typically boil down to Colin Firth (1995) v. Matthew Macfadyen (2005), with small but enthusiastic voting blocs supporting dark-horse candidates like Laurence Olivier (1940), David Rintoul (1980), or Elliot Cowan (2008).

And then there’s Soccer the Dog.

Soccer, a Jack Russell Terrier, is better known as Wishbone, the Walter Mitty-ish protagonist of a much-loved 1995-97 PBS children’s series. In each of the show’s fifty half-hour episodes, Wishbone imagines himself as the hero of a classic work of literature whose themes resonate with the travails of his teenaged owner.

The show dramatized works by dozens of famous writers, from Homer to H.G. Wells; Austen was represented twice, with Wishbone playing Mr. Darcy in the 1995 episode “Furst Impressions” (start watching here) and Henry Tilney in the 1997 episode “Pup Fiction” (start watching here).

So Janeites were among the fans who celebrated the news earlier this summer that a Wishbone feature film is in the works, spearheaded by Peter Farrelly, the writer/director who won Oscars in 2018 for Green Book. (Alas, the new movie won’t star Soccer, who moved on to the big kennel in the sky back in 2001.) No word yet on whether the script is likely to riff on another Austen novel, but – surely they wouldn’t disappoint us?

Just to make sure, let’s help them out with some brainstorming. “Mansfield Bark,” anyone? Wishbone, playing the role of Henry Crawford, woos Fanny and ruins Maria. But in the end, his own heart is won when he meets Pug, Lady Bertram’s gender-fluid pet, and, in a risqué departure for a kids’ show, fathers a litter of puppies. As Wishbone leaves his true love behind in the literary past and heads wistfully back to his own time—shades of Outlander here--Fanny Price is seen cuddling the runt, her wedding present from her indolent aunt.

Yes, I think it has potential. Let’s take a meeting in 2021.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 24 2020 01:00PM

Did Jane Austen want the world to know her name? It’s a complicated question.

In January 1796, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, the twenty-year-old Austen joked, “I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter, for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument” (letter #2 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

But fifteen years later, when she finally became a published author, Austen chose anonymity over fame: The 1811 title page of Sense and Sensibility describes the novel as “By A Lady,” and her next three books were ascribed only to “the author of” the earlier novels.

During her lifetime, Austen seems to have been somewhat vexed by her brother Henry’s inability to keep the secret of her authorship, and only after her death, when her last two books were published along with Henry’s “Biographical Notice,” was her authorship publicly acknowledged.

On her deathbed in Winchester, however, Austen dictated a curious poem that features St. Swithin, the city cathedral’s patron saint, rising from the dead to chastise insufficiently deferential townsfolk: “When once we are buried you think we are gone,” he tells them. “But behold me immortal!”

Was this a throwaway line, or Austen’s last, defiant assertion of her own literary greatness? It’s impossible to be sure. Maybe she herself was ambivalent, torn between the safety of anonymity and the natural human desire to claim credit for her work. All we know is that when she had the choice, she chose to remain in the shadows.

These reflections occurred to me recently as I followed the kerfuffle over a well-intentioned but slipshod effort at literary feminism: the ReclaimHerName project, designed to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a prestigious UK literary award given annually to a novel by a female author.

Under the #ReclaimHerName hashtag, the prize’s sponsor, the Baileys liqueur company, is reissuing twenty-five books by female authors who used male pseudonyms, with new covers proclaiming the writer’s original, female name. Most of the books are long forgotten, or at least semi-obscure, with the notable exception of Middlemarch by one Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot.* The books can be downloaded for free, and box sets of hard copies will be donated to libraries.

The project’s sponsors have worthy motives: to promote the work of women, including women of color, and ensure that literary history is rewritten to include them. “If their identities are hidden, it’s as if women didn’t write any of these books, that the past is an unbroken line of beards and every now and again, you get one woman,” British novelist Kate Mosse, who founded the Women’s Literary Prize, told the Guardian newspaper.

Unfortunately, as plenty of commentators have already pointed out (for instance, here and here), the project implicitly buys into a highly contentious claim: that throughout history, all female authors wanted their names known and adopted male pseudonyms only when forced to do so by patriarchal oppression.

In fact, many female authors published under their own names in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and America – Jane Austen knew works by such disparate authors as Charlotte Smith, Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney, Mary Brunton, and Ann Radcliffe, to name just a few -- and like Austen herself, those who didn’t had their own reasons for choosing anonymity or pseudonym. Perhaps they valued their privacy; perhaps they feared their work would stir up controversy; perhaps they found adopting new personas liberating; perhaps they identified with a different gender. Even today, it’s common for romance writers, most of whom are female, to choose pen names; many see the pseudonyms as part of the fun.

Of course, a choice like this is inevitably inflected by cultural norms, some of them oppressive: Female authors who chose privacy may have done so out of a (conscious or unconscious) conviction that women ought not to assert themselves, that female voices were somehow illegitimate, that a woman who spoke up was immodest or was putting herself at risk. But do such problematic social pressures explain the decision-making of every female writer who chose a male pseudonym? Unlikely.

In other words, the subject is too complex and context-dependent for a single hashtag. What seems certain is that for twenty-first-century researchers to swoop in and restore the “real” names of writers who chose to publish pseudonymously smacks of condescension, as if those poor dears condemned to living in the less enlightened past couldn’t possibly have made clear-eyed choices of their own.

* Curiously, four of these twenty-five writers chose George as their male pseudonym. Only two other names – Michael and Frank – got used even twice. Apparently, there’s something about George. . .

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