Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 13 2020 01:00PM

Remind me: How many novels did Jane Austen write, again?

Just kidding! Yes, of course, the answer is six. But if you didn’t know that already, you might be confused by the coverage of Rachel Cohen’s recently published memoir Austen Years, in which Cohen describes how her experience of new motherhood and her grief over her father’s death enriched her understanding of Austen’s books.

Not all of Austen’s books, though: Cohen’s subtitle is A Memoir in Five Novels. Which five? Oh, “all five of Austen’s major novels,” says the New York Times reviewer, a Princeton English professor. (“Major” novels? Says who?) “All but Northanger Abbey, generally regarded as inferior,” explains another reviewer. (“Generally regarded”? By whom?) “Not Northanger Abbey which is a farce of a Gothic novel,” says a book blogger. (Farce = skippable?)

Not everyone seems quite so clear about which books made Cohen’s cut and which didn’t. The Washington Post reviewer advises prospective Cohen readers to first tackle “at least four if not all six of Jane Austen’s novels.” (Which of the five “major” ones are we allowed to skip? She doesn’t say.) And the New Yorker’s excerpt from Cohen’s memoir, headlined “Living Through Turbulent Times with Jane Austen,” is subtitled “How six unexpectedly far-ranging novels carried me through eight years, two births, one death, and a changing world.”

I haven’t read Austen Years yet, but a quick Google search confirms that Northanger Abbey is indeed the book that Cohen voted off her island. Even while compulsively rereading the other five, she writes, “I only looked into Northanger Abbey. . . . To me, Northanger Abbey is still opaque. The wit is sometimes harsh, the characterizations are less subtle, the proportions are not complex and harmonic. Gilbert Ryle says, ‘It is the one novel of the six which does not have an abstract ethical theme for its backbone,’ no general qualities being considered in the light of different characters. I think Austen decided not to publish it because she had never found the way to rewrite it to her satisfaction.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the assumption that only five of Austen’s novels really count. Although many critical studies of Austen devote one chapter to each novel, with Northanger Abbey getting equal time, the book has drawn less interest from filmmakers (I know of only two screen adaptations) and probably also from fanfic writers (the pickings are slim). The only survey of Janeites that I’m aware of, conducted by Jeanne Kiefer in 2008 for the Jane Austen Society of North America, found that Northanger Abbey was the least favorite Austen novel for 40 percent of the 4,500 Janeites surveyed – a strong plurality, certainly, although not a majority.

Of course, Rachel Cohen is under no obligation to read, let alone write about, a book she doesn’t like. For me, too, Northanger Abbey is the least compelling of the six, although on a recent reread, I found it fresh, funny, and altogether charming. But I’m puzzled by reviewers’ offhand allusions to a taken-for-granted consensus. Who gets to decide this stuff? And how come I never got a vote?

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 10 2020 01:00PM

I haven’t set foot in a movie theater in five months. (March 7. Multiplex up the road from here. The new adaptation of Emma, a pretty good way to go out.) This is certainly the longest cinematic drought in my adult life. Television is all well and good, but I crave the big screen like a desert wanderer craves an oasis.

Perhaps that’s why I perked up so unreasonably at the tiny scrap of Jane Austen news thrown our way last month when the UK film magazine Screen Daily published an interview with a British director/playwright/screenwriter named Jessica Swale. Most of the story was about Swale’s newly released film Summerland and her life under pandemic lockdown.

But tucked into the introductory paragraphs, never to be discussed again, was this factoid: “She is also working on a feature version of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn for Studiocanal and Jane Austen’s Persuasion for Fox Searchlight.”

What? The desert traveler glimpses the oasis! Is it for real. . . or just another mirage?

Longbourn, you will recall, was a much-praised 2013 novel that told the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the Bennet family’s servants. Movie talk was in the air almost from the get-go, and the projected film has had a skeletal IMDB listing since 2017, but the project has never progressed much further. Unless perhaps it has! Please tell us more!

And what’s all this about a new version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion? We already know about the forthcoming update, A Modern Persuasion, which transplants the story to contemporary (presumably pre-pandemic) New York, but this sounds like a new adaptation of the original. Squee!

No doubt you will point out that if the screenwriter is still at work, neither of these films is likely to appear for at least a couple of years, by which time going to the movies will (please, God!) once again seem like a routine pastime, rather than a distant, shimmering, Emerald City-type fantasy. Meanwhile, however, I’m going to enjoy imagining that I’ve arrived at the oasis.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen has been used and abused in so many different ways by now, pressed into service to sell everything from perfume to romance novels to white supremacy, that you’d think nothing could surprise us Janeites.

And yet I did find it a bit of a shock to learn about a recent Australian sexual harassment suit in which Austen was invoked – to defend the harasser.

Back in 2015-16, a solicitor named Owen Hughes, the principal of a small law firm in the Australian state of New South Wales, subjected a paralegal named Catherine Hill to an onslaught of unwanted advances.

He sent her frequent emails – some of them in “poor French,” according to a legal ruling -- professing his love and suggesting romance. In the office, he stood in her doorway, refusing to move until she supplied him with hugs. And on a business trip, he twice entered her bedroom – once surprising her as she returned from a shower wrapped only in a towel, and once waiting on her mattress, clad in an undershirt and boxer shorts. (On that occasion, he declined to leave until she gave him – yes – a hug.) To top it all off, he threatened to undermine her professional training if she reported his bad behavior.

Eventually, the poor woman quit and sued, winning $170,000 in damages last year. Her sleazeball boss appealed, losing his case late last month in a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel.

His defense? His behavior couldn’t be sexual harassment because it wasn’t sexual; it consisted merely of honorable requests for love and affection, just like Mr. Darcy’s advances to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. (Yes, the harasser literally compared himself to Mr. Darcy.)

The judges in the case were, understandably, incredulous at this argument. “I reject the submission of Senior Counsel for the Appellant that these were the actions of a Mr. Darcy,” appeals court Justice Nye Perram wrote in rejecting Hughes’ appeal. “The facts of this case are about as far from a Jane Austen novel as it is possible to be.”

Although I’m delighted to see a wronged woman winning her day in court, I have to quibble slightly with Justice Perram’s formulation, which betrays a narrow understanding of the works of Our Author.

It’s certainly true that Hughes is no Mr. Darcy, but what about Mr. Collins, who initially refuses to accept that Elizabeth’s no means no? Or Mr. Elton with Emma: “her hand seized -- her attention demanded”? Or Henry Crawford, intent on making “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart,” regardless of Fanny's preferences in the matter?

Jane Austen knew this type of man. The facts of Hughes’ creepy coerciveness aren’t actually all that far from an Austen novel. Hughes' mistake came in identifying himself with the hero.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 3 2020 09:00AM

The proliferation of face masks in every conceivable style, color, fabric, and design is either an encouraging sign of inexhaustible human creativity and entrepreneurship, or a really depressing indicator of how long the coronavirus is likely to be with us.

By now, it’s possible to buy luxury face masks in pastel-colored silk, or Disney Princess-themed face masks for small children, or slightly creepy face masks featuring your favorite breed of dog. So it should come as no surprise that if you’re looking for a Jane Austen-themed face mask, your choices are practically infinite.

A small sampling:

* Jane Austen quotes: The first line of Pride and Prejudice, the first line of Wentworth’s letter, the best line from Love and Freindship . . . But how will anyone read all this from six feet away?

Or perhaps you would prefer a quote that’s been ripped out of context? Step right up!

Or a misattributed movie quote? Yes, indeed! And again!

* Book cover: The famous 1894 peacock edition of Pride and Prejudice? Right here, on your face, in purple. Or in blue!

* Images of Austen: No, of course it probably doesn’t look like her, but whatever!

* Sanditon fan? They’ve got you covered. Plus a backup.

* Janeite pride: “Jane Austen Rocks”? Well, duh!

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 30 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen lived a very long time ago, in a world whose gender roles, social conditions, and technological context are largely alien to us. It’s likely that our world would seem equally incomprehensible to her.

But that hasn’t prevented any number of writers from regaling us with accounts of What Jane Would Say about. . . modern dating, or wellness regimens, or job-hunting. Of course, all these people were just putting words in her mouth, since poor Jane couldn’t speak for herself.

Until now.

Yes, at last Jane Austen is talking back. And not just Jane Austen! Get ready for conversations with a host of famous artists and scientists, from Isaac Newton and Marie Curie to Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock.

The project, created by a novelist and magician named Andrew Mayne, relies on artificial intelligence software from the research lab OpenAI “to create simulated conversations with virtual historical figures,” according to an online account at the technology news site The Next Web. “The system first works out the purpose of the message and the intended recipient by searching for patterns in the text. It then uses the [software’s] internal knowledge of that person to guess how they would respond in their written voice.”

Every Janeite has a mental list of the questions she would ask Jane Austen, if presented with the opportunity: questions about her writing process, say, or her opinions on the political controversies of her day, or that thing with Tom Lefroy.

Mayne didn’t ask Artificial Intelligence Jane Austen about any of that, alas. He asked how her characters would use social media.

“I’d have Emma promote her self-published book on Facebook,” AIJA replied. “I’d have Emma update her status with a lament about the deplorable state of the publishing industry in a desperate attempt to get her Facebook friends to buy her book.”

From an AI point of view, I guess it’s impressive that AIJA writes reasonably idiomatic English prose. And it’s reassuring to discover that Jane Austen is just as clueless about book marketing as any other struggling author.

But really: Emma wrote a book? As if! She can’t even muster the discipline to read one!

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