Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, May 20 2019 01:00PM

Today on “Making Fun of the Internet,” a roundup of the latest Jane Austen-related stupid stuff that has crossed my cyber-transom recently:

* “ ‘We are all fools in love’ wrote Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice.” Such is the inauspicious first sentence of a meditation on love by Pakistani journalist Shah Nawaz Mohal, who goes on to name-drop Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre, Ayn Rand, and the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz while arguing . . . something or other.

I have no idea whether Mohal has correctly quoted all those other people. But I know for a fact that Jane Austen didn’t write the line he attributes to her, which actually comes from Deborah Moggach’s screenplay for the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Will no one around here ever bother to conduct a simple text search?

* “. . . there such much to love about Austen's world. Not to mention she gave us the image of Colin Firth emerging from a lake in a soaked blouse.”

HAHAHAHAHAHA. OK, Isabel Mundigo-Moore: I get that you’re a writer for Yahoo!’s Style pages, not a literary critic (or, apparently, a proofreader). And far be it from me to question your expert claim that such staples of Regency fashion as organza, linen, puffed sleeves, and pearls will be all the rage this summer.

But do you honestly think that Jane Austen gave us wet-shirt Colin Firth? A gift indeed, don’t get me wrong, but one for which we need to thank Andrew Davies, the screenwriter of the 1995 TV miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. Austen had nothing to do with it. It’s not in the book. Nope. Not there. Not even close.

* “The film’s final act meanders into the byways of marriage and inheritance better suited to a Jane Austen soap.” Or so argues New Zealand critic James Robins, reviewing the new Kenneth Branagh movie about Shakespeare’s last years.

Excuse me: a Jane Austen what? Surely, James (may I call you James?), you aren’t implying that Jane Austen wrote soap operas – or, even worse, that stories about marriage and inheritance are inherently soapy. Because she didn’t and they aren’t, unless you think the majority of English novels published in the nineteenth century are soaps.

Or perhaps I should just introduce you to Tanya Gold and let you two settle in for a nice chat. Have fun, guys!

By Deborah Yaffe, May 16 2019 01:00PM

To read the news these days, you’d think that attics across the world were bursting with the previously unsuspected memorabilia of famous English writers.

Earlier this year, we were treated to the news of a newly discovered family album containing photos of Victorian descendants of Jane Austen’s family. And now comes word that a Welsh woman has stumbled across a memorial ring containing a bit of Charlotte Brontë’s hair.

Last month, an episode of the British edition of Antiques Roadshow featured the ring, which the owner found among her late father-in-law’s possessions. Inside its band, the ring is engraved with Brontë’s name and death date (March 31, 1855); a hinged exterior compartment holds a tiny braided lock of mousy brown hair.

The Victorians had an obsession (arguably, a rather creepy one) with setting the hair of dead loved ones in memorial jewelry. So experts seem to believe the Brontë ring is authentic—and the connection to the famous writer ups its value from a mere £25 (about $33) to £20,000 (about $26,000).

Time to scour the attic once more for those missing Jane Austen letter! Surely Cassandra can't have burnt them all. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, May 13 2019 01:00PM

Most Janeites don’t need to hear, yet again, that Jane Austen was not a kindly maiden aunt whose sweet, insubstantial little romance novels provide a wholesome escape from reality. But it’s still enjoyable to listen as smart people discuss her life and work, and thus it is that I can recommend a recent half-hour episode in the BBC’s “Great Lives” radio series.

The segment, which aired last week, features Caroline Criado Perez, the British journalist and activist whose campaign to put a woman on the UK’s currency brought us the Jane Austen £10 note; and Paula Byrne, the scholar whose Austen books include The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things and The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood.

In conversation with host Matthew Parris, Byrne and Criado Perez discuss Austen’s juvenilia, Austen’s family, Austen’s humor, Austen’s misleading public image (“What more annoys me is when people dislike her for the wrong reasons,” Criado Perez says), and—inevitably—Austen’s love life.

Parris begins, “There is a biopic called Becoming Jane. . .”

“. . . oh, God. . . ,” interjects Criado Perez, right before she and Byrne savage the evergreen tale of Austen’s heartbreak over her youthful crush Tom Lefroy as so much sexist bunkum.

“She did have an eye for men,” Parris suggests, noting the sex appeal of Austenian heroes.

“We all have an eye for men, but that doesn’t mean we want to marry them and have their babies,” Criado Perez replies tartly. “Sometimes there are other things in a woman’s life.”

Not that this is news to Janeites. But it still bears repeating.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 9 2019 01:00PM

Among London’s many delights are the blue plaques that mark buildings associated with historical personages both famous and obscure. Spotting these plaques, with their mini-history lessons, enlivens the walk through neighborhoods across the city.

Sadly, if unsurprisingly, women are grossly underrepresented on blue plaques, featuring on only 14 percent of the more than 900 placed since the program began 153 years ago.

In 2016, English Heritage launched a campaign to encourage the public to nominate female candidates for plaque-immortality, but results have been mixed: Although more than half the subsequent plaques have featured women, two-thirds of the public nominations are still going to men.

“If we are to see a significant increase in the number of blue plaques for women, we will need more female suggestions,” English Heritage explains on its website.

Among the 117 women currently featured on the blue plaques, and listed in an article last week on the MyLondon website, are actors, artists, educators, scientists, social reformers, and many writers, from Frances Burney to Sylvia Plath, George Eliot to Agatha Christie.

Jane Austen, however, is missing—probably, I would guess, because the London addresses on Sloane Street, Henrietta Street, and Hans Place where she stayed with her brother Henry during visits in 1811, 1813, 1814, and 1815 no longer “survive in a form that the commemorated person would have recognised,” as English Heritage’s selection criteria require. (Even Carlton House, where Austen visited the Prince Regent's librarian in 1815, was torn down in 1826.)

Still, that shouldn’t deter historically minded Janeites from nominating other likely choices—Jane Austen isn’t the only woman worth a plaque.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 6 2019 01:00PM

Some weeks, the Austen-related news tidbits that come my way are scattered and disparate, lacking any unifying theme. And then there’s last week:

* E.L. James, author of the phenomenally popular and extraordinarily badly written Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, is a Janeite. Or so we learn from her recent interview with the Arizona Republic, undertaken to promote her new novel, the first not to feature the brooding, insanely sexy twenty-something billionaire Christian Grey and his fetish for handcuffs, whips, and spankings.

Naming romance writers who influenced her, James lists the Brit Jilly Cooper and the Americans Catherine Coulter, Brenda Joyce, Laura Kinsale, Johanna Lindsey, and Judith McNaught. And then there’s this: “I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, and I would say that Emma is one of my favorite books.”

Emma is a nuanced, exquisitely written exploration of a woman’s coming-of-age during a year of near-plotless daily life in an English village. At first blush, it’s hard to think of a book less like the overwrought Fifty Shades trilogy, whose event-packed narrative careens from Seattle to Aspen to the French Riviera and features a deranged stalker, a revenge plot, an arson, a helicopter crash, a car chase, a kidnapping, and lots and lots (and lots) of explicit sex, much of it kinky.

But maybe I’m not thinking broadly enough. Influence is a subtle thing, after all. Perhaps Mr. Knightley’s frequent chastisement of Emma for her bad behavior bears more resemblance to Christian Grey’s erotic spankings than I’ve realized. (Badly done, indeed! Remind me again of our safe word?) After all, Jane Austen never does tell us what goes on during that seaside honeymoon. . .

* Back in the day, the Republic of Pemberley forbade the denizens of its late, lamented discussion boards from commenting on the personal lives of actors in Jane Austen adaptations. (Presumably, this rule was designed to scotch gossip about the romance between Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, who dated briefly while starring opposite each other in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.)

Luckily for me, this rule does not apply here at my blog, where I am free to ask why no one told me of an apparently well-known tidbit of celebrity news: the five-year-old romance between actors Lily James and Matt Smith, who met while filming the execrable 2016 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care about this particular pairing. I liked Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown. I’ve seen James in several things, and I think she is perfectly adequate, if somewhat overrated. If they're happy together, I'm happy for them. But—a relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Collins? Now that’s news! It’s like a scary fanfic come to life.

* What, no third Jamesian bullet point to officially make this an Austen Trend? Surely Lebron must be a closet Austen fan. . .

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