Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 21 2016 07:28PM

Two hundred years ago today, one of the world’s greatest novelists was born in a small village in rural England.


I refer, of course, to Charlotte Brontë.


Despite the frequent, idiotic conflation of Jane Austen with Brontë’s most famous character -- most recently by a hapless contestant on a British TV game show – these two writers really don’t have anything to do with each other. Yet I fear it may count as radical and provocative for a Janeite like myself to point out that I love Charlotte Brontë.


All too often, Austen fans seem inclined to dis the Brontë sisters (and possibly vice versa, although I haven’t spent enough time around Brontë aficionados to know). Arguably, Charlotte Brontë herself started the whole thing with her kinda clueless anti-Austen statements, but Janeites have since joined the fray.


At the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2011 conference, a JASNA official known for her anti-Brontë sentiments was introduced to the audience with the announcement that, despite her recent retirement, “she has not yet stooped to picking up a Brontë novel.” When her own turn came at the podium, the JASNA official welcomed “one last chance for Brontë-bashing,” which she called “a great tradition.” (The line drew enthusiastic applause, though not from me.)


Now, it’s easy to understand why a fan of the cool, restrained Jane might not warm to the extravagantly emotional Charlotte, Emily and (to a lesser extent) Anne. These artists differ radically in sensibility, use of language, and approach to plot and character.


But so what? No law requires us to match up our enthusiasms like socks. Just as we enjoy the friendship of different kinds of people, many of us enjoy the work of different kinds of artists. It shouldn’t seem remarkable to find Jane Austen and Jane Eyre sharing a bookshelf of treasured favorites.


I’ve said it before: The weird insistence on pitting Austen against the Brontës in some kind of death-struggle is purely sexist. No one insists that fans of, say, Dickens and Trollope must inevitably find themselves locked in mortal combat. Male writers are seen as individuals; female writers are still, alas, too often seen as members of a group that only gets to send one guest to the party.


So, fellow Janeites, let’s refuse to play that silly game. Join me in wishing a very happy two hundredth birthday to a great novelist who happens not to be Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 8 2016 02:00PM

Janeite creativity, while most obvious in the groaning shelves of fan fiction based on Austen’s novels, isn’t confined to any one medium: we’ve got YouTube videos set to pop songs, handmade jewelry and at least one amazing cake.


And we have memes -- stills from Austen movies adorned with more-or-less clever captions, the best of which allude wittily to Austen lines. The good people of PasteMagazine.com, a web site that covers arts, entertainment, food, travel – just about everything you might do in your spare time, in fact – recently scoured the farthest reaches of the internet and compiled what they seem to think are forty-nine Austen-related memes.


I really did enjoy these, especially #6 -- Colin Firth as a melting and smitten Mr. Darcy, captioned, “Hey Girl, I love that you have improved your mind through extensive reading.” (Is there a bookish girl out there who hasn’t dreamed of hearing that from someone who, well, looks like Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy?)


So I hate to spoil the fun by insisting on accuracy. But pedantic party-pooper – designated driver of cyberspace, if you will -- is my role. And so I must point out that three of these supposed Jane Austen memes have nothing to do with Jane Austen.


#32 alludes to Jane Eyre, which, despite the fiendishly tricky coincidence of first names, is still a book by Charlotte Bronte. #35 and #37 refer to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which, while sometimes compared to Pride and Prejudice because of its first-she-hates-him-then-she-loves-him plot, is not, in fact, an Austen novel.


But hey! Enjoy your memes, kids! Just label them correctly, OK?


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 12 2015 02:00PM

By now, you may have heard that the filmed adaptation of a pop-culture work with a legion of breathless fans is coming to a multiplex near you this weekend.


I refer, of course, to “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”


Just kidding.


Yes, the wait is finally over for the cinematic translation of Fifty Shades of Grey, the most successful fan fic since. . . well, pretty much since the Aeneid inaugurated the genre in 19 BCE. And just because the original reads like something written in purple gel pen on the pages of a spiral-bound notebook covered with unicorns and rainbows doesn’t mean the movie won’t be worth seeing. (Or so I told my husband when I pre-ordered the tickets for our Valentine’s Day dinner-and-movie date. We are a couple united by a shared sense of irony. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)


Because Fifty Shades tells the tale of a virginal young woman and a rich, powerful, slightly older man whom she finds both attractive and repulsive, the Pride and Prejudice comparisons have appeared irresistible from Minute One, especially for people hoping to elevate E.L. James’s potboiler into something more respectable than mommy porn. (For instance, the film’s producer Michael De Luca draws the parallel in this Vanity Fair story.)


Personally, I don’t buy it. P&P is the original prototype of the she-hates-him-then-she-loves-him plot, now a staple of half the romantic comedies on the planet, but Fifty Shades doesn’t fit this template. For one thing, Anastasia Steele is hot for Christian Grey from the minute she lays eyes on him. And who can blame her? It’s not every day that you meet a single, show-stoppingly handsome, super-buff, twenty-something billionaire who spends his spare cash on shipments to Darfur.


Fifty Shades is an exemplar of a different plot: the rake-redeemed-by-the-love-of-a-good-woman story, whose progenitress is not Jane Austen but Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre. This particular fantasy has a potent hold on the female imagination, as anyone who has ever wept over a loser boyfriend she hoped to change can attest. Men may choose to believe that all women secretly yearn to be rescued by a dashing Prince Charming on a white horse, but I think many women prefer to imagine themselves doing the rescuing. “In the very limited time that you’ve known him, you’ve made more progress with my patient than I have in the last two years,” Christian’s therapist tells Ana in Book Two of the trilogy. Talk about sexual healing! Christian may wield the flogger, but Ana is the one with the power to whip him into shape.


Female-driven rake-redemption is not a Jane Austen trope. Mr. Darcy changes, but not because Elizabeth listens empathetically to the story of his bad childhood. Captain Wentworth changes, but not because Anne Elliot refuses to dump him no matter how badly he behaves. Austen’s heroes change because they engage in a painful process of introspection and self-criticism, undertaken with no guarantee that the women they love will be there for them at the end. They do the work of moral improvement for its own sake, not in hope of a reward, and they do it alone – as do Elizabeth and Emma, humbled and redeemed by hard-won insight into their own arrogance.


I suspect Austen would find the Jane Eyre/Ana Steele plot to be sentimental and improbable. Her most complicated rakes remain stubbornly unredeemed by novel’s end. Henry Crawford, accustomed to instant sexual gratification, can’t muster the patience required to prove himself worthy of Fanny Price; John Willoughby, addicted to unaffordable luxuries, won’t give up his hunters even for the love of a woman as good as Marianne Dashwood. These men cannot change, because they lack the strength of character change requires, and no woman can supply that strength when it’s lacking.


Jane Austen is probably right about the improbability of the female rescue fantasy. Nevertheless, I adore Jane Eyre, and I will admit to a sneaking semi-fondness for Fifty Shades. The plotting is amateurish and the writing is horrible, but the book has that indefinable thing that keeps you turning the pages, and as a writer, I do not disdain that quality – far from it. I’m looking forward to my Valentine’s Day date, with or without a side order of irony.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 17 2013 01:00PM

I love it when things like this* turn up in my daily Google alert for "Jane Austen": "Apparently every generation needs its own version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Jane Austen’s Jane Eyre and now Steven King’s Carrie."


A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about Jane Austen on a call-in radio show when the host invited listeners to tweet their favorite Jane Austen quote. The first one that arrived was this: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”


Which is also from Jane Eyre. Which is not by Jane Austen.


Poor Charlotte Bronte. Up in that heaven where great authors go, she’s probably ranting, “Geez! I could never stand that Austen woman while I was alive, and I still can’t shake her off!”



* Unsurprisingy, it seems I wasn't the only one to notice this howler; it's now been corrected.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 2 2013 01:00PM

Why do so many people who write about Jane Austen feel compelled to referee an imaginary smackdown between her and the Bronte sisters? The latest example is Alan Titchmarsh, writing recently in the UK Telegraph. In a mostly unremarkable tribute to Austen (heartfelt love stories, appealing characters, snarky narrative voice, etc., etc.), he begins by explaining why, despite his Yorkshire roots, he prefers Darcy to Heathcliff.


I just don’t get it. When Austen died, Charlotte Bronte was a toddler; Emily and Anne weren’t even born yet. Austen was a Georgian; the Brontes were Victorians. Austen wrote ironic, restrained courtship novels; the Brontes wrote extravagantly emotional romances. I love the Brontes, but they’re not trying to beat Austen at her own game; they’re playing another sport entirely.


True, all four novelists wrote stories in which heterosexual romance plays an important role, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. And heterosexual romance plays an important role in works by any number of male novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Yet male writers aren’t lined up for head-to-head competition this way. Articles about Dickens don’t lead off by adjudicating his merits vis-a-vis Thackeray or Hardy, as if there were no point in writing about someone who wasn’t certifiably Numero Uno. No, it’s just with women novelists that we're required to pick a single winner. Apparently, there’s only room for one girl in the clubhouse.


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