Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2015 01:00PM

Another day, another artificially constructed list of literary favorites on which Jane Austen ranks high. Today’s entry is the “Top 15 of the Nation’s Favourite Classic Literary Heroines” – the nation in question being Great Britain, as you can tell from the spelling.

Seems that 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, the studio’s DVD distribution arm, wanted some free publicity for its upcoming DVD release of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the recent film adaptation of Hardy’s novel. So it commissioned a no doubt rigorous and statistically bulletproof survey of one thousand British adults and asked them who their favorite literary heroines were.

Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Far From the Madding Crowd, clocked in at #13. I love the novel, and she’s a great character, but something about this result seems curious to me. Maybe I have a suspicious mind.

Needless to say, however, I suspend all such skepticism when it comes to Jane Austen’s sterling success as one of only three authors to get two heroines onto the list: Emma Woodhouse, at #15, and Elizabeth Bennet, at #1. (Woo hoo!) The other two authors, in case you’re wondering, are Tolkien (Arwen, #7; Galadriel, #10) and Hardy (Tess, #8, joins Bathsheba).

Silly and unscientific though it probably is, the list nevertheless reminds us of a fundamental truth: readers have a great fondness for ruthless, cruel, manipulative people, at least when they are safely trapped between book covers. Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights), Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby) and Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) may be the protagonists (or co-protagonists) of their respective novels, but heroines? Only if your definition is expansive.

No wonder Jane Austen was wrong in saying that Emma was a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like.” Turns out we adore these vivid, larger-than-life women with their dramatic, outsize flaws.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 27 2015 01:00PM

My philosophy of youthful reading can be summed up in three words: It’s all good.

Comic books, novelizations of TV shows, futuristic dystopian science fiction-fantasy hybrids, Harry Potter fanfic, goopy romance novels, ghost-written celebrity autobiographies – if you like to read it, more power to you. To paraphrase Henry Tilney, the mere habit of learning to love reading is the thing.

Heartening support for this approach comes from the news that devotees of the After books, Anna Todd’s blockbuster fanfic series inspired by the boy band One Direction, have expanded their reading to take in books mentioned in the books – specifically, Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice.

Todd’s series, now published by Simon & Schuster, started its life on the digital reading platform WattPad, and according to this Tech Insider story, After readers have accessed Bronte’s and Austen’s out-of-copyright masterpieces the same way: “Thanks largely to Todd, Pride and Prejudice currently has over 3.5 million reads on Wattpad and Wuthering Heights has just over 1 million.”

I haven’t read the After books, but judging from the brief excerpt offered by Tech Insider, the fan who read Austen and Bronte and then told Todd, ""These writers are as good as you are! Even better I guess,” was being a tad – ahem! – generous to Todd. But hey – this is how you learn to love.

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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