Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 16 2015 02:00PM

See, this is why it’s a problem -- as I’ve written so many, many times before (for instance: here, here and here) – that the Internet is choked with faux-Jane Austen quotes. Because it leads to sad little items like this one:

A retired Canadian police officer and peacekeeping veteran, speaking last week at a ceremony for Remembrance Day, Canada’s version of Veterans Day, told his audience: "One hundred years before the start of World War I, Jane Austen wrote in her ageless book Sense and Sensibility, 'It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do'. . . . Jane Austen's words are as poignant today as when they were published. We are still defined by what we do.”

So here’s the problem: Jane Austen’s ageless book Sense and Sensibility doesn’t contain those words, no matter how many web sites claim the contrary. In fact, that line comes from Andrew Davies’ screen adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which hit the airwaves in 2008, ninety-four years after the start of World War I.

But not even that is quite true: After attributing the line to Davies through umpteen blog posts, I finally went back to the tape to double-check. And, in fact, the line is not only faux Austen, it’s also garbled Davies: his Marianne Dashwood, chastened by her near-death experience, says to Elinor, “It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are. It is what we do, or fail to do.”

Why do people keep attributing this sort-of-Davies quote to Jane Austen? Because citing a Certifiably Great Writer as the source of a semi-noble sentiment confers unearned gravitas. “As Jane Austen wrote” puts a stamp of authority on a statement that, when you get right down to it, essentially means “Actions speak louder than words.”

But there’s nothing wrong with the line, in any of its iterations. Go ahead, Mr. Canadian Veteran – point out that actions speak louder than words! Exhort your audience to service and gratitude! I’m with you all the way! But please, please: couldn’t we leave Jane Austen out of it?

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 5 2015 01:00PM

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for awhile may stop here. You’ve heard what I’m going to say: They’re misquoting Jane Austen again, and I’m sick of it.

Those of you who are new to my ranting, however – read on. You need to know this stuff so that you too can be driven insane by the collective idiocy of the Internet.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 11 2014 01:00PM

Was it just last month that I was pointing out the folly of banging my head against the brick wall of inaccurate Austen quotation? Yes, it was – but another brick wall has arisen before me, and so a-banging I must go.

Of all the places you’d think you could rely on to eschew merchandise emblazoned with mislabeled, paraphrased or downright faux Austen quotes, you’d think the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, would be one.

But no.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 25 2014 01:34PM

I suppose I should just stop banging my head against the same old brick wall. But really: if you’re going to go to the trouble of including a Jane Austen mug in a series that “features a portrait of a beloved author along with several quotes from his or her canon,” wouldn’t you make sure that all the quotes actually come from the canon?

Initially, I was quite charmed by this mug (lively and colorful design, opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, fun quotes from Emma, heartfelt lines from Mr. Knightley and Captain Wentworth) -- until I glimpsed, just wrapping around the side, that dreaded creature: the Jane Austen movie quote masquerading as a Jane Austen book quote.

You can’t see it all, but you can see enough to know that what’s there is this: “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us but what we do.”

All over the internet, this line is attributed to Jane Austen. Nevertheless,despite the wisdom of crowds, it is not a Jane Austen quote. It is a quote from the screenplay of Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I like that adaptation quite a lot. Indeed, I like most of Davies’ work. I don’t even mind that line. Jane Austen probably would have agreed with it, had she ever been asked for her opinion.

Which she wasn’t. Because she didn’t write it. So could we please save that quote for the Andrew Davies mug and come up with something else for Austen’s?

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 19 2013 02:00PM

Look, it’s fine with me if your knowledge of Jane Austen is based on the movies, not the books. No problem. I love (many of) the movies too.

But could we please remember that the movies are not the same as the books? That just because it’s in a movie adaptation of a Jane Austen novel doesn’t mean it’s in the novel by Jane Austen? Could we please stop attributing movie stuff to Jane Austen without first checking to make sure it’s in the book?

Today’s rant is occasioned by an it’s-Jane-Austen’s-birthday feature that ran this week on Bustle, a web site specializing in allegedly female-centric topics like news, entertainment, fashion and Jane Austen. Our author, Anna Klassen, set out to rank Austen’s men from worst to best. Along the way, she demonstrated that, although she may have read the books, she’s seen the movies a lot more recently.

Exhibit A: Willoughby is a “douchebag” for “seducing a 15-year-old girl and abandoning her when she became pregnant.” Except that in the book, the seduced-and-abandoned Eliza is seventeen. She’s fifteen in the Andrew Davies script for the 2008 TV miniseries of Sense and Sensibility. (Minor detail? Not to us Janeites.) *

Exhibit B: Edmund Bertram is Austen’s most romantic hero (yes, you read that right. No accounting for tastes in this world) because, among other things, he “encourages Fanny in her writing pursuits.” Except that in the book, she’s not a writer. It’s Patricia Rozema’s 1999 movie of Mansfield Park that turns Fanny into a Jane Austen prototype and Edmund into her literary mentor.

Exhibit C: “John Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are pretty much BFFs throughout the novel.” OK, this isn’t movie confusion – just a straight-up Journalism 101, if-you-couldn’t-remember-that-his-name-is-George-you-should-have-Googled-till-you-got-it-right lesson.

Exhibit D: “Darcy is seriously moody: He loves her, he hates her, he’s indifferent, and he loves her again. Surely, ‘You have bewitched me, body and soul’ will go down in history as one of the greatest lines in romantic literature, but it took him a while to get to this selfless place.”

Where to begin? Let us break this travesty down.

1. However we may interpret the facial contortions of Messrs. Olivier, Rintoul, Firth and Macfadyen, in the book it is one hundred percent clear that Darcy moves from indifference (“tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”) into love so seamlessly that he is in the middle before he knows that he has begun. After that, no hatred, no indifference, no change of mind. Not moody at all. Just, you know, proud.

2. “You have bewitched me, body and soul” will not go down in history as one of the greatest lines in romantic literature. This will not occur for two reasons.

a) It is a cheesy and cliched line.

b) It is not in the book. Not literature. Cinema. If you love that line, then don’t thank Jane Austen: thank Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter for the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice.

All right, back to our reading now. Or our movie-watching. Just no confusing the two, OK?

* Actually, I may have this wrong: In the book, Eliza's age is left more ambiguous than I recalled when I wrote this. She is either fifteen or sixteen when Willoughby seduces her, depending on how you interpret Colonel Brandon's statement that, two years before the seduction, "she had just reached her fourteenth year." She is seventeen when Brandon tells Elinor the sad story.

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