Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 22 2016 01:00PM

Screenwriter Andrew Davies, who turned 80 this past Tuesday, is a Janeite demigod, the man who brought us not only the beloved 1995 Firth-Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice, but also highly respected TV adaptations of Northanger Abbey, Emma and Sense and Sensibility.

Davies is famous for adding S-E-X to the supposedly sexless classics -- “People say that I could sex up the Tube map,” he told a Radio Times interviewer last weekend.

At least in his Austen adaptations, the supposedly shocking material is strictly PG-13 -- a bare shoulder here, a rumpled bed there, the odd clingy wet shirt. But twenty years ago, that was enough to cause a sensation in the decorous world of period drama. (Not any more, of course: Thanks to Davies himself, we now expect our bonnet dramas to come with bedroom scenes.)

No, what’s really notable about his work is how often he manages to convey the subtle layers of character and meaning that come through on the page but are often flattened out on screen. That’s why Davies’ adaptations repay repeated viewings, while lesser adaptations – ahem! Naming no names here – pall after a time or two.

Davies manages to stay faithful to the spirit of the works he adapts while taking liberties with some of the details – often in the service of a feminist agenda. The ending of his Bleak House improves on Dickens’ creepy original, with its patronizing handling of Esther’s love life; and Davies’ Sense and Sensibility gives Edward and Elinor a satisfyingly romantic proposal scene that Austen denies them – though arguably she had her reasons.

Now there’s a dinner party I’d like to host: Andrew Davies meets Jane Austen, over a couple of glasses of excellent Cabernet. I suspect she’d care a lot less about the sex than people think.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 7 2016 02:00PM

It’s time again for one of my favorite pastimes: Making Fun of the Internet – Jane Austen Edition. Today’s episode includes two entries:

1. Over at Blastr, the Syfy channel’s pop culture website, a writer calling herself Geek Girl Diva wrote recently about “shipping,” the common practice in fandom of rooting for a romantic relationship between two fictional characters, often while devising a cute portmanteau nickname for the would-be happy couple.

Shipping isn’t new, Geek Girl Diva argued: “Soap operas have been feeding ships since they were invented back in the '30s,” she explained. “Reach back further and look [at] Jane Austen’s books. How many readers have fallen in love with the Catherine Bennet/Mr. Darcy ship (Carcy? Darnnet? Bency?)”

How many? Zero, I’m pretty sure. True, I did for a moment enjoy myself by imagining the trainwreck that would follow a romance between Mr. Darcy and Kitty Bennet: he so proud, she so . . . vapid and whiny. But no: I kinda think Geek Girl Diva meant Elizabeth. Might want to double-check the info next time, before coming up with the cute ship name.

2. Regular blog readers know that in the past I have found one or two instances of people misquoting Jane Austen online. One or two. . . million. (See here, for example).

Usually, the misquoting takes the form of a list of, say, ten or fifteen “Jane Austen quotes” that includes one or two that actually come from Jane Austen movies. Let it now be known: the folks compiling those lists were amateurs.

For I now bring you a list recently posted by one Melinda Fox on FamilyShare, an online community that aims to “strengthen and inspire families.” Ms. Fox offers “11 Jane Austen quotes that sum up everything you need to know about love.”

The tally:

#1: “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us perfect for one another.” Not Jane Austen – Douglas McGrath’s screenplay for the 1996 movie adaptation of Emma. (And, as long as we're getting things right, the exact quote is, “Maybe it is our imperfections which make us so perfect for one another.”)

#2: “There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.” Not Jane Austen – Patricia Rozema’s screenplay for the 1999 movie adaptation of Mansfield Park.

#3: “I dream of a love that even time will lie down and be still for.” Not Jane Austen. Not even a Jane Austen movie. Robin Swicord’s screenplay for the 1998 movie adaptation of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman. (At least, that's what the Internet says; I don't have the movie handy, so I can't check. And, as we are learning here, the Internet can't always be trusted.)

#4: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” At last! Yes, this one is really from Emma!

#5: “I must learn to be content with being happier than I deserve.” Sort of Jane Austen. It’s a misquoted version of a line from Persuasion, as I have noted elsewhere.

#6: “It is such a happiness when good people get together, and they always do.” Yes! It’s Jane Austen! From Emma!

#7: “We are all fools in love.” Nope. Deborah Moggach’s screenplay for the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

#8: “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.” Good work! It’s really Austen! From Emma again!

#9: “I am determined that only the deepest love will induce me into matrimony.” Alas, no. I love Andrew Davies, but his screenplay for the iconic 1995 mini-series of Pride and Prejudice is not by Jane Austen. And as delivered by Jennifer Ehle, the line actually reads, “I am determined that nothing but the very deepest love will induce me into matrimony.”

#10: “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” But she finishes strong! Yes, that’s our Mr. Darcy!

#11: What, you thought she was doing eleven? Why? Oh, yeah – the headline. No, just ten.

Final score: Four genuine Jane Austen quotes, one misquoted Jane Austen quote, four Jane Austen movie quotes (from four different movies!), and one quote that has absolutely nothing to do with Jane Austen. Plus our list-maker can’t count. If we’re being generous, a .50 batting average. Kind of impressive, no? Especially given how easy it is to CHECK THE TEXT.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2016 02:00PM

People who were alive in November 1963 like to reminisce about the moment they learned that JFK had been shot. American Janeites who were alive in January 1996 can look back on a far more joyful, although slightly less momentous, milestone: their first viewing of the BBC’s landmark adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which began airing on the A&E network exactly twenty years ago tonight.

That adaptation, which features the famous not-in-Austen shot of Colin Firth, aka Mr. Darcy, in a clingy, translucent wet shirt, is often credited (by me, among other people) with kicking off the pop-culture Austenmania that we still live with today, albeit in the attenuated form of Bustle listicles and zombie mashups.

So where was I when I first saw the famous P&P? Well, I didn’t subscribe to cable back then, so I had to content myself with a VHS recording mailed to me by my parents some time (a week? A month? Can’t remember now) after the original broadcast.

My husband and I invited a Janeite friend over for a two-night viewing party in our tiny apartment. The second night, she and I insisted on starting out by rewatching our favorite scene. No, not that one! In those pre-Internet days, I don’t know if we’d heard about the wet-shirt frenzy spawned by the show’s initial broadcast a few months earlier in England.

Anyway, that scene is in the second half.

We wanted to see Darcy and Elizabeth, played by the great Jennifer Ehle, crossing swords after his insulting proposal -- the six-minute exchange in which she tells him he’s “the last man in the world” she would ever agree to marry. It’s one of Jane Austen’s greatest scenes, and Andrew Davies’ screenplay realizes it beautifully, skillfully turning paraphrase into speech and interweaving the result with a condensed version of Austen’s dialogue. Firth paces, Ehle seethes, and the intensity of feeling between them gives even a P&P virgin a clue that Elizabeth is going to end up eating those words, with a cherry on top.

OK, I just went and watched that scene again. It’s still fabulous. Happy twentieth anniversary, everyone.

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.

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