Deborah Yaffe


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.

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?

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