Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 2 2015 01:00PM

It’s been more than two years since we fans bid a sad farewell to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the delightful web series that recast Pride and Prejudice as the Internet video blog of a struggling communications grad student in California. And now comes LBD: The TED Talk (or, at least, the independently produced talk in a TED-ish format).


In an engaging fifteen-minute lecture called “What Jane Austen Can Teach Us About Our New Internet Selves,” writer and critic Julie Salmon Kelleher argues that new communications technology changes the way we see ourselves – and that old communications technology, like the novel, did too.


The literary technique known as free indirect discourse, pioneered and popularized by Austen and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists, implies the existence of a private self that is both distinct from and more real than our public self, Kelleher argues. By contrast, the self implied by Internet-enabled social media is a collaborative, collective project.


Kelleher illustrates her point with a passage from Pride and Prejudice – Elizabeth’s reaction to Darcy’s letter – and with the equivalent scene from LBD, in which Lizzie, bemused to receive a wax-sealed, handwritten (in cursive!) missive from the rejected William Darcy, decides not to share its super-sensitive contents with her Internet audience.


That decision, which maintains the privacy of Lizzie’s consciousness despite the public nature of her video blogging project, suggests that the new world isn’t quite as far from the old as we sometimes think, Kelleher says.


“Finding our new Internet selves – finding our new selves – doesn’t mean leaving our old selves behind,” she concludes. “Maybe it’s not an either/or between our individual and our collective selves. Maybe we can aim for both.”


I’m too private a person – or perhaps too old a person -- to find social media’s all-sharing-all-the-time ethos anything but off-putting. So it’s a relief to know that, just maybe, there will still be a niche for me in this brave new world. If not, at least I can watch LBD again.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 29 2015 01:00PM

Look! Down there in the barrel! It’s a fish! Hand me my rifle!


Yes, I know I should stop trashing Bustle’s near-daily stream of Jane Austen listicles. And in my defense, I believe it’s been a full eight months since I last did so, which evinces self-restraint of Elinor Dashwood proportions.


Whatever Bustle’s catchy headline du jour -- “17 Things Only Jane Austen Lovers Truly Understand”! “14 Love Lessons From Jane Austen”! “8 Truly Feminist Lessons From Jane Austen”! -- every one of its lists recycles pretty much the same Hallmark-ready Words To Live By, allegedly drawn from Austen: Be yourself. Follow your heart. Stand up for yourself. Don’t judge by first impressions. Be honest with your friends. Etc.


This stuff sets my eyes a-rolling, for a number of reasons (though probably fewer than seventeen). I hate the way these lists flatten fully rounded works of literature into annotated self-help manuals, squeezing out all the narrative nuance and complex characterization. I note that Jane Austen always comes out of these efforts sounding more like a twenty-first-century chick dishing over a latte than like an Anglican clergyman’s daughter born in the eighteenth century. Call her Bustle Jane Austen, or BuJA for short.


Compiling these Lesson Lists seems a particularly foolhardy task when it comes to a writer as subtle and slippery as Austen, whose every Lesson can be matched with a Counter-Lesson, sometimes from the very same book. Bustle’s latest featurette, “10 Lessons From Jane Austen on How to be a Badass,” throws the shortcomings of this silly project into all-too-sharp relief.


“Be yourself without worrying about what others think!” urges BuJA, who supposedly created the irreverent, uncowed Elizabeth Bennet in order to underline this very point. Except that Marianne Dashwood also goes around bucking convention and gets a broken heart and a near-fatal illness for her pains.


“Stick to your beliefs!” says BuJA – pointing to such belief-stickers as Fanny Price and both Dashwood sisters, who, despite their “opposing personalities. . . make decisions based on what they think is right, staying true to their personal morals.” Except that it’s pretty clear from Sense and Sensibility that Marianne is wrong about what she thinks is right. As is Elizabeth Bennet, who sticks to her beliefs about Wickham’s fundamental goodness right up until she finds out he’s fundamentally a callous seducer.


“Have confidence in your personal strengths!” exhorts BuJA, citing the example of Emma Woodhouse, whose lack of traditional female accomplishments is no big deal, since “her confidence in her own strengths is the key to her success.” Umm – did BuJA read RealJA’s book? In which Emma Woodhouse’s lack of accomplishments is evidence of her laziness, and her blind self-confidence is unforgettably skewered as “a disposition to think rather too well of herself”? Apparently not, since BuJa soon presses Emma’s I’m-never-getting-married line – the thoughtless bravado of a rich, sheltered young woman who doesn’t know her own heart – into service as an exemplar of “Just because something is right for others doesn’t mean it’s right for you.”


Not that RealJA is opposed to having self-confidence or choosing your own path. Anne Elliot might have fit with that know-your-own-strengths lesson, and Fanny Price is a pretty good exemplar of the what’s-right-for-you-is-wrong-for-me line. That’s what I mean about examples and counter-examples. Austen does believe in all those rah-rah Girl Power lines – except when she doesn’t. Because she’s writing about real life, which is messy, contextual and rarely governed by hard-and-fast rules.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2015 01:00PM

Ianthe Broome, the protagonist of Barbara Pym’s 1982 novel An Unsuitable Attachment, is a quiet, self-effacing woman. "She saw herself perhaps as an Elizabeth Bowen heroine -- for one did not openly identify oneself with Jane Austen's heroines," Pym writes.


Well, Ianthe, those days are over.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2015 01:00PM

Jane Austen wrote daily, revised her work, recycled material from unused drafts, negotiated with publishers both directly and through an agent, corrected her proofs, read reviews, made changes for later editions, and kept track of her royalties. In other words, she was a committed professional writer.


This might seem obvious were it not for the energy with which her brother and her nephew tried, in the decades after her death, to promote a very different image – of Austen as a cheery amateur storyteller who dabbled charmingly with no thought of fame or fortune. No doubt they meant well, these Austen men. They wanted to keep the reading public from seeing their beloved relative as ambitious – and thus, in nineteenth-century terms, unwomanly.


But what did Austen herself think of ambition? Did she see it as a vice, a virtue, or something more ambiguous – a human impulse that could be deployed for both good and bad ends?


These were the question opened up most entertainingly this past Saturday by writer and critic Sarah Emsley, who spoke at a luncheon meeting I attended, sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania region of the Jane Austen Society of North America.


Emsley argued that while Austen condemns characters like Mary Crawford and Isabella Thorpe for aspiring to raise themselves through mercenary marriages, she rewards those characters who hold quieter, more modest ambitions – people like Edward Ferrars and Elizabeth Bennet, who aim primarily to achieve their own vision of love and happiness.


Along the way, Emsley considered Christian, Aristotelian and Johnsonian definitions of ambition; touched on the reasons that ambition has traditionally inspired mixed feelings; and noted the ambitions that Austen arouses in her readers, including a desire to read more deeply and to think more carefully about how to live their lives.


Emsley says her ideas remain a work in progress, but she’s off to a good start. I look forward to seeing her intellectual ambitions rewarded with publication (along with love and happiness, of course).


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 2 2015 02:00PM

Elizabeth Bennet – vivacious, witty, charming and good-hearted – has many fans. Add to the list Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, wife of Britain’s Prince Charles and likely next queen of England.


Last week, as she helped inaugurate the new offices of First News, a UK children’s newspaper, Camilla was asked what literary character she would most like to be. Her first answer was Winnie the Pooh (apparently, she has a thing for honey), but her second was Lizzy Bennet.


“The only question is whether Prince Charles would be her Darcy,” added the Daily Mail reporter assigned to this ground-breaking royal story.


This is a tough one. Let us enumerate Charles’ Darcy-like qualities. Mega-millions? Check. Fabulous mansion(s), complete with well-stocked family library and impressive portrait gallery? Check. Posh background and top-notch education? Check. Irresistible sexual magnetism? Umm. . .


I must confess that what first drew my attention to this story was the Daily Mail’s rather misleading headline, “I’d love to be a Jane Austen heroine, admits Camilla.” To me, a woman who has infinite amounts of money, privilege and leisure time, and is married to a man with same, is already living the life of the most cosseted Austen heroine imaginable – Emma Woodhouse on steroids. What’s left to wish for? Just that irresistible sexual magnetism, I guess.



Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter