Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 23 2015 01:00PM

I interrupt this week’s blogging to take a short vacation. Luckily, Jane Austen – in the person of Elizabeth Bennet -- had something to say on the subject of anticipated holiday happiness, and the nearly inevitable silliness of travelers:

“Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone -- we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers."

(Pride and Prejudice, ch. 27)

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 20 2015 01:00PM

Fandom need not be monogamous. “It's apparent that there is a fannish personality,” the dance historian Allison Thompson told me when I interviewed her four years ago for Among the Janeites. “There are some people who get really into something, whatever it might be, and may even explore multiple fandoms.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that a bunch of Janeites should turn out to be Star Wars geeks – or vice versa. Whichever it is, nine members of these overlapping fandoms spent an entertaining ninety minutes on Twitter one night earlier this month riffing on an excellent question, posed via a tweet from @Drunk_Austen (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that we're drunk”): “Are Han and Leia a galactic Darcy and Lizzy?”

The exchange includes many gems, as the participants wonder whether Darth Vader is more like Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins or Mr. Bennet; cast R2D2 as Lydia Bennet and the reviled Jar Jar Binks in the thankless role of Kitty; and posit the gnomic Yoda as the saga’s Austen-like narrator (“SOMEBODY PLEASE MAKE A YODA-AS-JANE-AUSTEN GRAPHIC!!!” implores one tweeter. “WITH THE CAPTION "A universal truth, it is!"). The best of the lot may be the tweet highlighting a hitherto unnoticed resemblance between Chewbacca and the actor Crispin Bonham-Carter, who plays Mr. Bingley in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

My answer to the initial question, by the way: Sure, Han and Leia are Darcy and Lizzy, because Austen created a prototype – the first-she-hates-him-then-she-loves-him plot -- that has been cheerfully ripped off by every romantic-comedy author who came after her, including George Lucas. Infinitely adaptable to all eras, situations and galaxies, it’s a storyline that never goes out of style.

By the way, be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page linked above. You wouldn’t want to miss the picture of Jane Austen with a light saber.

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.

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