Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 19 2016 02:00PM

Eighteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Reading has its hierarchies. We prefer acquaintances to catch us absorbed in, say, a collection of Plato’s dialogues or a paperback of Hamlet than deep into the second volume of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (That’s the one with the mask on the cover. I mean -- so I’ve heard.)

And this privileging of certain kinds of literature over others goes back a long way – arguably, back to Plato (who famously banned poets from his ideal Republic), and certainly back to Jane Austen’s era. That’s obvious in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, that Austen sent exactly two hundred and eighteen years ago today (#14 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

“I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin requesting my name as Subscriber to her Library which opens the 14th of January,” the twenty-three-year-old Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra, who was on one of her frequent visits to the family of their older brother Edward, in Kent. “As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c—She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so;--but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers.”

In other words, the shamefaced attitude that many of us bring to our preferred form of trashy reading -- whether it be erotic romance, violent thriller, cheesy sci-fi or gossipy celebrity bio – was the attitude many readers in Austen’s time took toward novels of all kinds. The English novel was arguably barely a century old, and the genre’s status was low relative to that of more venerable literary forms like poetry, history or philosophy.

It didn’t help that middle-class women, confined at home, with long hours available for socializing and leisure activities, were often seen as the novel’s main audience. How good could those books be if only girls read them?

Raised in a family of voracious novel-readers, and acutely aware of the time and craft it took to write one, Austen, of course, thought this snobbery absurd. “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid,” she has Northanger Abbey’s hero, Henry Tilney, tell his heroine, Catherine Morland, after she assumes, “You never read novels, I dare say?. . . . gentlemen read better books.”

And of course it’s also in Northanger Abbey that Austen uncharacteristically lapses into lecture mode to describe the novel as “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

OK, maybe not every novel. Jane Austen surely knew that not all novels are created equal: Henry Tilney lauds the good ones, after all. Fifty Shades hardly deserves Austen’s praise for wit, insight and linguistic virtuosity. (I mean -- so I’ve heard.) What annoyed her was the blanket generalization, the failure to distinguish between the work of Burney and Edgeworth, on the one hand, and the work of eighteenth-century E.L. Jameses, on the other.

Today it’s romance, more than any other fictional genre, that labors under an indiscriminate stigma like that suffered by the novel in Austen’s time. And it’s not accidental, I’d argue, that once again, most of the readers of the maligned genre are female. How good could those books be if only girls read them?

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2015 01:00PM

The movie of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has a release date! And it is. . . (drum roll, please). . . February 19, 2016!

So stop me if I’m wrong, but aren’t midwinter release dates – post-Christmas quality-film pileup, post-Oscar marketing blitz, pre-summer popcorn-movie viewing – notoriously reserved for stinkers the studio expects will bomb?

Historically, this seems to be the case – at least, Wikipedia says so, and thus it must be true – but it’s worth noting that P&P&Z is getting an environs-of-Valentine’s-Day slot similar to the one that proved so lucrative this year for that other well-known literary adapation, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Perhaps someone out in Hollywood hopes a Jane Austen-themed movie, even one with as weak an Austen tie-in as this one, will prove the perfect just-after-Valentine’s-Day date, drawing the same heavily female audience that turned Fifty Shades into a phenomenon.

As blog readers know, I don't have high hopes for P&P&Z. But Fifty Shades proved there’s no contradiction between midwinter stinker and female-driven success.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 23 2015 02:00PM

OK, so the movie was terrible. I had my hopes; they were dashed.

In compensation, however, I recently ran across something extremely funny: this review of Fifty Shades of Grey, by Jane Austen herself (aka Cath Murphy, review editor of a site called It’s both a convincing pastiche of Austen’s letter-writing style and a perceptive analysis of why E.L. James’ Anastasia Steele is so not a Jane Austen heroine.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 12 2015 02:00PM

By now, you may have heard that the filmed adaptation of a pop-culture work with a legion of breathless fans is coming to a multiplex near you this weekend.

I refer, of course, to “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”

Just kidding.

Yes, the wait is finally over for the cinematic translation of Fifty Shades of Grey, the most successful fan fic since. . . well, pretty much since the Aeneid inaugurated the genre in 19 BCE. And just because the original reads like something written in purple gel pen on the pages of a spiral-bound notebook covered with unicorns and rainbows doesn’t mean the movie won’t be worth seeing. (Or so I told my husband when I pre-ordered the tickets for our Valentine’s Day dinner-and-movie date. We are a couple united by a shared sense of irony. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

Because Fifty Shades tells the tale of a virginal young woman and a rich, powerful, slightly older man whom she finds both attractive and repulsive, the Pride and Prejudice comparisons have appeared irresistible from Minute One, especially for people hoping to elevate E.L. James’s potboiler into something more respectable than mommy porn. (For instance, the film’s producer Michael De Luca draws the parallel in this Vanity Fair story.)

Personally, I don’t buy it. P&P is the original prototype of the she-hates-him-then-she-loves-him plot, now a staple of half the romantic comedies on the planet, but Fifty Shades doesn’t fit this template. For one thing, Anastasia Steele is hot for Christian Grey from the minute she lays eyes on him. And who can blame her? It’s not every day that you meet a single, show-stoppingly handsome, super-buff, twenty-something billionaire who spends his spare cash on shipments to Darfur.

Fifty Shades is an exemplar of a different plot: the rake-redeemed-by-the-love-of-a-good-woman story, whose progenitress is not Jane Austen but Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre. This particular fantasy has a potent hold on the female imagination, as anyone who has ever wept over a loser boyfriend she hoped to change can attest. Men may choose to believe that all women secretly yearn to be rescued by a dashing Prince Charming on a white horse, but I think many women prefer to imagine themselves doing the rescuing. “In the very limited time that you’ve known him, you’ve made more progress with my patient than I have in the last two years,” Christian’s therapist tells Ana in Book Two of the trilogy. Talk about sexual healing! Christian may wield the flogger, but Ana is the one with the power to whip him into shape.

Female-driven rake-redemption is not a Jane Austen trope. Mr. Darcy changes, but not because Elizabeth listens empathetically to the story of his bad childhood. Captain Wentworth changes, but not because Anne Elliot refuses to dump him no matter how badly he behaves. Austen’s heroes change because they engage in a painful process of introspection and self-criticism, undertaken with no guarantee that the women they love will be there for them at the end. They do the work of moral improvement for its own sake, not in hope of a reward, and they do it alone – as do Elizabeth and Emma, humbled and redeemed by hard-won insight into their own arrogance.

I suspect Austen would find the Jane Eyre/Ana Steele plot to be sentimental and improbable. Her most complicated rakes remain stubbornly unredeemed by novel’s end. Henry Crawford, accustomed to instant sexual gratification, can’t muster the patience required to prove himself worthy of Fanny Price; John Willoughby, addicted to unaffordable luxuries, won’t give up his hunters even for the love of a woman as good as Marianne Dashwood. These men cannot change, because they lack the strength of character change requires, and no woman can supply that strength when it’s lacking.

Jane Austen is probably right about the improbability of the female rescue fantasy. Nevertheless, I adore Jane Eyre, and I will admit to a sneaking semi-fondness for Fifty Shades. The plotting is amateurish and the writing is horrible, but the book has that indefinable thing that keeps you turning the pages, and as a writer, I do not disdain that quality – far from it. I’m looking forward to my Valentine’s Day date, with or without a side order of irony.

Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter