Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 19 2018 02:00PM

Although it’s been a quiet few weeks on the Austen beat, at least compared with last year’s bicentenary frenzy, a few bits of Janeite news have come in over the transom. Herewith, a roundup:

* Garden seat: Bicentenary commemorations live on, as Jane Austen’s House Museum -- aka Chawton cottage, the Hampshire home where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – inaugurated its spring season this month by unveiling a Garden Memorial to Austen.

The memorial consists of two stone benches carved with a delightful quote from Austen’s 1816 letter to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, who had advised her to make her next book a “Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg.”

Deftly deploying self-deprecation to deflect this asinine suggestion, Austen replied, "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter."

The benches sit in view of the cottage, in a corner of the small garden – another landmark for Janeite visitors to check out when they’re next in Chawton.

* Quiz fail: Alas, British twenty-something Madeline Grant – familiar to readers of an earlier blog post -- lost in the semifinals of the beloved BBC quiz show Mastermind, despite correctly answering eleven questions on her specialty subject, Jane Austen’s life and works. (Apparently, she did less well on the test of general knowledge.)

The episode aired on February 9, but rights issues prevent viewing it on this side of the pond. Thus, I can’t tell you anything about the Austen questions, unless one of my intrepid readers knows of an – ahem! – less orthodox viewing method. Here’s hoping for a future Janeite Mastermind champ.

* Football and faux-Austen: One or two times in the past – OK, make that one or two hundred times – I have expressed, sometimes rather forcefully, my displeasure at the Internet’s habit of mistaking quotes from movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels for genuine Jane Austen quotes. (For one such post, click here.)

Sadly, my Sisyphean labor has yet to bear fruit, and the Internet is at it again. On Valentine’s Day last week, Linda Holliday, longtime girlfriend of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, posted to Instagram a photo of the happy couple relaxing on a beach vacation.

Underneath the photo, she wrote, “ ‘You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love ... I love ... I love you!’ ~ Pride and Prejudice” (A heart emoji was also involved, but I can't replicate it here.)

There is nothing wrong with Holliday's caption, since the sentence she quotes – swoonily romantic or irredeemably cheesy, depending on your taste – does, indeed, come from Pride and Prejudice. Not, however, from the Jane Austen novel of that name, but from the 2005 Joe Wright film adaptation of said novel.

The Internet does not understand this distinction.

“Holliday quoted Jane Austen from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ” the Boston Globe happily – and inaccurately – reported. Yes, agreed the gossip site The Smoke Room: Holliday was “quoting Jane Austen’s 19th century book ‘Pride And Prejudice.’ ”

Inevitably, the next person searching for the origins of the “body and soul” sentence will happen across the Globe’s attribution and, lulled into a false sense of security by the newspaper’s reputation for good journalism, will perpetuate the error.

What is to be done? A friend to whom I ranted about this latest idiocy reminded me of a famous line in the Jewish ethical teachings known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." The work of eradicating faux Austen quotes goes on.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 4 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen is no stranger to the quiz-show world, on either side of the pond: As blog readers will recall, just four years ago, she got a whole Jeopardy! category to herself, a few months before a team of Cambridge University students drew on their Janeite knowledge to win Britain’s much-loved University Challenge quiz competition.

And now comes word that a contestant on another venerable UK quiz show, the BBC's Mastermind, plans to make Jane Austen her specialist subject in a pending semi-final match.

Last month, twenty-five-year-old Madeline Grant, who works as a digital officer for a rightwing think tank in London, won an initial round of Mastermind, in which players compete to answer questions testing both their general knowledge and their expertise in a subject of their own choosing.

In her initial victory, Grant specialized in Harry Potter, but in the semi-final – the date of which, as far as I can tell, has not yet been announced – she’ll take on Austen. (This being Britain and not America, the winner of the Mastermind final receives an engraved glass bowl and a large helping of glory, but no money.)

Four years ago, Grant made her first appearance on Mastermind, missing out on a semi-final berth by a single point. For that outing, she specialized in the novels of E.M. Forster. You will not be surprised to hear that she was an English major at Oxford.

Before any of her quiz-show appearances, back when she was a mere slip of a girl of nineteen, Grant was at the center of a ridiculous media kerfuffle, of the kind so dear to the hearts of British tabloid readers: As an undergraduate, she ran for election to a job in the Oxford Union debating society, famous as a testing-ground for budding UK politicians, using a joking, slightly off-color slogan that referenced a portion of the female anatomy.

(Okay, okay. Since you insist. The slogan was “I don’t hack, I just have a great rack.” Hacking being the practice of ruthlessly seeking to advance one’s personal political or journalistic ambitions in a student organization.)

At the time, Grant claimed she intended to poke fun at the Union’s pretensions, which, as a former Oxford student myself, I can attest are legendary. Then the organization confirmed her point by summoning her to a disciplinary tribunal and fining her for “bringing the Union into disrepute” by employing an allegedly sexist slogan.

Apparently, the Union’s officers are unfamiliar with the concept of satire. Luckily, it will not be they who must appear in front of a large TV audience to answer questions about a consummate literary satirist.

Alas, it’s difficult to (legally) watch BBC TV here in the US, so I may have to rely on YouTube video pilfered after the fact to match Janeite wits with Grant. But needless to say, I will be rooting for her to take home the Mastermind title, if only so she can stick it to the pompous future politicians of the Oxford Union.

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