Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 19 2013 02:00PM

Look, it’s fine with me if your knowledge of Jane Austen is based on the movies, not the books. No problem. I love (many of) the movies too.


But could we please remember that the movies are not the same as the books? That just because it’s in a movie adaptation of a Jane Austen novel doesn’t mean it’s in the novel by Jane Austen? Could we please stop attributing movie stuff to Jane Austen without first checking to make sure it’s in the book?


Today’s rant is occasioned by an it’s-Jane-Austen’s-birthday feature that ran this week on Bustle, a web site specializing in allegedly female-centric topics like news, entertainment, fashion and Jane Austen. Our author, Anna Klassen, set out to rank Austen’s men from worst to best. Along the way, she demonstrated that, although she may have read the books, she’s seen the movies a lot more recently.


Exhibit A: Willoughby is a “douchebag” for “seducing a 15-year-old girl and abandoning her when she became pregnant.” Except that in the book, the seduced-and-abandoned Eliza is seventeen. She’s fifteen in the Andrew Davies script for the 2008 TV miniseries of Sense and Sensibility. (Minor detail? Not to us Janeites.) *


Exhibit B: Edmund Bertram is Austen’s most romantic hero (yes, you read that right. No accounting for tastes in this world) because, among other things, he “encourages Fanny in her writing pursuits.” Except that in the book, she’s not a writer. It’s Patricia Rozema’s 1999 movie of Mansfield Park that turns Fanny into a Jane Austen prototype and Edmund into her literary mentor.


Exhibit C: “John Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are pretty much BFFs throughout the novel.” OK, this isn’t movie confusion – just a straight-up Journalism 101, if-you-couldn’t-remember-that-his-name-is-George-you-should-have-Googled-till-you-got-it-right lesson.


Exhibit D: “Darcy is seriously moody: He loves her, he hates her, he’s indifferent, and he loves her again. Surely, ‘You have bewitched me, body and soul’ will go down in history as one of the greatest lines in romantic literature, but it took him a while to get to this selfless place.”


Where to begin? Let us break this travesty down.


1. However we may interpret the facial contortions of Messrs. Olivier, Rintoul, Firth and Macfadyen, in the book it is one hundred percent clear that Darcy moves from indifference (“tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”) into love so seamlessly that he is in the middle before he knows that he has begun. After that, no hatred, no indifference, no change of mind. Not moody at all. Just, you know, proud.


2. “You have bewitched me, body and soul” will not go down in history as one of the greatest lines in romantic literature. This will not occur for two reasons.

a) It is a cheesy and cliched line.

b) It is not in the book. Not literature. Cinema. If you love that line, then don’t thank Jane Austen: thank Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter for the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice.


All right, back to our reading now. Or our movie-watching. Just no confusing the two, OK?



* Actually, I may have this wrong: In the book, Eliza's age is left more ambiguous than I recalled when I wrote this. She is either fifteen or sixteen when Willoughby seduces her, depending on how you interpret Colonel Brandon's statement that, two years before the seduction, "she had just reached her fourteenth year." She is seventeen when Brandon tells Elinor the sad story.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 3 2013 01:00PM

Why is everyone so convinced that Elizabeth Bennet isn’t beautiful?


This past weekend, Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter for the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, told an audience that she’d initially been “appalled” when Keira Knightley was cast as Elizabeth, because Knightley’s beauty detracted from the story’s empowering message. “Elizabeth inspires women because her wit and intelligence is what captures Britain’s most eligible bachelor,” Moggach said. “Women love that because it means you don’t have to be beautiful. If you are clever and funny enough you can get Mr Darcy.”


Moggach isn’t the first to promulgate the Elizabeth-isn’t-beautiful meme: back when the Knightley movie opened, the New York Times’ critic opined (under the headline "Marrying Off Those Bennet Sisters Again, but This Time Elizabeth Is a Looker") that its heroine was “not exactly the creature described in the 1813 novel,” who “prevails. . . through her wit and honesty, not through stunning physical beauty.”


Apparently, we want to believe that Jane Austen’s heroines are smart, plain girls who win their men solely through character and intellect. But let us turn to the text:

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