Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 10 2018 01:00PM

If only “literary Darwinism” had existed when I was in school, I might have liked science a whole lot more. Yes, according to a story on the BBC’s website last week, a new branch of scholarship is “asking what exactly makes a good story, and the evolutionary reasons that certain narratives – from Homer’s Odyssey to Harry Potter – have such popular appeal.”


The gist of the explanation is that stories give us practice at social strategizing, allowing us to imaginatively navigate complex situations that may arise in our real lives and figure out which responses work, and which don’t. Stories that highlight the importance of cooperation and the social costs of selfishness are especially enduring, the thinking goes, because they help communicate and reinforce norms that smooth the waters of communal life.


Needless to say, Jane Austen gets recruited to support this theory. Apparently, Pride and Prejudice is an example of a classic story trope wherein the baddies are those who abuse their power or seek “social dominance at the expense of others” (think Caroline Bingley) whereas the heroic figures are less interested in individual achievement and social climbing (think Elizabeth Bennet).


P&P also shows Austen to be an “intuitive evolutionary psychologist” because she understands that, while women ultimately prefer “stable ‘dad’ figures (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility),” they are also drawn to the Wickhams and Willoughbys. “The ‘dads’ might be the better choice for the long-term security and protection of your children, but according to an evolutionary theory known as the ‘sexy son hypothesis’, falling for an unfaithful cad can have [its] own advantages since [he] can pass on [his] good looks, cunning and charm to his own children, who may then also enjoy greater sexual success,” the article notes.*


“I think that’s part of the key for these stories’ longevity,” argues University of Michigan scholar Daniel Kruger. “[It’s why] Jane Austen wrote these novels two hundred years ago and there are still movies being made today.”


I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, it would be futile to argue that a human activity as primary and enduring as storytelling has no evolutionary roots. On the other hand, though, it seems mindlessly reductive to suggest that evolution explains “why Jane Austen wrote these novels” and why they still appeal to us today.


We all like stories, but only a minority of us write them, so there must be more to Jane Austen’s motivation than some primal human drive. Surely the powerful need for self-expression is at least as compelling a force as social utility when it comes to a life choice like Jane Austen’s.


As for the appeal of Austen’s stories, even in her own time, she was hardly alone in noticing the potent appeal of bad boys and the countervailing pull of stable, honorable men. But nobody’s lining up to buy tickets to Samuel Richardson adaptations. And while the tropes she helped develop may feature in a boatload of contemporary romance novels, few of those books have achieved Austen-level acclaim or popularity.


Why is that? Because while the success of a work of art may owe something to its ability to tap into deep-seated, even hard-wired, human social needs, ultimately it takes more than that for a story to endure. Call it genius or artistry, an eye for a powerful image or an ear for snappy dialogue: whatever you call it, your explanatory framework has to account, somehow, for quality. By and large, it’s the good stuff that lasts.



* I feel I should point out to all you evolutionary psychologists that publicizing the fact that your field has produced something known as the “sexy son hypothesis” could serve as an excellent recruiting tool for a certain kind of student.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 12 2018 01:00PM

Back when I was writing Among the Janeites, I happened across two Facebook groups whose titles encapsulated a common set of attitudes about Austen’s novels. One was called “I am going to marry one of the men in Jane Austen’s novels.” The other was called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of love.”


I recalled those now-defunct nests of Janeite Facebookers earlier this week, when my Google Alert sent me word of an opinion column in inews.com, the online version of the British daily newspaper i, headlined “Jane Austen’s novels have ruined me for dating modern men.”


It’s about what you’d expect: The author, a British journalist and fiction writer named Emily Hill, complains that she’s single at thirty-four because guys today, with their multiple dating apps and caddish behavior, can’t measure up to Mr. Darcy. “At no point has any man – proud, haughty or otherwise – stormed into my presence to declare ‘in vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,’ ” she mourns.


I hate to be one of those officious Janeites who goes around telling everyone else that they’re reading the books wrong, but – Emily, I think you might be reading the books wrong.


It’s Hill’s choice of Darcy quote that’s a giveaway. As we Janeites know, that quote comes from Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth – the insulting one, in which he tells her he tried his best not to love her because of her unsuitable family but finally had to give in, against his better judgment.


As I’ve pointed out before, Austen does not mean this scene to be a swoon-worthy romantic moment. Like other Austen scenes that seem to fit neatly into a romance-novel template, it’s intended more as a warning: Danger! Don’t try this at home! It’s surely not a good sign that Hill even speaks semi-approvingly of the weak and unreliable Willoughby, “who at least gave Marianne in Sense and Sensibility the most exciting months of her life.” *


It’s odd to find a self-proclaimed Austen addict hankering after love-at-first-sight, sweep-me-off-my-feet, Willoughby-and-Marianne romance when the books seem – to me at least – self-evidently critical of such relationships. Most of the Austen heroines are temporarily waylaid by exciting strangers who seem to check all the Conventional Romantic Hero boxes: good-looking, charming, self-confident, smooth. But every Austen heroine marries someone else: a man she’s had time to get to know, whose family or friends she has met, whose character she has seen tested. If Hill equates love with instant passion and then bemoans her inability to find it, I don’t think it’s Austen who can be blamed.


Meanwhile, anyone paying close attention to Austen’s novels will notice that many of the established marriages she portrays are unhappy mismatches (the Bennets) or making-the-best-of-it pairings of a reasonably bright partner with a fairly dim one (Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram). Sure, there are exceptions – the Crofts, the Gardiners, the Westons – but it’s hard to escape the conviction that Austen partially shares the views of that ruthless marital pragmatist Charlotte Collins, née Lucas: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”


So are Austen’s happy endings pure fairy tales, as Hill suggests? Is it true that “if one looks at [Darcy] objectively, he behaves like no man ever did on earth”? Or that Austen’s lifelong spinsterhood points its own lesson: “Look to the life and the fiction starts to fall apart”?


I’m not going to deny that Austen’s happy endings have a fairy-tale dimension, but Hill misidentifies the fantasy elements. It’s fantasy that an a) rich and b) handsome man from c) a distinguished family would get to know, let alone fall in love with, a d) not-rich woman e) far outside his social sphere. Especially in Pride and Prejudice, it’s the social context that supplies the Cinderella-style fantasy.


But let’s say you’ll suspend your disbelief that far. Is it really fantasy that a mature and responsible man confronted with bitter evidence of his failings in the eyes of someone whose opinion he values would undertake a moral inventory and try to do better? I guess I’m not cynical enough to say so.


Perhaps because I missed the online dating moment, Austen’s heroes don’t seem so unrealistic to me. With the notable exception of Darcy, most of them aren’t fabulously wealthy or especially good-looking. Their leading qualities are kindness, wit, generosity, and moral seriousness. I’ve met plenty of men like that. I even married one of them.




* It gets worse: Hill also speaks longingly of the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, a book I love but would hardly take as a relationship guide.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 12 2018 02:00PM

Long, long ago – wait, was it only 2009? – a clever young man named Seth Grahame-Smith interpolated zombie references into the text of Pride and Prejudice and sold a gazillion copies of the resulting mashup.


Ever since, the temptation to take Jane Austen’s out-of-copyright masterpieces and dress them up with references to. . . whatever. . . has seemed inescapable. We’ve had Sense and Sensibility with sea monsters, Mansfield Park with mummies, P&P with added Jews, and Emma with previously unsuspected vampires.


This year, just in time for Valentine’s Day, a British TV channel called Drama* has brought us yet another addition to this trend: Pride and Prejudice reimagined for the social media age. No, not another update of the story to our own times: Drama’s version is the 1813 text, except with Facebook, WhatsApp, email and selfies accompanying the carriage rides and formal balls.


“We're seeing if technology would ruin the 'art of romance' in classic love stories,” Drama explains on its website, which offers a free download of this new P&P, along with social-media-enhanced versions of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.


From my skim of the enhanced Austen, the changes seem much as they were in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: sometimes amusing, mostly cosmetic, and likely to become tiresome when stretched to book length. Darcy spends his time at the Meryton Assembly swiping on Tinder instead of dancing with the locals. Elizabeth captures his insult to her beauty in a Snapchat video. Mr. Collins’ letters arrive via email. Lady Catherine threatens to unfollow Elizabeth if she persists in her designs on Darcy. After Wickham leaves Meryton, rumors circulate that he “had created a secret online account under the name ‘The Militia Stallion’ which he used first to entrap, then to ghost certain ladies.” And a ringing cellphone interrupts both of Darcy’s proposals.


The only major plot change I detected was Drama’s decision to correct Jane Austen’s unaccountable error in omitting the now-famous scene of Darcy diving into the Pemberley lake and emerging in a clinging wet shirt. Yes, at last this moment, invented by Andrew Davies for the BBC’s iconic 1995 P&P adaptation, has made it onto the page. And this time, Elizabeth takes a smartphone photo of Darcy in post-lake deshabille, captions it “OMG,” and posts it online, inadvertently setting off “a Twitter storm of epic proportions.”


So what's the answer to Drama's question? Does social media ruin “the art of romance”?


Not really. As soon as Darcy switches off his phone, that second proposal goes about as well as you'd expect.



* As blog readers will recall, it was Drama that -- exactly a year ago, also just in time for Valentine’s Day -- earned a tidy little publicity windfall for its rebroadcast of beloved Austen adaptations by commissioning an artist’s rendering of the “real” Mr. Darcy. The dweeby result, based on the investigations of a historian and an Austen scholar, made clear that the standards of male beauty in Austen’s time differed dramatically from our own Firth-and-Macfadyen-inflected preferences.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 25 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s relationship to the romance novel is a vexed topic. For every article calling her the founding mother of the genre (or perhaps the grandmother, with a line of descent through Georgette Heyer), you’ll find just as many insisting that she is a social satirist who just happens to write about heterosexual romance.


My own romance-novel addiction is moderate-to-severe, and, appropriately enough, I developed it while researching Among the Janeites, which required me to read a boatload of Austen fanfic. Before long, I was branching out into non-Austen-inspired Regency romance, and then non-Regency historical romance, and then contemporary romance, and . . . now I have more than two hundred titles on my Kindle, not even counting the Austen spinoffs. (But really! I can stop anytime I want!)


Personally, I would not call Austen a romance novelist: Her stories never have the laser-like focus on the central relationship that is the hallmark of much modern-day romance writing, and she is more interested in recording her heroines’ moral development than in cataloguing the butterflies they feel when they accidentally brush fingertips with their heroes. It’s the Austen movies, with their dashing lead actors and swoony proposal scenes, that have convinced a generation of readers that Austen is a romance writer.


Still, I cannot deny that by making the question of who a young woman should marry into a central preoccupation of fiction, Austen planted a seed that has now flowered into arguably the most vibrant sector of American publishing. And so I was rather charmed by the latest news about The Ripped Bodice, an all-romance indie bookstore in Culver City, California, run by a pair of sisters.


One corner of the shop, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek, houses Fitz’s General Store, “devoted to merchandise—tote bags, calendars, candles—featuring their Chihuahua, Fitzwilliam Waffles (after Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).” (The dog has his own Instagram account, too.)


It’s hard to object to people who: a) like romance novels, b) observe the Janeite tradition of naming pets after Austen characters, and c) have managed to channel the devotion to quasi-Janeite merchandise into a method of supporting independent bookselling. Plus, the dog is pretty cute.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 11 2017 01:32PM

We all have our own idea of Pemberley, the quintessential Jane Austen estate. On film, it’s been played by gorgeous Lyme Park, in Cheshire (15-acre garden, 1,400-acre deer park), and even more fabulous Chatsworth, in Derbyshire (126 rooms, 105-acre garden), although it’s likely that Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year would not have sufficed to maintain such palatial properties.


Still, even if Darcy contented himself with a more modest stately home, it seems likely he never had to make do with the 460 square feet of the Pemberley, a portable house-on-wheels recently built for a family of five by Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses.*


Tiny Houses are intended to be more affordable and environmentally sustainable than the sprawling McMansions of suburbia, but this particular model is hardly austere: The kitchen features cherry cabinets and granite countertops, the electronic hookup allows for a giant TV, and the appliances are high-end.


Personally, I can’t imagine raising small children in a space this, um, tiny -- not to mention that our books alone would take up all the available surfaces. But check out those beautiful poplar-wood walls! It’s enough to make a girl change her mind about a marriage proposal.


* Thanks to AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan for bringing this item to my attention via Twitter.


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