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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 18 2019 01:00PM

Pity poor Colin Firth. His IMDB page lists more than seventy-five film and TV credits in a career stretching back thirty-five years, and yet we mostly remember only one of them.


And thus it was that last week, when the British actor and comedian Miranda Hart released the latest three-minute installment in a daily video series designed to raise money for charity, she had herself filmed sitting in front of a roaring fire, reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to . . . you know who.


Janeite fantasy though this scenario may be, the skit is on the lame side. (Though I did giggle at the moment when Hart, rebuffed after trying to steal a kiss from Firth, covers her embarrassment by turning to the camera and indignantly protesting, “Can people stop kissing Colin Firth? That’s really inappropriate!”)


Still, the whole thing proves that Firth can be a good sport about this Mr. Darcy thing, at least when it’s in the service of a good cause. “I've never resented it,” he told an interviewer in an intermittently resentful-sounding 2007 conversation. “If it wasn't for him, I might be languishing. I dare say it will be my saving grace when the only employment available to me is opening supermarkets dressed in breeches and a wig.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 18 2019 02:00PM

It’s always enjoyable when the mass media provide opportunities for us Janeites to snark about everyone else’s Austen ignorance.


Today’s exhibit: The February 12 episode of NBC’s Today show, during which co-host Savannah Guthrie and two guests picked their favorite literary love stories.


First category: Historical romance. First guest pick: The Remains of the Day, Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 masterpiece, set in 1930s Britain. Second guest pick: Destiny’s Embrace, Beverly Jenkins’ 2013 romance novel set in nineteenth-century California.


And then Guthrie’s pick (at 1:25 on the recording): “I love Pride and Prejudice,” she says.


Already we know we’re in trouble, because even though P&P is all old-timey and proper and the characters wear corsets and gloves and use kinda long words when they talk, Jane Austen is not an historical novelist. Historical novelists are people who write novels set in historical periods other than their own. Jane Austen set her books in her own time, a time that happens to be a long time ago for us. She is a classic novelist, yes, but not an historical one.


And then Guthrie goes on burbling about the joys of P&P: “I know it’s kind of obvious, but it is so enjoyable, it’s such a great read, lots of people have seen the movie, but you have to read the book. I mean you’ll just fall in love with Mark Darcy over and over and over again.”


Sigh.


I mean – props to Guthrie for picking a genuinely great novel. P&P is indeed enjoyable and a great read and a book that you should read even if you’ve seen the movie(s). But if you’d actually read P&P, rather than Bridget Jones’ s Diary, then you’d know that the first name of that swoon-worthy hero is Fitzwilliam, not Mark.


So what do you think, Janeites? Has Savannah Guthrie actually never read Pride and Prejudice? Or did she just misspeak, saying “Mark” when she meant to say “Mister”? I am feeling generous, largely because she has provided such an excellent opportunity for midwinter snark, and so I will cut her a break. As long as she promises to read it again.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 13 2018 02:00PM

Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Jane Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”


Let me paraphrase: Of all authors with a reputation for writing romances, Austen is the most difficult to catch in the act of writing something romantic.


Look, for example, at the latest work of the Internet Truthiness Quote Machine: a recent piece on the website of Travel + Leisure magazine offering “101 Romantic Messages to Keep the Love Alive While You're Apart.” The suggestions include a list of fifty “Romantic Quotes for Love Letters,” two of them attributed to Jane Austen.


Given Austen’s popular reputation as a purveyor of swoony, rose-tinted chick lit about handsome young men courting pretty girls in high-waisted dresses while wandering the grounds of palatial English estates, you’d think it would be quick work to find Austen quotes for such a list.


And yet only one of the two quotes that T+L attributes to Austen was actually written by her, and that one – “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope . . . . I have loved none but you,” from Persuasion – seems an odd choice for a message to an accepted lover, since it bespeaks the writer’s uncertainty that his feelings will be returned.


Meanwhile, the other quote – “To love is to burn, to be on fire”— is not by Austen at all. It’s a line from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which the ITQM has been busily misattributing for years. (For details, check out this excellent blog post by researcher Sue Brewton, a woman whose obsession with misquotation rivals my own. I can’t believe I’ve only just stumbled across the work of this soul sister.)


So of T+L’s two Austen love quotes, one is faux and one is out of context. That record is bad, yes, but hardly unprecedented. As blog readers know, I’ve been banging on about both problems for years. Indeed, one of the leading examples of out-of-context distortions concerns a love quote: As I’ve noted before, the supposedly swoony start to Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, in Pride and Prejudice -- "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” – is, in context, not so romantic after all. *


But for would-be Austen love-quoters, the main problem is that despite her reputation for lovey-doveyness, which largely derives from the movies based on her work, Austen isn’t actually a romance writer: she’s a satirist whose stories happen to concern courtship, the crucial moment of decision in a genteel young woman’s life. Thus it is that these alleged romance novels offer a startling paucity of love scenes that Internet listicle-makers can mine for ardent tidbits.


Janeites are well aware of Austen’s stinginess in this regard. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon propose to the Dashwood sisters offstage; Edmund Bertram sues for Fanny’s hand in a couple of highly ironic summary paragraphs; Catherine Morland is “assured of [Henry Tilney’s] affection” in words that readers must imagine for themselves; and Darcy’s successful proposal is the height of respectful restraint – “My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” I’m partial to Mr. Knightley’s declaration – “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” – but note that this is a love quote about the impossibility of love quotes. Captain Wentworth stands alone among Austen heroes in his forthright avowal of his feelings, and as for the heroines – well, let’s just say that Austen’s description of Emma’s reply to her suitor (“What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”) pretty much covers them all.


Why is it so hard to find certifiably, one-hundred-percent-genuine, heart-warming Jane Austen quotes about love? Mr. Knightley’s proposal offers a clue. Unlike the denizens of our therapeutic age, Austen is suspicious of people who talk fluently about their most intense and private emotions. If you can manufacture beautiful phrases about love, she suggests, you probably don’t have much time left to actually experience it. I shudder to imagine what she would have thought about people who turn to Internet listicles for advice on romantic messaging.



* And lest I find myself tempted to stop obsessing on this topic, just a couple of days after I published this post, the website Everyday Power -- founded in 2010 by a middle-school English teacher who wanted to provide "relevant and meaningful material he felt his students needed to experience" -- produced a list of "50 Love Quotes For Your Husband To Make Him Feel Appreciated." The three Jane Austen quotes on the list include Mr. Darcy's first proposal (twice! Don't ask me), and yet another not-in-Austen line -- “My heart is and always will be yours" -- from Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility screenplay. According to the site, Everyday Power is "a curriculum resource for many schools across the country." The mind boggles.



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.


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