Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 22 2020 01:00PM

For many of us, coronavirus quarantine has proved to be the perfect moment to reread Jane Austen. (Although, really, is there ever a bad moment to reread Jane Austen?) Just in case the novels themselves haven’t imbued your days with enough of that old-time Regency feeling, however, the internet has recently suggested some ways to bring a Janeite flavor to the activities that have been filling the hours for so many of us. Herewith, a roundup:


* Homeschooling: Students in a business law class at Toronto’s Ryerson University can enhance their studying with a set of online review materials at the Course Hero website. Relevant for our purposes: the sad tale of Carlos, a rare-books dealer who arranges to buy Yasmeen’s first edition of Pride and Prejudice for $20,000, only to have her renege on the deal in hopes of seeing the book’s value increase over time.


Budding lawyers may be most concerned about which multiple-choice answer most accurately calculates the damages Carlos could recover in a breach-of-contract lawsuit. We Janeites will simply congratulate Yasmeen on realizing that these days, a P&P first edition could be worth a lot more than $20,000 – and, in any case, is priceless.


* Movie-viewing: Quarantine brought us an early chance to watch the latest film adaptation of Emma on our home screens. Coming soon, if we’re lucky: another Jane Austen movie!


Two years ago, when word of Modern Persuasion first surfaced, I had my doubts about the viability of this version, which stars Alicia Witt in a “contemporary tale about a New York workaholic whose firm is hired by an old flame.” I still have those doubts, but four months without setting foot in a movie theater have left me ready (well, even readier than usual) to watch anything – including this rom-com, which just acquired a distributor and is screening this week at the Cannes Film Festival’s virtual market. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t arrive on my screen quickly enough.


* Game-playing: Tired of Scrabble, Boggle, Clue and cards? Luckily, the Jane Austen Summer Program – the academic-except-more-fun-than-that sympoisum usually, but not this year, held in mid-June at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – has an alternative: Find Mr. Darcy, or at least a life-size Colin Firth cutout, which is the next best thing.


In essence, the game is a mildly entertaining online Austen trivia quiz that won’t pose much challenge to any knowledgeable Janeite. But it does give you the chance to hopscotch around a map of England while ogling still photos of attractive actors from Austen screen adaptations. Beats another round of Crazy Eights.


* Drinking: In the absence of a coronavirus vaccine, health experts agree that bars remain risky venues. The only solution? Keep drinking at home. In a recent feature pairing cocktail recipes with literary classics, South Sound, a lifestyle magazine covering southwest Washington State, recommends accompanying a reading of Emma with a “flirtatious and fruity" pink cocktail consisting of white wine, pisco, lime juice, and raspberry syrup. I would have thought Donwell Abbey strawberries a more appropriate choice for Emma, but I guess these days we can't afford to be picky.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 5 2019 01:00PM

It’s been a wet week for Janeites.


Last Monday, we were treated to the first trailer for Sanditon, the forthcoming ITV-PBS adaptation of the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death. As Janeites know, Sanditon is set at an up-and-coming seaside resort, and so it’s no surprise that the trailer features plenty of sweeping shots of sandy strands, ocean vistas, and attractive actors disporting themselves on the beach.


By which I mean playing cricket! What were you thinking?


Well, OK: the eight-part miniseries is written by Andrew “Mr. Darcy in a Wet Shirt” Davies, who, at nearly eighty-three, seems to have lost none of his – um – lust for life, not to mention his talent for extracting free publicity from credulous media journalists. In the year since the Sanditon project was announced, Davies has entertained himself by throwing the press pool tidbits of chum, in the form of quotes about how energetically he’s “sexing up” this latest Austen project.


I’m willing to bet that the sex in Sanditon will fall well short of the Fifty Shades of Grey standard – we’re talking PBS here -- but either way, it’s pretty clear that the project won’t have much to do with Austen. She’d barely gotten started on Sanditon before illness forced her to stop work, and in his latest interview Davies says he used up all her material halfway through his first episode.


And speaking of Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt. . .


We Janeites had barely finished toweling off after our trip to Sanditon’s seaside before word arrived that, last Wednesday, flooding had devastated the gardens of Lyme Park, the Cheshire estate that played Pemberley in Davies’ iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


It was the reflecting pool in Lyme’s now-inundated grounds that featured in the Davies P&P’s most famous scene, the one starring – oh, irresistible irony! – a soaking-wet Colin Firth in a clingy white shirt.


Although energetic sandbagging seems to have saved Lyme Park’s interior from damage, the flooding, which followed days of torrential rain, forced the evacuation of Wednesday’s visitors and will keep the site closed indefinitely.


Meanwhile, if you’re seeking a watery Janeite fix, you’ll just have to wait for the arrival of Sanditon, screening in the U.S. sometime next year. Or you could just watch P&P again.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 1 2019 01:00PM

As I have pointed out rather often, most recently earlier this week, the Internet is filled with quotes from filmed adaptations of Jane Austen novels that are erroneously attributed to Austen herself.


You might think, then, that you could avoid embarrassment by checking searchable databases of Austen’s texts to make sure that the words you plan to quote can actually be found therein. And this would, indeed, be a great first step.


But Austen is a slippery writer. Just because she – or, really, one of her characters – says something doesn’t mean that Austen intends us to take that sentiment at face value. Irony is omnipresent; context is crucial. Sometimes, in fact, her intended meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning. You have to tread carefully when quoting Austen.


And thus it is that I bring you, as a companion piece to Monday's Top Five (Or, Actually, Six) Faux Jane Austen Quotes, the Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes.


The Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes


5. “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 5)


Internet understanding: What a profound parsing of terms! Clearly, this is Jane Austen speaking! Better highlight this for the test!


In context: Missing the point of the conversation, as per usual, pedantic Mary Bennet struggles to get friends and family to pay some attention to her. Because actually this level of abstraction is no help at all when it comes to living life.



4. “Without music, life would be a blank for me.” (Emma, ch. 32)


Internet understanding: Like, totally! So inspirational! I’m really into music, too!


In context: Pretentious, conceited Mrs. Elton parades her accomplishments, right before announcing that she won’t have time for them now that she’s married. Because actually she couldn’t care less about music.



3. “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 34)


Internet understanding: Swoon! Has anything ever been more romantic? Let’s quote this at our wedding!


In context: Entitled, arrogant Mr. Darcy offers insulting marriage proposal and (deservedly) gets his heart handed to him on a tea tray. Because actually this is rude and overbearing, not romantic.



2. “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature.” (Northanger Abbey, ch. 6)


Internet understanding: #BFF! This is so you, girlfriend!


In context: Manipulative Isabella Thorpe vouches for her own unselfishness (since no one else is going to do it) while getting her hooks into a naïve – but potentially useful! -- new friend. Because actually Isabella is utterly insincere and self-interested.



1. “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 11)


Internet understanding: Jane Austen is a writer. Therefore, Jane Austen must have liked reading. Yeah, she says so right here. And it’s so true! Reading is awesome! Also, let’s put this on the Jane Austen £10 note!


In context: Miss Bingley picks up a book to impress the eligible Mr. Darcy but tosses it away in boredom moments later. Because actually she doesn’t like to read.



And the moral of our story? Merely searching the text isn't enough. Because actually you have to read the books.


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.


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