Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 17 2020 02:00PM

Despite the strangeness of this year, some eternal verities remain. Snowflakes. Evergreens. Misquoting of Jane Austen.

A few highlights of the season:

* “Here’s 15 percent off to celebrate our new friendship,” the bookstore chain Books-A-Million exulted in the subject line -- punctuated with a party-popper emoji! – of an email it sent me following a recent order.

“Chapter 1: A Brand New Friendship,” the message continued. (Get it? Bookstore chain? Chapter 1?) And then the kicker: “ ‘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.’ – Jane Austen.”

As I’ve noted before, this oft-quoted line from Northanger Abbey – while genuinely the work of the author Jane Austen and thus not, in one sense, a misquote -- is, in context, hardly the full-throated tribute to friendship that Books-A-Million clearly intends it to be. Instead, it is the insincere self-representation of manipulative Isabella Thorpe, who sees all relationships in purely transactional terms.

Come to think of it, then, maybe it’s not a misquote at all; perhaps it’s actually the perfect quote for a retail promotion. Isabella Thorpe is just the kind of person who would consider a fifteen percent discount to be a true mark of friendship.

* Getting married over Zoom doesn’t permit you to dispense with every wedding chore, notes Elite Daily, an online news platform for millennial women.

“Even if everyone's not together dancing at a reception venue, you'll still need some Instagram captions for virtual wedding pics you take,” writer Rachel Chapman reminded her readers last month, in a listicle offering “40 Instagram Captions For Virtual Wedding Pics & Celebrating The Love At Home.”

Thirty-nine of the forty captions -- alternately saccharine (“True love couldn’t wait to say ‘I do’ ”) and would-be-witty (“A wedding that even my cat could attend”) -- appear to be Chapman’s own work. Number fourteen, however, is this: “My heart is, and will always be, yours. – Jane Austen.”

I suppose it is pointless to note that Jane Austen never wrote these words, which come from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I suppose it is even less pointful to note that this rendition slightly garbles Thompson’s original --“My heart is, and always will be, yours” -- thereby ruining the rhythm of the line.

You might wonder why Chapman, content to leave thirty-nine of her forty Instagrammable sentiments unsigned, felt compelled to attribute the last one to someone who didn’t even write it. The answer, as usual, is AustenBranding: sprinkle a bit of Jane on top, and voilà -- Classy Romance. Perfect for the Instagram version of your life.

* “You bewitch me body and soul,” proclaims the “Jane Austen drawstring bag” retailing on Red Bubble for $30.30. “I love, I love, I love you.”

To her credit, bag designer Rachel Vass is not entirely guilty of false advertising, since the bag itself – unlike the online listing for it – attributes the line to “Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice.” Strictly speaking, this is an accurate attribution, if we are talking about the Mr. Darcy in the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and not, as the listing asserts, “Pride and prejudice novel book quote.”

On the other hand, devotees of the movie will surely notice that Vass has garbled her quote, which should read, “You have bewitched me body and soul.” (Suitable for Instagram, maybe?)

If you’re still in the market for a drawstring bag but prefer your Austen quotes to be from Austen, Vass has another possibility for you, however: a bag reading, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. – Jane Austen.”

“One of my favourite quotes by Mr Darcy in pride and prejudice by Jane Austen,” Vass explains. Except, of course, that the line is spoken by Mr. Knightley, in Emma.

Before you ask: Yes, I do realize that, this year especially, we have more important things than online Austen sloppiness to worry about. But isn't it nice to worry about some of the less important things for awhile?

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2020 02:00PM

Less than a year ago, a rich person with excellent taste snapped up a complete set of Jane Austen first editions at a New York auction. If you want to take a shot at acquiring the same coveted Janeite prize, you have until 7 pm (Eastern) tonight.

That’s when Skinner Auctioneers will close the bidding in its online auction of rare books, maps, and manuscripts. Among the items for sale is a set of first editions of all Austen’s novels – sixteen handsomely bound volumes once owned by Mary Orne Bowditch (1883-1971), a sculptor from a prominent Massachusetts family.

Skinner estimates that the set – three-volume editions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, plus four volumes containing the posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion -- will bring in $20,000 to $30,000; earlier this week, the bidding had reached only $16,000.

To me, those numbers seem oddly low, considering that the editions sold in February went for more than $240,000, with Pride and Prejudice alone bringing in more than $100,000. Still, I’m no bibliographer: Perhaps a reader with greater expertise can explain why the new set is apparently less valuable.

Less valuable in monetary terms, that is. I’m sure we Austen fans can agree that any first edition – let alone all of them – is priceless.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 7 2020 01:00PM

Those of us who set ourselves up as arbiters of correctness in matters of Jane Austen quotation never run short of opportunities to criticize. All over the internet, people are bobbling Austen’s words, or attributing quotes from Austen movies to Austen novels, or wrenching accurate quotes out of context, thereby distorting their meaning.

But if you’re ready to criticize, you must also be ready to praise. And thus it is that I tip my hat to one Zisilia Alvsa, whom the self-help website Wealthy Gorilla credits as the creator of a listicle called “100 Best Fake Friend Quotes of All Time.” Because right there at #5 is a completely authentic, entirely apposite Northanger Abbey quote: “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.”

Last year, this self-congratulatory passage, which is spoken by the selfish, utterly insincere Isabella Thorpe, clocked in at #2 on my list of Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes. You’ll find it cited everywhere, irony-free: sighed over as a true testament to love, or immortalized as a “friendship quote” on t-shirts, fridge magnets, and tote bags.

In fact, as Alvsa has noticed, Isabella’s words are the exact opposite of a “friendship quote”: they’re the sentiments of someone more interested in looking like a good friend than in being one. Now, if only more listicle writers were interested in reading Austen carefully, rather than in just looking as if they had.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 13 2020 01:00PM

Remind me: How many novels did Jane Austen write, again?

Just kidding! Yes, of course, the answer is six. But if you didn’t know that already, you might be confused by the coverage of Rachel Cohen’s recently published memoir Austen Years, in which Cohen describes how her experience of new motherhood and her grief over her father’s death enriched her understanding of Austen’s books.

Not all of Austen’s books, though: Cohen’s subtitle is A Memoir in Five Novels. Which five? Oh, “all five of Austen’s major novels,” says the New York Times reviewer, a Princeton English professor. (“Major” novels? Says who?) “All but Northanger Abbey, generally regarded as inferior,” explains another reviewer. (“Generally regarded”? By whom?) “Not Northanger Abbey which is a farce of a Gothic novel,” says a book blogger. (Farce = skippable?)

Not everyone seems quite so clear about which books made Cohen’s cut and which didn’t. The Washington Post reviewer advises prospective Cohen readers to first tackle “at least four if not all six of Jane Austen’s novels.” (Which of the five “major” ones are we allowed to skip? She doesn’t say.) And the New Yorker’s excerpt from Cohen’s memoir, headlined “Living Through Turbulent Times with Jane Austen,” is subtitled “How six unexpectedly far-ranging novels carried me through eight years, two births, one death, and a changing world.”

I haven’t read Austen Years yet, but a quick Google search confirms that Northanger Abbey is indeed the book that Cohen voted off her island. Even while compulsively rereading the other five, she writes, “I only looked into Northanger Abbey. . . . To me, Northanger Abbey is still opaque. The wit is sometimes harsh, the characterizations are less subtle, the proportions are not complex and harmonic. Gilbert Ryle says, ‘It is the one novel of the six which does not have an abstract ethical theme for its backbone,’ no general qualities being considered in the light of different characters. I think Austen decided not to publish it because she had never found the way to rewrite it to her satisfaction.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the assumption that only five of Austen’s novels really count. Although many critical studies of Austen devote one chapter to each novel, with Northanger Abbey getting equal time, the book has drawn less interest from filmmakers (I know of only two screen adaptations) and probably also from fanfic writers (the pickings are slim). The only survey of Janeites that I’m aware of, conducted by Jeanne Kiefer in 2008 for the Jane Austen Society of North America, found that Northanger Abbey was the least favorite Austen novel for 40 percent of the 4,500 Janeites surveyed – a strong plurality, certainly, although not a majority.

Of course, Rachel Cohen is under no obligation to read, let alone write about, a book she doesn’t like. For me, too, Northanger Abbey is the least compelling of the six, although on a recent reread, I found it fresh, funny, and altogether charming. But I’m puzzled by reviewers’ offhand allusions to a taken-for-granted consensus. Who gets to decide this stuff? And how come I never got a vote?

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2020 01:00PM

Trendy fashion accessories come and go. One year, it’s thigh-high red boots and black berets; the next it’s purple shoes and tiny handbags. Right now, it seems to be Jane Austen novels.

Months ago, blog readers will recall, first one and then a second Kardashian sister took to social media to publicize photos suggesting her previously unsuspected love of Jane Austen. And now the trend has gone royal.

Last Sunday saw the release via Instagram of what the British celebrity magazine Hello! assures us is a “rare” picture of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge (click the right arrow), working from home – although accounts differ as to whether that means Kensington Palace in London or her family’s quarantine digs at “10-bed country mansion” Anmer Hall in the eastern English county of Norfolk. (Quarantine weighs more heavily on some of us than on others.)

The pictures of Kate and her husband, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, were intended to promote mental health in the time of coronavirus; supposedly, they depict the Cambridges conferring by telephone with the directors of mental health charities.

For us Janeites, however, the real story is in the accessories: Arrayed atop Kate’s antique-y desk is a set of twelve books that the British media have helpfully identified as items from the Penguin “Clothbound Classics” series, with covers (quite lovely ones, actually) by designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. Over the weekend, via painstaking research requiring a magnifying glass and repeated cross-checking of images obtained through Google searches – the kind of research only possible when you’re procrastinating another, less congenial task – I succeeded in identifying all twelve titles.

I’m happy to report that Kate’s taste is impeccable: Three of the books on her desk are by Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park are third, fourth and fifth from the left).

I know that the cynical among you – the same people who insist that Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian associated themselves with Austen titles solely as self-branding exercises – will claim that Kate’s book collection was curated purely to boost her smart-but-not-too-smart, royal-girl-next-door image. You may even claim, as my anti-monarchist British husband did, that the main selection criterion was how well the colors of the covers fit into the shot. (Is it suspicious that the pink of Middlemarch picks up the pink of Kate’s pantsuit?)

As you know, however, I am a simple, trusting, Jane Bennet type. (Well, at least today I am.) Therefore, I am going to assume that Kate is actually a fan of Austen and the other classic writers on her desk, from Homer and Shakespeare to Dickens, Hardy, and Oscar Wilde.

Her Austen collection, however, seems woefully incomplete – and in this time of plague, we all need as much literary comfort food as possible. Can I interest anyone in a GoFundMe campaign to buy Kate matching copies of her missing three Austen novels?

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