Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 27 2018 01:00PM

When you’re off to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual conference, and the theme of that conference is Persuasion, it’s irresistible to quote the following exchange from the novel, the last one Austen finished before her death:

"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

"You are mistaken," said he gently; "that is not good company; that is the best.” (ch. 16)

And the best company is what I’m expecting over the next four days. JASNA’s annual general meeting, or AGM, is invariably a great time, with thought-provoking lectures, beautiful period costumes, energetic Regency dancing, excellent Austen-themed shopping, and quirky special sessions. (I’ve been looking forward to the “Cheese Tour of Jane Austen’s England” for two years.) But the highlight is the chance to talk Austen with fellow devotees.

Although Kansas City, where the conference is being held, is reputedly a pleasant locale, it’s quite possible that I will never leave the hotel, except for the occasional lunch. The cheese, and the conversation, will tide me over nicely.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 27 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s characters and situations feel so real to us that it’s easy to overlook the fact that many of her stories are set in entirely fictitious places. Highbury, Meryton, Kellynch: all completely made up, despite efforts to “prove” that Sanditon is actually the southeast English town of Hastings, or that Darcy’s estate at Pemberley is based on this or that real-life stately home.

Austen creates this illusion of realism in part by sending characters who live in fictional locales on visits to real ones – places like Bath, London, Portsmouth, or Box Hill. (The website of the Jane Austen Society of North America includes a useful breakdown of real and fictitious sites in the novels.)

One of the most memorable of the real-life venues that appear in Austen’s work is Lyme Regis, the site of Louisa Musgrove’s consequential fall halfway through Persuasion. Not surprisingly, Janeites have long been eager to view the precise “steep flight” of steps on the Cobb, Lyme’s famous seawall, where Louisa insists on being “jumped down” by Captain Wentworth and is rewarded with a severe concussion and the moony, poetry-loving Captain Benwick -- a consolation prize if ever there was one.

Atop the Cobb in Lyme Regis

Earlier this month, one Janeite adventurer, British-based writer Catherine Batac Walder, chronicled her efforts to determine which of three possible candidates is the staircase Austen had in mind when she described Louisa’s fall. Seven years ago, when I visited Lyme with a JASNA tour group while researching Among the Janeites, our tour guide rehashed the same debate.

Just as I did, Walder found all three sets of stairs less precarious than the downward-sloping Cobb itself, where the intrepid walker perched on its surface is exposed to the buffeting of sea breezes, with nary a railing or handhold in sight. Still, Lyme is a beautiful and atmospheric place: it’s not hard to understand why Austen, who visited twice with her family, decided to embed this real-life location in the imaginary geography of her last completed novel.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 2 2018 01:00PM

With their film adaptations and their fanfics and their Austen societies, residents of the Indian subcontinent seem to love Jane Austen just as much as do those of us in the Anglo-American-Australian axis.

So perhaps it is unsurprising that their websites should end up misquoting her just as much as ours do.

Yes, children, it is time once again for our favorite sport, Spot the Spurious Austen Quote -- now in a new international edition!

Last month, not one but two Indian news sites decided to mark the anniversary of Austen’s death by giving her another reason to spin in her grave. At the Indian Express, an English-language daily newspaper published in Mumbai, the tribute consisted of “10 quotes by the author on love and life,” interspersed with biographical tidbits. At iDiva, a gossip-beauty-fashion-relationships website, we were treated to “18 Jane Austen Quotes That Are Mantras For The Millennial Girl.”

Apparently, fact-checking the original text is a lost art in India, just as it seems to be here in the United States.

How else to explain why the Indian Express list manages to include two spurious Austen quotes and one kinda-right-kinda-wrong quote among its ten, for a less-than-impressive score of seventy-five percent?

The mistakes aren’t even original: There’s the ever-popular “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do,” which -- as I have tried in vain to impress upon the Internet -- is not an Austen quote but a garbled version of a line from the 2008 TV mini-series of Sense and Sensibility. There’s the only slightly less hoary “We are all fools in love,” which comes from the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice. And there’s the garbled “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings,” which, as I’ve noted before, is not exactly what Austen wrote in Mansfield Park. (I still gave half-credit for it, because I’m an easy grader.)

Not to worry, though: iDiva has worked hard to get us the very best of Austen, offering “18 handpicked quotes that are totally going to get a nod from that millennial soul in you.” Handpicked! What could be better?

Well, maybe if the hand doing the picking actually knew what it was up to.

Alas, yes: iDiva’s carefully curated selection also includes two spurious Austen quotes. (Lo and behold, they are exactly the same as the two spurious quotes that Indian Express gave us!) But iDiva does better: It also provides us two genuine Austen quotes that it attributes to the wrong book; two slightly incorrect versions of genuine Austen quotes; and two more seriously garbled genuine quotes, one of which – in an impressive twofer – is also attributed to the wrong book.*

On the other hand, iDiva does manage ten certifiably correct Austen quotes attributed to the correct book (three of them overlapping with Indian Express selections). I’m in a generous mood, so I’m giving iDiva credit for its two only-slightly-incorrect quotes, for a total score of sixty-seven percent. Passing – but only just.

What is to be done? How can this international plague of Austen misquotation be rolled back? Is there no cure? No antidote? No vaccine?

Google, you say? No, Google is actually part of the problem: Search for any of those spurious or garbled quotes, and you’ll find a dozen websites assuring you that they are genuine Jane Austen.

Millennial girls, I’m afraid it can’t be helped: If you want to make sure your current mantra is a genuine quote from the novelist Jane Austen, you’re going to have to acquaint yourself with, at the very least, a searchable electronic text of her novels. The horror.

* For the nerdy among us: #1 omits a word; #4 is seriously garbled, probably because it’s a version of a movie line that is based on a book line; #5 has one incorrect word; #7 is a garbled line from Persuasion misattributed to Pride and Prejudice; #8 is spurious; #14 is a Pride and Prejudice line misattributed to Northanger Abbey; #15 is spurious; #17 is a Mansfield Park line misattributed to Pride and Prejudice.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 30 2018 01:00PM

Pride and Prejudice isn’t just Jane Austen’s most famous and popular novel. Of all her stories, it’s also the best suited to modern-dress adaptations, whether for page or screen.*

In my not-so-humble opinion, that’s because the plots of Austen’s other novels rely far more on cultural assumptions that have shifted radically. Why can’t Edward Ferrars break his engagement to Lucy Steele without dishonor? Why does Fanny Price object to amateur theatricals? What’s so scandalous about the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax?

It’s not that it’s impossible to update the crucial plot points of other Austen novels in ways that make sense in a world of greater sexual freedom, altered gendered roles, modern economic arrangements, and less exacting views of morality and obligation. But it’s difficult. It takes a degree of thoughtfulness and care that not every fanfic writer or screenwriter is prepared to apply.

Thus my. . . concern about the recent announcement of plans for A Modern Persuasion, a new indie film that purports to update Austen’s last completed novel to the world of corporate publicity in New York.

Our heroine, to be played by Alicia Witt, is “a happily single and self-confessed workaholic who, after steadfastly rising to the top of the ladder. . . finds herself coming home every night to her cat,” according to Deadline Hollywood. Then her ex hires her company, and she must deal with her broken heart while learning and growing and all that jazz.

Yeah, I agree with you: So far, I’m not feeling a lot of Persuasion here, except for the old-flames-meet-again situation, which is hardly exclusive to Jane Austen. And there might be a reason for that lack of Persuasion-y flavor: The central issue in Austen’s plot – Anne Elliot’s decision, years earlier, to allow herself to be talked out of marrying the man she loved – is extraordinarily difficult to update to the modern world.

Lady Russell’s fears about Anne’s early marriage to a man with uncertain prospects make perfect sense for her time. They make virtually no sense in a world in which young women can get jobs of their own, count on reliable birth control, and collect life insurance and Social Security payouts on husbands who die while pursuing risky professions.

In a world like that, an Anne Elliot who caves in to Lady Russell-style persuasion comes across as either a snob or a doormat, and Austen’s Anne is neither of those. You can write the character that way for updating purposes, of course, but then you have to work harder to make her sympathetic and her regrets believable. The Persuasion updates I’ve read – off-hand, I can only think of perhaps half a dozen, compared to groaning shelves of P&P updadtes -- address this issue with mixed success.

So color me skeptical about the likely success of A Modern Persuasion. Not that my skepticism will keep me from buying a ticket, of course.

* Which isn’t to say that all those adaptations are top-notch. No, indeed. See under Unleashing Mr. Darcy.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 28 2018 01:00PM

Six months ago, author and scholar Sarah Emsley launched a blog series dedicated to the two Austen novels marking their bicentenary this year: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published by Austen’s family a few months after her untimely death in July 1817. *

This project was Sarah’s follow-up to blog series she curated on Mansfield Park and Emma, as well as a shorter series she wrote herself on Pride and Prejudice, to mark the bicentenaries of those three books. (Unfortunately, she didn’t get into the game until after the Sense and Sensibility anniversary, but perhaps she can come up with an excuse for doing that novel later on.)

The latest series, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion,” has featured fascinating contributions from more than thirty Janeites, some academic and some not, on everything from Anne Elliot’s travels to General Tilney’s housekeeping. I’m delighted to bring up the rear: my series-concluding post on Captain Wentworth’s immortal letter will run tomorrow.

Please stop by to read and comment!

* Confused about how books published in 1817 could celebrate their two hundredth birthdays in 2018? I explained here.

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