Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, May 28 2015 01:00PM

The mainstream media are convinced that Jane Austen’s work is a giant No Sex Zone.

Nothing seems to shake this perception, no matter how often you point out that there are two illegitimate children in Sense and Sensibility, a living-in-sin elopement in Pride and Prejudice, a home-wrecking adultery in Mansfield Park, and a kept-woman situation in Persuasion.

Nope, nope, nope: Austen is all tremulous glances and virgins in frilly white dresses, and those nutty Janeites can’t handle racier stuff. “For Jane Austen purists, the sight of two characters sharing a kiss in a screen adaptation is enough to set hackles rising,” insists the Telegraph.

Hence the excessive fascination aroused by a recent speech by Austen scholar John Mullan at the annual Hay-on-Wye literary festival. (I note that two years ago, British novelist Howard Jacobson also talked about Jane Austen and sex at the Hay Festival. Apparently, this topic is inexhaustibly fascinating for British literary types.)

Mullan offered the not exactly startling conclusion that, in Emma, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax may have been canoodling shortly before Emma finds them together in Miss Bates’ apartment, where Frank has allegedly been mending Mrs. Bates’ spectacles.

“I think they have been at it, in a Regency sort of way,” Mullan said. “I put it to you they’ve been snogging.”

Mullan, who should know better, also repeats the Austen-fans-don’t-like-kissing canard, and the Telegraph’s story cites as examples of Janeite purism objections to the kisses at the end of the 1995 Amanda Root Persuasion and the 2005 Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice.

In neither instance, though, did Janeites object to the kiss per se: we objected to the public nature of the kiss in Persuasion (in the Regency, even long-married couples didn’t snog on the street), and to the saccharine nature of the dialogue in P&P (“Mrs. Darcy. . .Mrs. Darcy. . .”)

Kisses are no problem. It’s historical inaccuracy and bad writing that really raise Janeite hackles.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 2 2015 02:00PM

Another year, another round of Let’s Misquote Jane Austen.

Back in October, the last time I was overcome by irritation at the general inability to CHECK THE TEXT before attributing any old line to Jane Austen, I focused my annoyance on a Bustle list of “19 Jane Austen Quotes That Can Fit in a Tweet.”

That list included three quotes from Austen movie adaptations, so I didn’t come down too hard on the three additional quotes that were garbled versions of actual Austen lines.

Such restraint ends now. has given us “40 Authors on How to Be Happy” – actually, forty authors saying something about happiness, not necessarily giving instructions – and the Austen contribution, at #15, is misquoted and attributed to the wrong book.

As we Janeites know, it’s Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, not someone or other in Pride and Prejudice, who says, “I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve” – not, as ShortList has it, “I must learn to be content with being happier than I deserve.”

A minor difference, you think? Let us pause for a moment to note how much better Austen’s line is. First, it’s pithier: ten words instead of twelve. Second, it's more euphonious, avoiding the slightly clunky “to be. . .with being” construction and substituting the alliteration of “brook being.” And third, it's funnier, since “brook” connotes a teeth-gritted endurance, which contrasts amusingly with the happiness that the good captain must force himself to bear.

Interestingly, precisely the same misquote, misattribution and all, appeared on that old Bustle list, too, and Google informs me that this doubly-wrong version is all over the Net. No doubt someone right now is repeating the error on a key-ring or a fridge magnet, secure in the knowledge that ShortList and Bustle must know what they're talking about. (Ha!)

How do these mistakes get started, I wonder? I’d guess that someone – call her the ur-misquoter, or UMQ for short – decided to jettison the slightly old-fashioned “to brook” in favor of a more modern-sounding alternative. Not being as good a writer as Jane Austen – who is? – the UMQ ended up with an inferior version.

And why P&P rather than Persuasion? Oh, you know: Colin Firth, etc. As far as the misquoters are concerned, Jane Austen only wrote one book. Why even bother checking?

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 25 2014 02:00PM

Jane Austen is famously careful about the chronology in her stories – Ellen Moody has mined the text to produce working calendars for all six novels – and Christmas is mentioned in several of them.

Perhaps my favorite of Austen’s Christmas scenes is this evocation of life with small children, from chapter 14 of Persuasion. Consider it my holiday gift to you.

"The Musgroves came back to receive their happy boys and girls from school, bringing with them Mrs. Harville's little children, to improve the noise of Uppercross, and lessen that of Lyme. Henrietta remained with Louisa, but all the rest of the family were again in their usual quarters.

Lady Russell and Anne paid their compliments to them once, when Anne could not but feel that Uppercross was already quite alive again. Though neither Henrietta, nor Louisa, nor Charles Hayter, nor Captain Wentworth were there, the room presented as strong a contrast as could be wished to the last state she had seen it in.

Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit; and Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on her knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.

Anne, judging from her own temperament, would have deemed such a domestic hurricane a bad restorative of the nerves, which Louisa's illness must have so greatly shaken. But Mrs. Musgrove, who got Anne near her on purpose to thank her most cordially, again and again, for all her attentions to them, concluded a short recapitulation of what she had suffered herself, by observing, with a happy glance round the room, that after all she had gone through, nothing was so likely to do her good as a little quiet cheerfulness at home."

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 18 2014 02:00PM

All across the Net (for instance: here and here and here), you will find long lists of Jane Austen-related holiday gifts for the Janeite on your agenda: books, mugs, scarves, DVDs, tote bags, ornaments, temporary tattoos and, of course, the Jane Austen Action Figure.

I will not add my own list here. I will instead highlight a few of the weirder items of Jane Austen merchandise I have noticed recently. (And this is just the relatively new stuff. I'm not even mentioning the Austen hardback engineered to conceal a flask.) Please do not buy these for me.

1. Jane and the Pearly Whites: Jane Austen toothpaste in Genteel Rose flavor. Why toothpaste? Except for Harriet Smith’s visit to the London dentist near the end of Emma, teeth just don’t figure much in the Austen canon, unless you count the giant choppers of Keira Knightley, who played Elizabeth in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. (And what does a rose taste like, anyway?) Next up: Jane Austen underarm deodorant.

2. Jane and the Scent of a Woman: The Jane Austen Library Candle, “with Gardenia, Tuberose and Jasmine fragrance notes.” It probably smells fine, if you like scented candles. (I don’t, but to each her own.) But why should Jane Austen be inevitably associated with sweet-little-girly flower smells? I sense the Jane Austen Wrote Chick Lit Meme at work.

I’m far more diverted by the same company’s Mark Twain candle (the scent of tobacco flower!) and especially its Edgar Allan Poe, which features the fragrance of absinthe. Poe and the odor of artistic nineteenth-century dissipation: perfect together.

3. Jane and the Furry Folk: Just in time for holiday mailings, the Jane Austen Centre of Bath, England, brings us a series of three Woodland Creature Christmas cards, each tied to a different Austen novel. For Emma, a fox (because of the raid on the poultry houses at the end of the novel? But that’s supposed to be the work of human hands. . .) For Mansfield Park, a rabbit (because of Fanny’s timidity?) For Sense and Sensibility, a raccoon (because of that scene when sensibility-laden Marianne Dashwood nurses an injured raccoon back to health. What? Well, I guess your edition must be missing a few pages, then.)

After I finished giggling helplessly over this trio, I began wondering about the mammalian possibilities for the missing three novels. For spooky Northanger Abbey: a bat, obviously. For sparkly Pride and Prejudice: an otter. For autumnal Persuasion: a bear, I think. Preferably one lucky enough to have begun hibernating long before it’s time to buy holiday gifts.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 3 2014 02:00PM

No money for a tour of Jane Austen sites in England? Worry not: a diligent Janeite named LuciaM has painstakingly created a Google Earth Layer (basically, a collection of placemarkers overlaid on a Google Earth map) keyed to Austen’s life and works.

From a bird’s-eye view or from human eye level, you can check out the addresses where Austen lived in Bath, the approximate location of the fictitious Mansfield Park, or the stately home that represented Pemberley in the famous 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. You can even take brief side expeditions to Antigua, the site of Sir Thomas Bertram’s West Indian holdings, or to Gibraltar and Haiti, two of Captain Wentworth’s ports of call.

All told, more than two hundred Austen-related places are represented, along with LuciaM’s mini-essays on their significance.

As far as I can tell, LuciaM finished her work long ago – back in 2009, it seems – but it’s new to me, and yet another example of how technology can simultaneously shrink the globe and expand Janeite community.

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