Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 30 2020 02:00PM

In September, we suspected. We hoped. We crossed our fingers. And now it’s confirmed. In perhaps the least likely household on Planet Earth, a nest of Jane Austen fans has apparently hatched.

Yes, it’s true. The Kardashians are Janeites.

Four months ago, blog readers will recall, Kourtney Kardashian, the eldest of the K-named tribe, posted an Instagram shot of herself draped across an empty bathtub reading a handsome hardback of Emma. Admittedly, it was all in the service of selling an essential-oil diffuser, but still.

Then, last week, Khloe Kardashian, third of that line, posted snapshots on Instagram of her daughter True’s bookshelves. And there, strewn oh-so-casually amid a set of pink-flowered teacups, were copies of Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. No word on whether these are gifts from Aunt Kourtney, but there’s no essential-oil diffuser in sight, so perhaps not.

With little True Thompson apparently a newly minted member of the family book club, we now face the possibility of not one but two generations of Kardashian Janeites. Given that True won't celebrate her second birthday until April, however, we may have to wait awhile before we can be certain she shares her foremothers’ excellent taste in literature.

I realize that the more cynical among you may argue that the Kardashians’ conspicuous Austen-love is all for appearances’ sake, a calculated brand-management effort designed to convey Girly Yet Smart. You may be ungenerously tempted to bring up Miss Bingley’s efforts to read the second volume of Mr. Darcy’s book, or Mrs. Elton and her Italian endearments.

But no! I refuse! I prefer to think that the Kardashian women have developed an appetite for lucid prose and biting social satire, to go along with the bikinis and bling.

Really, though, the only thing that will settle this dispute is for Kim Kardashian West to add her vote. Perhaps an Instagram shot of her beach basket, with a copy of Mansfield Park nestled amid the high-thread-count towels and organic sunscreen? A selfie with a Sense and Sensibility paperback tucked into a plunging neckline? An arty photo of a pensive Kim, captioned “You pierce my soul”? The possibilities are endless.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 13 2020 02:00PM

Search engine optimization and web analytics are topics about which I know very little. (OK: nothing.) So when Google sends me its periodic report on the performance of my web site – yes, this very site – I mostly ignore it. (Go ahead. Tell me I should grit my teeth and learn this marketing stuff even though it bores me. I deserve the lecture.)

December’s Google report, however, included one tidbit hilarious enough to catch even my negligent eye. Apparently, the search query that most often brought viewers to my site that month was this: “you have bewitched me body and soul book page number.”

As blog readers know, I regularly fulfill my Janeite community service obligations by pointing out the Jane Austen movie quotes masquerading online as Jane Austen book quotes. Among their number is the line “You have bewitched me body and soul,” uttered by Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth during the romantic climax of the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice.

In my opinion, this line is a cheesy cliché, but if you find it swooningly romantic, wallow away: I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours. Whatever its merits, however, it is inarguable that this line does not appear anywhere in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. You will search in vain for its page number. It's just not there. Wasn't written by Jane Austen. Sorry.

I have noted this fact from time to time, most recently in July, so presumably my site pops up when those with a thirst for accuracy – a quality that is becoming sadly rare in our era – try to nail down the provenance of the quote.

This is excellent news. Thanks, Google! But I still can't be bothered to learn about search engine optimization.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 19 2019 02:00PM

Today’s Jane Austen happening is what hasn’t happened yet: Almost exactly three years after an artist engraved tiny portraits of Jane Austen on a set of British £5 notes and then secretly put four of them into circulation, one of the enhanced fivers apparently remains undiscovered.

Back in December of 2016, as blog readers will recall, the neo-Roald-Dahl story of the Austen fivers sent the British press into a frenzy of excitement. Because previous works by artist Graham Short, known for engraving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, had drawn high prices, the newspapers concluded that each Austen note could be worth £50,000 (about $66,000).

I was initially skeptical that the notes would ever be found – lots of hay, only four needles – but in less than three months, the notes spent in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland turned up. Short donated another to Jane Austen’s House Museum, to commemorate the bicentenary of Austen’s death.

But the final note, which Short spent three years ago at Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in Melton Mowbray, a town in the central English county of Leicestershire, remains out there somewhere. “The serial number of the note is AM32885554, and it carries a quote from Pride and Prejudice: ‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good,’ ” a Leicestershire news outlet helpfully reported last year.

That’s one of the few recent mentions of the missing fiver: the feverish media interest seems to have subsided, perhaps because the only note to be sold at auction brought in just £6,000 (about $7,900), a far cry from the earlier estimates.

Meanwhile, Short has moved on. Earlier this year, he created an engraving on the head of a pin and donated it to a save-the-rainforests effort.

But he hasn’t entirely given up on Golden Ticket-style stunts. Last year, during England’s World Cup semi-final run, Short engraved six £5 notes with the face of team star Harry Kane and secretly spent four of them in locations around Britain.

There’s no word yet on whether any of the Kane fivers has been found. So it’s just possible that in a wallet somewhere in the United Kingdom, Jane Austen is sleeping quietly next to a very accomplished soccer player.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 16 2019 02:00PM

Jane Austen experienced her share of literary rejection. One publisher declined even to look at the manuscript that eventually became Pride and Prejudice; another agreed to publish the forerunner of Northanger Abbey, only to sit on his acquisition for years.

So Austen’s ghost is probably coping with the lowering news that the much-hyped TV adaptation of Sanditon won’t be renewed for a second season.

And the early signs seemed so promising! Here was the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death! In its first full-scale screen adaptation! With a story by Andrew Davies, the man behind the BBC’s iconic 1995 P&P! Who is famed for his ability to squeeze sex scenes into period adaptations of classic fiction! Dreams of a Downton Abbey-style cash cow must have been dancing in the heads of the broadcast partners, ITV in the UK and PBS in the US.

But the reviews in the UK, where Sanditon’s eight episodes aired over the summer and fall, were mostly lukewarm or worse. Then some viewers objected to the ending, which, perhaps in a bid to keep the franchise going, was not – spoiler alert! – a classic Austenian happily-ever-after. And now comes word that the ratings were also pretty underwhelming – below three million, according to Davies himself.

"We would have loved it to return, but unfortunately we just didn’t get the audience that would make that possible for us,” an ITV spokeswoman told the entertainment website TVWise.

But all hope is not dead: British fans, eager for that happy ending, have launched an online petition calling for a Season 2. Meanwhile, Sanditon begins its US run on January 12, and if we Americans take to this beachy tale of Regency life, it seems possible that PBS might finance another season. Why we should like it when the Brits did not remains unclear, but hey – tastes differ! Once upon a time, some idiot decided to pass on Pride and Prejudice.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 9 2019 02:00PM

As the holidays approach, you may be bracing for the arrival of that winter perennial, the fruitcake -- baked months earlier, soaked in alcohol, and stashed in a cupboard until gift-giving time.

Here in my little corner of the Janeite universe, I’ve got a few well-preserved morsels of my own: incidental Austen mentions that I’ve been saving up all fall, waiting for the right moment to unwrap the cheesecloth and present them to you. Feel free to sip from a snifter of aromatic brandy as you read.

* Back in September, a Bangladeshi soap opera based on Pride and Prejudice aired its two hundredth (!) episode. The show, Man Obhiman, tells the story of two sisters whose “quest for love creates a series of complications in their lives.” (Doesn’t it always?)

The show airs six nights a week and has been running since January, so for all I know, it may well have passed its three hundredth episode by now. Meanwhile, Google’s Bengali translator isn’t up to the job of figuring out what the title means, so I welcome reader input.

* A young Missouri woman with a Pride and Prejudice obsession and an Austen tattoo – “most ardently,” inked on her right arm – hopes to earn a doctorate and teach literature in college. It’s news because the woman, Abigail Morrall, has a genetic illness called spinal muscular atrophy that seemed likely to kill her in childhood.

Recently, however, a new drug gave her renewed hope for the future, and now she looks forward to a full life. “My favorite place to be in this entire world is in a literature classroom at a university,” she told the University of Missouri’s crack PR team, which fed the story to a local TV station. Here’s hoping -- most ardently! -- that she gets to have the life she wants.

* From time to time, an obituary makes you bitterly regret the passing of a fabulous character you never had the chance to meet. Such was my reaction to the death earlier this year, at age 91, of Elizabeth Burchfield (née Elizabeth Austen Knight), a retired publicist for Oxford University Press and a descendant of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward.

Burchfield, a New Zealander who spent most of her long life in England, was a green-eyed, auburn-haired book-lover who married, in middle age, Robert Burchfield, described in the London Times’ obituary as a “renowned lexicographer and the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

“At a home in Oxfordshire filled with thousands of books, including their fine collection of works from New Zealand. . . . Bob and Elizabeth jousted with guests over words, their provenance and their pronunciation,” the article goes on to say.

Elizabeth gave her eight step-grandchildren books as gifts, employing a careful record-keeping system to ensure no one ever got a duplicate. Included with each gift was a Post-It note describing the book’s virtues.

And in old age “she wrote crisp letters to the press, invariably involving the usage of English,” the obituary notes. “In The Spectator in 2013, for instance, Elizabeth observed: ‘Sir: Dot Wordsworth writes about blazers and jackets. I was always led to believe that gentlemen wore coats; potatoes had jackets.’ ”

OK, they had me at “home filled with thousands of books,” but really – doesn’t she sound irresistible?

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