Deborah Yaffe


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 19 2018 01:00PM

It’s been almost four years since we had a reason to put “Jane Austen” and “beauty pageant” in the same sentence. Frankly, we were overdue.

Back in September 2014, you’ll recall, the future Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev proclaimed herself a Janeite via a much-ridiculed on-screen caption proclaiming that she “loves anything Jane Austin [sic].”

Luckily, our current Austen-in-a-tiara moment includes no such embarrassing blooper. Instead, we are free to bask happily in the knowledge that the first black Miss Universe Great Britain, a 25-year-old Anguillan-born trainee barrister named Dee-Ann Kentish-Rogers, is an Austen fan.

Kentish-Rogers was crowned at a pageant held in Wales last Saturday, where she came tops in a field of 32. She will compete for the sixty-six-year-old Miss Universe title – never before won by a British woman, as far as I can tell – in the Philippines in December.

As seems de rigueur for pageants these days, Miss Universe is an uneasy combination of appallingly retro – swimsuit competition, anyone? – and determinedly feminist: Kentish-Rogers’ fellow contestants included one who wants to conduct cancer research, a second who participates in equestrian show jumping, and a third who recently launched a swimwear business. Kentish-Rogers herself has competed internationally in the heptathlon.

For our purposes, however, it’s her literary taste that really matters. “My love for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice spurred me to move to the United Kingdom in 2013 to study law at the University of Birmingham,” she told the UK’s Daily Star in a story that ran on the day of the pageant.

Given that the Star’s package featured headlines referring to the pageant competitors as “STUNNING babes” and “drop dead gorgeous” alongside a slideshow with many, many swimsuit shots, it is reasonable to wonder how much their readers cared about the future Miss Universe GB’s taste in books. But never mind. We care.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2018 01:00PM

Recently – OK, it was two weeks ago – I found occasion to mention an old journalists’ joke: that three examples of a phenomenon constitute a trend. At the time, I was remarking upon the proliferation of second-order Jane Austen adaptations – adaptations of previous adaptations.*

Today I feel justified in identifying yet another Austen-adaptation trend: the proliferation of jukebox/karaoke shows based on Austen stories. I’m talking about the kind of show that inserts famous pop songs into a newly developed storyline, giving audiences the comfort of the familiar along with the thrill of the new. Think Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, or (on the silver screen) Moulin Rouge.

Lately, Jane Austen has been getting the same treatment. The requisite three examples are as follows:

* In 2015, the lyricist and playwright Eric Price created Emma! A Pop Musical, which updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs by female performers as a score. I’ve never seen it, but apparently it’s beloved by school drama departments.

* Earlier this summer, a Glasgow theater company produced Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), an all-female, slapstick version of the novel featuring interpolations like Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" (sung to Mr. Darcy, of course). Reviews were generally positive, if not rapturous.

* Speaking of Clueless, this fall an off-Broadway company will produce a musical version of the much-loved 1995 movie. The show featues classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics by Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed the original. **

Personally, I think the surface of this trend has barely been scratched.

Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” begs to be included in a Sense and Sensibility jukebox show – sung by Willoughby in the second act, as he writes his fateful brush-off letter, and then tragically reprised by Marianne and Elinor during the climactic illness scene. (Earlier, Elinor will have promised to keep silent about Lucy Steele’s secret engagement by vowing “My Lips Are Sealed” and nursed her broken heart to a rousing chorus of "I Will Survive.")

It goes on and on: “My Boyfriend’s Back” is obviously Anne Elliot’s big Act One number. . . . Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland bop around Bath to the accompaniment of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. . . . Maria Rushworth succumbs to the seductive Henry Crawford while singing “Like a Virgin’. . . the possibilities are endless. Paging Baz Luhrmann!

* And I forgot one – the upcoming TV show based on Curtis Sittenfeld’s P&P update Eligible. So, really, that trend is practically a tsunami.

** Devoted blog readers may recall that I already employed the Clueless musical as one of the confirmatory three points in my recent blog about the second-order-Austen-adaptation trend. Some may feel I am cheating by using it as one of the confirmatory three points in a blog about a different Austen trend. What can I say? Trend reporting is an unscrupulous business.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 25 2018 01:00PM

Back in high school, I did reasonably well in math. I may have trouble balancing my checkbook these days, but I promise I’m not one of those math-o-phobes who thinks numbers are the work of the devil.

Still, at the risk of sounding like a STEM Philistine, I can’t help but scratch my head at what seems to me to be the sheer pointlessness of a math-enhanced literary analysis spotlighted last month by the BBC.

Many years ago, apparently, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut concocted an anthropological theory that he summed up thusly: “Stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper.” More recently, math-y folk have used a statistical text-mining technique called “sentiment analysis” – basically, a way of coding the emotional content and associations of vocabulary words – to identify six archetypal story arcs characterized by the rising and falling patterns of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Summarizing academic work that’s been around for several years, the BBC provides us with the story-arc map that sentiment analysis creates for six famous works of literature -- including Pride and Prejudice, used to illustrate the “Cinderella” plot type (rise, fall, rise). “While not a perfect tool – it looks at words in isolation, ignoring context – [sentiment analysis] can be surprisingly insightful when applied to larger chunks of text,” the BBC opines, citing as an example of such insight a 2016 blog post on P&P by Janeite data scientist Julia Silge.

Sentiment analysis, as far as I can glean from Google, is a tool whose main purpose is commercial: It allows businesses to quickly sift online reviews, comments, and social media posts in order to pick up trends in consumer reactions and resolve problems before they metastasize. In other words, it’s designed for people who want to know the essence of what’s being written without actually having to read anything.

By contrast, literature – pace SparkNotes – is not about skimming to get the gist. It’s about reading carefully to get the nuance. From an anthropological point of view, it may be interesting and worthwhile to categorize the pattern in our storytelling – or the six patterns. But whatever sentiment analysis may have to teach us about the broad outlines of stories, it doesn’t have much to say about individual works of art, or about the subtleties that make great writers worth reading.

Can Austen’s novel be slotted into a plot archetype? I wouldn’t be surprised – human storytelling is an ancient art, after all – but filing P&P under Plot Type #5 doesn’t tell us much of anything about what makes it better than, say, all the P&P fanfic that mimics its structure.

Indeed, looking at Silge’s P&P plot graph suggests the shortcomings of the sentiment-analysis approach as applied to a specific book. For instance, Silge finds that the Netherfield Ball is the high point of positive sentiment in the novel, and it’s true that much excitement and anticipation attend that scene. But it’s also the locus of much disappointment and mortification for Elizabeth Bennet: Wickham mysteriously absents himself, Darcy surprises her into an unwanted dance and a tense conversation, and her mother, sister, and cousin commit public faux pas.

How does placing the ball at the top end of a sentiment scale help us unpack the complicated spectrum of feeling across which the scene in the novel actually ranges? Not at all, as far as I can tell. Arguably, Silge's graph, at least if it's used to analyze a specific book rather than to identify broad patterns across books, is not just pointless but actively misleading. And at the points where the graph matches any casual reader's impression of the book -- for example, in identifying Lydia's elopement as the story's emotional low point -- it's superfluous.

So file me under Unconvinced. But, then, I was a humanities major.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2018 01:00PM

Every now and again, along comes a Jane Austen adaptation, spinoff, or fanfic that, in its wishful thinking and reassuring punch-pulling, reminds us by contrast of how fearlessly unsentimental Austen is. Some of these remixes are pretty good (see under: Sittenfeld, Curtis). And some, like the movies with which I spent this past Saturday night, are pretty godawful.

In my continued pursuit of Jane Austen video completism – and in an effort to warn other Janeites before they commit themselves -- I curled up with a bowl of popcorn to watch the Hallmark Channel’s Marrying Mr. Darcy. But I didn’t stop there. Courtesy of Hallmark’s schedulers, I spent the preceding two hours re-watching the 2016 movie to which this one is a sequel: Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world.

You’re welcome.

Blog readers may recall that I was not a fan of either the first movie or the book on which it was based, and I cannot say that the movie improves with age: The acting is still wooden, the writing still execrable, the production values still bargain-basement. If I found it less offensive this time around, it was only because I was prepared.

Unleashing Mr. Darcy tells the story of the romance between perky Elizabeth Scott (Cindy Busby), unjustly fired from her teaching job at a posh D.C. high school, and rich-‘n’-handsome Donovan Darcy (Ryan Paevey), dog-show judge, successful businessman, devoted big brother, and – just for good measure – selfless philanthropist.

After several occasions of inexplicable, unmotivated hostility and rudeness on her part, the two bond over their shared love of Cavalier King Charles spaniels and patch up their differences in one of those climactic public reconciliations, complete with applause from an audience of strangers, that happen so often in the movies and so seldom in real life.

Marrying Mr. Darcy picks up the romance some indeterminate number of months later, the passage of time signified by the altered hairstyles of several of the main characters and the presence of a completely different actress playing Donovan’s younger sister, Zara. After a kissy-face proposal, we quickly find ourselves in the midst of that hoary sitcom plot staple: We Wanted a Small, Simple Wedding, But Everything Seems To Be Spinning Out of Control.

Leading the charge toward a wedding featuring a designer gown, a society church, and a guest list in the hundreds is Donovan’s Aunt Violet, our stand-in for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In the first movie, the veteran actress Frances Fisher tries valiantly to have fun with the role of an icy, manipulative villainess determined to scotch her nephew’s interest in the déclassé Elizabeth, but she is stymied by the egregious writing, which gives her little to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into.

At least, though, Unleashing Mr. Darcy allows her to be a villain. Marrying Mr. Darcy has a position to maintain: It’s the inaugural offering in Hallmark’s feel-good June Weddings series. Thus, it must follow the template of the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice in giving Austen’s arrogant, tyrannical Lady Catherine a heart of gold. Or, to quote Zara, “Aunt Violet, I’ve always known it. You’re just a softie underneath.”

And so Marrying presents us with a Violet who apologizes for trying to sabotage the Elizabeth-Donovan romance, gives her future niece-in-law heirloom family jewelry, and helps bring the young lovers together after a temporary estrangement. She’s sorry for interfering, she explains, but she still remembers Donovan as a heartbroken, newly orphaned nineteen-year-old. (Perhaps Aunt Violet has incipient Alzheimer’s? Those of us who had tuned in for the reprise of Unleashing Mr. Darcy had just been told that Darcy was twenty-one when he lost his parents in a tragic, yet unintentionally hilarious, boating accident.)

The new movie includes flashes of the Aunt Violet we could love to hate. Informed of Elizabeth’s shocking plan to return to her teaching career post-wedding, Violet purrs, in full 1950s Good Housekeeping mode, “That’s who you were. Now you will be Mrs. Donovan Darcy. That’s a very important full-time job.”

Alas, these hints of a more entertaining movie struggling to break out of the saccharine handcuffs go nowhere. Instead, it’s typical romcom fare, Billionaire Boyfriend division (“The Louvre may approve an after-hours visit for your honeymoon!” Darcy’s helpful assistant informs him.)

But Darcy is no Christian Gray: This is a strictly TV-G enterprise, and therefore, although both Donovan and Elizabeth are over thirty and have no discernible religious convictions, they maintain chastely separate residences, and their relationship shows no signs of having progressed below the neck. Like everything else about these movies, the prevailing temperature is tepid.

While the bland safety of these films is, of course, typical of the made-for-TV romance genre, it’s precisely not typical of the ruthlessly realistic Jane Austen. She has no qualms about leaving Lady Catherine as overbearing and snobbish at the end of Pride and Prejudice as she was at the beginning, even if the pragmatic Elizabeth does eventually engineer a reconciliation. It’s too bad that so many of Austen’s adapters don’t understand the very things about her that keep us coming back.

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