Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 10 2019 01:00PM

In David Lodge’s classic 1975 academic novel Changing Places, the English-professor characters discuss a game of intellectual chicken called Humiliation. The rules are simple: Name a book you’ve never read, and earn a point for every person in the group who has. The more glaringly unusual the gap in your reading, the higher your likely score – but the greater your helping of the titular state of mortification. *


Judging from a recent poll conducted by the British TV channel Sky Arts, many Brits could rack up serious Humiliation points, if only they were willing to tell the truth. Among the two thousand people surveyed, more than half admitted to having lied about their reading, falsely claiming to have finished books they had barely cracked open.


Fifth on the list of twenty most-fibbed-about classics: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, lied about by eight percent of those surveyed. Austen is in good company, outranked by only the Bible (twelve percent), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (ten percent), Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (ten percent), and George Orwell’s 1984 (nine percent).


"We say we are a nation of readers,” Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones told the Independent newspaper, “but it turns out we're also a nation of fibbers when it comes to getting stuck into a book."


The reasons for lying were predictable: The fibbers wanted to look smarter or to join a literary conversation. In pursuit of these goals, they placed unread classics on their bookshelves, created social media photos of themselves with highbrow tomes in hand, or even memorized famous quotations. To conceal their ignorance of important details, they relied on screen adaptations or claimed to have finished books so long ago that their memories were fuzzy.


For many of the books on the list, it’s not hard to see why would-be readers preferred to lie rather than buckle down and turn those pages. Some of the books are very long and/or very difficult: Joyce’s Ulysses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.


Other books on the list, while not so long and hard, are the kind of trendy non-fiction bestsellers that come up often at cocktail parties: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Read a couple of reviews, and it’s probably not hard to discuss these books as if you’ve read them.


But a few items on the list leave me truly mystified. Why lie about reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island? It’s short, thrilling, and so easy to read that it’s a classic of children’s literature. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea each run to less than two hundred pages. Far from being highbrow esoterica, To Kill a Mockingbird is (allegedly) America’s favorite book.


And what to make of P&P’s presence on this list? It’s not all that long or, in my humble opinion, all that hard. I’d say the same about Nabokov’s Lolita and Dickens’ Great Expectations, two other favorite books of mine that made the most-lied-about list. I realize that many readers struggle with older prose styles, but really – give these a try!


Rather than feeling aggrieved on my favorite authors’ behalf, however, I will strive to feel smug instead. Obviously, if people seem compelled to lie about reading these books, mastery of their contents must constitute some kind of cultural touchstone, a Good Housekeeping seal of intellectual approval. And – nyah, nyah! -- I’ve read these books! I don’t have to lie!


OK, fine. Short as it is, I haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea. Ditto for Gladwell, Hawking, Hariri, and Rand. Not gonna lie. Could we just talk about Jane Austen instead?



* Lodge’s relevant passages are excerpted by retired English professor Robin Bates here, on a blog delightfully titled Better Living Through Beowulf.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 7 2019 01:00PM

I recognize that not everyone craves another Jane Austen-themed screen drama.


Some may have balked at the all! sex! all! the! time! hype surrounding Sanditon, the British TV series based on the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, which wraps up its eight-part UK run on Sunday night. Others may have reached saturation point earlier, with last year’s onslaught of terrible Austen-influenced Hallmark movies, or with the 2016 release of the appallingly bad Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For still others, the aversion may go back decades – perhaps to the 1940 P&P adaptation that turned Lady Catherine de Bourgh into an old softie.


For the rest of us, however – those who will see anything, no matter how dubious, as long as a savvy marketer has slapped a Jane Austen label on it – I’ve got news of two planned Austen-ish projects.


--A contemporary update of Pride and Prejudice--wait, don’t fall asleep yet: I promise this is a little bit different—is coming to a cellphone near you.


The American actor and comedian Joel Kim Booster is writing the series -- Trip, set on the gay mecca of Fire Island, New York -- for the streaming platform Quibi, which serves up its dramas in ten-minute-long episodes (Quibi = quick bites) designed to be consumed via phone.


“The story centers around two best friends who set out to have a legendary week-long summer vacation with the help of cheap rosé and a cadre of eclectic friends,” explains the Hollywood news site Deadline. I guess we’ll have to wait for the show – no release date announced yet -- to find out if those besties are Jane and Elizabeth, or Darcy and Bingley.


As the LGBT+ site Pink News notes, this is not the first gay P&P: the 2017 movie Before the Fall, which I have yet to see, centered on a male-male romance. And that’s not even counting fanfic like Ann Herendeen's Pride/Prejudice, which gives both Darcy and Elizabeth same-sex interests.


I hate watching video on my phone – that’s one way you know I’m old – and I haven’t seen Booster’s earlier TV work. But he is the author of a sweet and wistful 2018 piece about the resonance of Austen’s work for gay readers. Plus, a savvy marketer has already slapped a Jane Austen label on Trip. So you know I’ll be watching.


--We Janeites do not owe our name to Rudyard Kipling’s 1924 short story “The Janeites”; the term was actually coined thirty years earlier by the Victorian literary critic George Saintsbury.


Still, Kipling’s oddly affecting tale of soldier-readers struggling to hold onto their sanity in the trenches of World War I marks a milestone in the popularization of the term. And so it’s intriguing to hear that a young Australian director is trying to raise money for a film based on Kipling’s story.


The project’s Indiegogo site doesn’t make clear whether the projected film would be a short or a feature, although given the sums involved, a short seems most likely. Director Toby Morris’s previous work seems to consist of music videos, commercial work, and shorts. And twelve days into the thirty-day campaign, fundraising is off to a slow start, with only $34 of a hoped-for $20,000 raised. (An earlier campaign raised $1,600, falling far short of its target; apparently Morris and producer Sean O'Reilly are trying again.)


I’m wishing them well this time around. As far as I know, "The Janeites" has never been filmed; this really would be an Austen screen drama we haven’t seen before.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 23 2019 01:00PM

See that headline? The one right above this blog post? I’m kind of proud of it. Doesn’t it totally sound like it could be the title of a new Hallmark Christmas movie?


Which is appropriate, since the mystery in question concerns the strange disappearance of a Jane Austen-themed movie from the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” schedule.


“Countdown to Christmas,” now in its tenth year, is Hallmark’s annual saccharine-laced marathon of cookie-baking, hot-chocolate-drinking, snowball-tossing, small-town-holiday-visiting made-for-TV romcoms, which begins airing right before Halloween and stretches on until a few days before New Year’s.


Last year, as blog readers will recall, “Countdown to Christmas” included not one but two nominally Pride and Prejudice-inspired movies, although in both cases fidelity to Jane Austen’s original was pretty much nil. So when I learned recently that Hallmark planned to include a new Austen-themed outing this year, my expectations were low.


They got lower when I learned that this year’s offering, Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, was apparently based on a book by Melissa de la Cruz, the author of the stupendously terrible Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, allegedly the inspiration for one of last year’s movies.


And then things got a little odd.


The buzz for Sense, Sensibility and Snowmen began over the summer, when Entertainment Tonight reported that the movie would star Erin Krakow, who plays the protagonist in Hallmark’s beloved period drama When Calls the Heart, set in the Canadian West in the early twentieth century.


In June, de la Cruz – who actually hasn’t published a book called Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen; maybe she just worked on the screenplay? -- tweeted about the cast. In July, Krakow tweeted pictures from the set. A couple of weeks ago, the movie was all set to air on November 27 – at least according to Passion for Savings, a thrifty-living website, which posted the full "Countdown to Christmas" schedule, along with a visual of Hallmark’s own suitable-for-printing one-page version, featuring a photo of an adorable little dog wearing a red scarf.


But last week, when I went to the Hallmark Channel’s website and found my own copy of that printable schedule with the cute little doggie, SS&S was nowhere to be seen, its slot on the roster apparently taken by something called Christmas Under the Stars. Although air dates had changed for a number of films since the posting of the earlier schedule, Triple S was the only one of the twenty-four that had vanished entirely.


Hmm. Was the movie not finished in time? Was its tale of party-planner sisters named Ella and Marianne who tangle with an irascible toy-company CEO named Edward insufficiently faithful to Jane Austen? (OK, probably not that.) Did the finished version fail to meet the standards of excellence expected of a Hallmark Christmas movie? (Stop laughing!)


I emailed Hallmark to see if they’ll tell me. Meanwhile, we’ll just have to hope – if that’s the right word – that the movie turns up sometime later on the Hallmark schedule.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 16 2019 01:00PM

Is Michelle Obama a Janeite? As far as I’m aware, no documentation exists to settle the question either way. But circumstantial evidence now suggests that the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait may indeed be One of Us.


Amy Sherald, whose strikingly beautiful 2018 painting of the former First Lady hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, has just opened a solo exhibition in New York. And two of the eight portraits on display are named after lines from Jane Austen novels.






A painting of a young black woman in a striped strapless dress (lower left in the photo) is titled “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” a quote from Emma. And a painting of a young black man in a sweater (upper left) is called “A single man in possession of a good fortune,” which is, of course, part of the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.


The single man’s sweater is “decorated with geometric forms of houses, wittily suggesting that his wealth lies in real estate while also insinuating something darker: the tactics that have kept many African-Americans from owning homes,” opines New York Times art critic Roberta Smith.


Austen isn’t the only author alluded to in Sherald’s show – the name of another painting comes from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon – and there’s always a chance the artist picked her titles from a random Google search for famous quotes. (In which case, thank goodness she didn’t end up with “You have bewitched me body and soul” or some comparable atrocity.) Or maybe she's using Jane Austen for the ironic juxtaposition of nineteenth-century author with twenty-first-century subjects, rather than as an homage.


But I prefer to imagine her and Michelle Obama passing the time during portrait sittings by listening together to a really good audio version of Persuasion. Now that’s a lovely picture.



By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 12 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen, her brother Henry would have us believe, didn’t care about making money. “She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination,” Henry Austen wrote in 1817, in the biographical note appended to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. “Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.”


Austen herself was franker about her financial ambitions. “People are more ready to borrow & praise than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight four months after the publication of Mansfield Park. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” (Letter #114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


Conventional wisdom holds that poor Jane Austen earned barely a pittance from her work (Egad! She sold the copyright of perennial bestseller Pride and Prejudice for a mere £110!), and sometimes it does seem as if everyone has made money off her work except Austen herself. What Janeite – after perusing the groaning shelves of Austen paperbacks, streaming yet another filmed Austen adaptation, or buying the latest Austen-themed tote bag, fridge magnet, or coloring book -- hasn’t sighed over the unfairness of it all?


New research using Bank of England archives shows that the picture is a bit more complicated, however. In a piece published online earlier this month, independent scholar John Avery Jones, a retired judge, concluded that Austen earned a lifetime total of £631 pounds before tax, or £575 after tax, which he calculates is the equivalent of £45,000 (about $54,600) in today’s money.


Jones’ ingenious research draws on indexes of stock sales and prices, as well as contemporary income tax rates. Unlike earlier scholars, who based their calculations of Austen’s earnings on estimates of her proceeds from book sales, Jones looks at how much she was able to invest in “the Navy Fives” -- government securities sold to the Regency public at a discount, rather like today’s savings bonds.


Jane Austen’s career as a published writer lasted only six years, from the 1811 appearance of Sense and Sensibility until her death in 1817, and Jones’ calculations seem to cover the income only from the four books published during that span. Pro-rated across six years, Jones’ number works out to a yearly income of $9,100. It’s not a lot, certainly – and, as Jones notes, some of her contemporaries earned more from their writing.


But it’s enough to be proud of – and we know that Austen was. “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold,” she wrote to her brother Frank in September 1813 (Letter #86). “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


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