Deborah Yaffe

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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.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 8 2019 01:00PM

According to my parents, one of the most important promises they made to each other upon their marriage was this one: no surprise parties.


I share the parental distaste for such enforced spontaneity -- perhaps it’s genetic? – so I had a mixed reaction to a news tidbit that finally crossed my desk recently, a few weeks after its initial splash.


Back in mid-July, as an actor named Geneviève Lowe wrapped up her final performance as Elizabeth Bennet in a British theater company’s spoofy production of Pride and Prejudice, her real-life boyfriend, Shane Grant, came on stage and proposed marriage in front of an audience of three hundred and fifty.


He got down on one knee. There was a ring. She said yes. They kissed. And all the people cheered.


Apparently, Lowe loved it, telling the local paper, “It was such a beautiful moment. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect proposal.” Which is wonderful. Grant, also an actor, correctly assessed his target market and delivered exactly what she wanted. I hope they’ll live happily ever after.


All I can say is – there’s no accounting for tastes. Killjoy that I am, the public proposal, that staple of romantic comedies, has always struck me as at best exhibitionistic and at worst coercive. I know that Kids These Days think nothing really happens unless it can be immortalized on Instagram, but TMI, people! Declare your undying love to each other, not to the rest of us!


Jane Austen, you will recall, regarded marriage proposals as so private that half the time she wouldn’t even let the reader listen in. I’m with her – at least when it comes to real people. I would have been happy to eavesdrop on those fictional proposal scenes.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 5 2019 01:00PM

It’s been a wet week for Janeites.


Last Monday, we were treated to the first trailer for Sanditon, the forthcoming ITV-PBS adaptation of the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death. As Janeites know, Sanditon is set at an up-and-coming seaside resort, and so it’s no surprise that the trailer features plenty of sweeping shots of sandy strands, ocean vistas, and attractive actors disporting themselves on the beach.


By which I mean playing cricket! What were you thinking?


Well, OK: the eight-part miniseries is written by Andrew “Mr. Darcy in a Wet Shirt” Davies, who, at nearly eighty-three, seems to have lost none of his – um – lust for life, not to mention his talent for extracting free publicity from credulous media journalists. In the year since the Sanditon project was announced, Davies has entertained himself by throwing the press pool tidbits of chum, in the form of quotes about how energetically he’s “sexing up” this latest Austen project.


I’m willing to bet that the sex in Sanditon will fall well short of the Fifty Shades of Grey standard – we’re talking PBS here -- but either way, it’s pretty clear that the project won’t have much to do with Austen. She’d barely gotten started on Sanditon before illness forced her to stop work, and in his latest interview Davies says he used up all her material halfway through his first episode.


And speaking of Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt. . .


We Janeites had barely finished toweling off after our trip to Sanditon’s seaside before word arrived that, last Wednesday, flooding had devastated the gardens of Lyme Park, the Cheshire estate that played Pemberley in Davies’ iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


It was the reflecting pool in Lyme’s now-inundated grounds that featured in the Davies P&P’s most famous scene, the one starring – oh, irresistible irony! – a soaking-wet Colin Firth in a clingy white shirt.


Although energetic sandbagging seems to have saved Lyme Park’s interior from damage, the flooding, which followed days of torrential rain, forced the evacuation of Wednesday’s visitors and will keep the site closed indefinitely.


Meanwhile, if you’re seeking a watery Janeite fix, you’ll just have to wait for the arrival of Sanditon, screening in the U.S. sometime next year. Or you could just watch P&P again.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 1 2019 01:00PM

As I have pointed out rather often, most recently earlier this week, the Internet is filled with quotes from filmed adaptations of Jane Austen novels that are erroneously attributed to Austen herself.


You might think, then, that you could avoid embarrassment by checking searchable databases of Austen’s texts to make sure that the words you plan to quote can actually be found therein. And this would, indeed, be a great first step.


But Austen is a slippery writer. Just because she – or, really, one of her characters – says something doesn’t mean that Austen intends us to take that sentiment at face value. Irony is omnipresent; context is crucial. Sometimes, in fact, her intended meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning. You have to tread carefully when quoting Austen.


And thus it is that I bring you, as a companion piece to Monday's Top Five (Or, Actually, Six) Faux Jane Austen Quotes, the Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes.


The Top Five Genuine But Most Often Taken Out of Context Jane Austen Quotes


5. “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 5)


Internet understanding: What a profound parsing of terms! Clearly, this is Jane Austen speaking! Better highlight this for the test!


In context: Missing the point of the conversation, as per usual, pedantic Mary Bennet struggles to get friends and family to pay some attention to her. Because actually this level of abstraction is no help at all when it comes to living life.



4. “Without music, life would be a blank for me.” (Emma, ch. 32)


Internet understanding: Like, totally! So inspirational! I’m really into music, too!


In context: Pretentious, conceited Mrs. Elton parades her accomplishments, right before announcing that she won’t have time for them now that she’s married. Because actually she couldn’t care less about music.



3. “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 34)


Internet understanding: Swoon! Has anything ever been more romantic? Let’s quote this at our wedding!


In context: Entitled, arrogant Mr. Darcy offers insulting marriage proposal and (deservedly) gets his heart handed to him on a tea tray. Because actually this is rude and overbearing, not romantic.



2. “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature.” (Northanger Abbey, ch. 6)


Internet understanding: #BFF! This is so you, girlfriend!


In context: Manipulative Isabella Thorpe vouches for her own unselfishness (since no one else is going to do it) while getting her hooks into a naïve – but potentially useful! -- new friend. Because actually Isabella is utterly insincere and self-interested.



1. “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 11)


Internet understanding: Jane Austen is a writer. Therefore, Jane Austen must have liked reading. Yeah, she says so right here. And it’s so true! Reading is awesome! Also, let’s put this on the Jane Austen £10 note!


In context: Miss Bingley picks up a book to impress the eligible Mr. Darcy but tosses it away in boredom moments later. Because actually she doesn’t like to read.



And the moral of our story? Merely searching the text isn't enough. Because actually you have to read the books.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 29 2019 01:00PM

The Emmy nominations were announced recently, and all the brouhaha over Game of Thrones et al. has left me hankering to award some prizes of my own.


As regular blog readers know, one of my perennial themes is the proliferation on the Internet of quotes from Jane Austen movies masquerading as the words of the novelist herself. It would be fair to say that I do not look kindly upon these sloppy mistakes, so easily avoided in this age of searchable e-texts.


Still, there’s a certain grandeur to this phenomenon – or, at least, to its imperviousness to eradication. Faux Austen quotes are the cockroaches of error, the kudzu of cyberspace. In that spirit, I hereby bring you the Top Five Faux Jane Austen Quotes. In the spirit of the occasion, there are actually six of them.


The Top Five (Or, Actually, Six) Faux Jane Austen Quotes


5. “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Emma

Actually the work of: Douglas McGrath, Emma (1996)


The cherry on this sundae of inaccuracy: the movie words, spoken by Jeremy Northam's Mr. Knightley moments after Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma has accepted his proposal, are actually “Maybe it is our imperfections which make us so perfect for one another.” But who’s counting?



4. “We are all fools in love.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Actually the work of: Deborah Moggach, Pride and Prejudice (2005)


Yes, we are. (Fools in love, that is.) And also suckers for any mistake that’s repeated often enough.



3. “There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (or, sometimes, “personal correspondence”)

Actually the work of: Patricia Rozema, Mansfield Park (1999)


Maybe it was inevitable that Rozema’s highly idiosyncratic film would spawn a faux quote: after all, she claims to have based her screenplay not only on Austen’s novel and letters but also on her “early journals.” Which don’t exist. (Presumably, Rozema meant the juvenilia, but those are fiction, not autobiography.)



2. (tie) “You have bewitched me body and soul.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Actually the work of: Deborah Moggach, Pride and Prejudice (2005)


2. (tie) “To love is to burn, to be on fire.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Actually the work of: Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility (1995)


The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that Jane Austen the Ur-Romance Novelist is actually not given to grand romantic statements. If you want those, you almost have to turn to the movies.



1. “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”


Attributed to: Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Actually the work of: Andrew Davies, Sense and Sensibility (2008)


This time, the garbling of the faux quote isn’t just a cherry on the sundae; it’s practically a whole extra scoop of ice cream. For, as I’ve reported elsewhere, the real Davies quote, uttered by a newly wised-up Marianne Dashwood, is “It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are. It is what we do, or fail to do.” But if they won’t check the searchable e-texts, they’re certainly not going to scroll through an entire three-part mini-series to make sure they’ve got it right.



Well, that was refreshing! I like handing out prizes! In fact, tune in Thursday for another round. . .


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