Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 3 2018 01:00PM

Apparently, judges just love Jane Austen.


Or so Ohio State University Professor Matthew H. Birkhold claims in a recent article in the online journal Electric Literature. Birkhold argues that, while judicial references to such canonical male authors as Shakespeare, Kafka, Melville, and Dickens predominate, Austen tops the list for female writers.


Sort of, anyway: “The most-cited female authors include Harper Lee, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen,” Birkhold writes. “Only the last, though, is cited not only for one work but across her entire oeuvre.”


Since Harper Lee only wrote one book and Mary Shelley only wrote one that anyone outside of a graduate program has ever heard of, this Austen-as-judge’s-pet trope is starting to look a tad questionable, and we’re only in the second paragraph. Things get even sketchier in the next one, when Birkhold tells us that, since the first judicial reference to Emma in 1978, Austen’s “works have been invoked” twenty-seven times, not to mention the “many” references to Austen that don’t quote any specific text.


Across American courts at all levels and across all jurisdictions, then, we’ve got a single published Austen citation roughly every eighteen months, plus an unspecified number of more general mentions. Offhand, it doesn’t sound like a groundswell, especially when it turns out that half those twenty-seven citations are of the painfully ubiquitous “It is a truth universally acknowledged that [fill in the blank]” variety.


So I’m skeptical of the premise, but – go ahead! Explain why judges mention Jane Austen, however often they do!


Turns out that judges are a lot like pretty much everyone else who goes around mentioning Jane Austen. Either she’s a relationship expert -- “Jane Austen is cited as an authority on the complexity of life, particularly with regard to the intricacies of relationships,” Birkhold writes – or she’s an all-purpose symbol of classiness, refinement, and social distinction: “Judges cite Austen as a shorthand for erudition and sophistication, to demarcate who is a part of high society (often, lawyers) and who is not (often, defendants), reflecting the novelist’s popular reception.”


Can’t argue with the relationship-expert part: obviously, we Janeites think Our Author has profound insight into what makes families and romantic partnerships tick. But I can’t help giggling at the class part.


It’s not just that Austen’s novels often interrogate the very notions of class that too many readers (and, apparently, judges) attribute to her – although, of course, they do.


It’s that, in Austen’s day, many of those who made their living in the law were not considered of the highest social rank. Think of the Bingley sisters, sneering at the Bennet girls’ Uncle Phillips, “an attorney in Meryton.” Getting your hands dirty in the law was just a step above (gasp!) making a living in trade.


Though probably the Bingleys would have thought better of Uncle Phillips if he’d been a judge.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 12 2018 01:00PM

Back when I was writing Among the Janeites, I happened across two Facebook groups whose titles encapsulated a common set of attitudes about Austen’s novels. One was called “I am going to marry one of the men in Jane Austen’s novels.” The other was called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of love.”


I recalled those now-defunct nests of Janeite Facebookers earlier this week, when my Google Alert sent me word of an opinion column in inews.com, the online version of the British daily newspaper i, headlined “Jane Austen’s novels have ruined me for dating modern men.”


It’s about what you’d expect: The author, a British journalist and fiction writer named Emily Hill, complains that she’s single at thirty-four because guys today, with their multiple dating apps and caddish behavior, can’t measure up to Mr. Darcy. “At no point has any man – proud, haughty or otherwise – stormed into my presence to declare ‘in vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,’ ” she mourns.


I hate to be one of those officious Janeites who goes around telling everyone else that they’re reading the books wrong, but – Emily, I think you might be reading the books wrong.


It’s Hill’s choice of Darcy quote that’s a giveaway. As we Janeites know, that quote comes from Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth – the insulting one, in which he tells her he tried his best not to love her because of her unsuitable family but finally had to give in, against his better judgment.


As I’ve pointed out before, Austen does not mean this scene to be a swoon-worthy romantic moment. Like other Austen scenes that seem to fit neatly into a romance-novel template, it’s intended more as a warning: Danger! Don’t try this at home! It’s surely not a good sign that Hill even speaks semi-approvingly of the weak and unreliable Willoughby, “who at least gave Marianne in Sense and Sensibility the most exciting months of her life.” *


It’s odd to find a self-proclaimed Austen addict hankering after love-at-first-sight, sweep-me-off-my-feet, Willoughby-and-Marianne romance when the books seem – to me at least – self-evidently critical of such relationships. Most of the Austen heroines are temporarily waylaid by exciting strangers who seem to check all the Conventional Romantic Hero boxes: good-looking, charming, self-confident, smooth. But every Austen heroine marries someone else: a man she’s had time to get to know, whose family or friends she has met, whose character she has seen tested. If Hill equates love with instant passion and then bemoans her inability to find it, I don’t think it’s Austen who can be blamed.


Meanwhile, anyone paying close attention to Austen’s novels will notice that many of the established marriages she portrays are unhappy mismatches (the Bennets) or making-the-best-of-it pairings of a reasonably bright partner with a fairly dim one (Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram). Sure, there are exceptions – the Crofts, the Gardiners, the Westons – but it’s hard to escape the conviction that Austen partially shares the views of that ruthless marital pragmatist Charlotte Collins, née Lucas: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”


So are Austen’s happy endings pure fairy tales, as Hill suggests? Is it true that “if one looks at [Darcy] objectively, he behaves like no man ever did on earth”? Or that Austen’s lifelong spinsterhood points its own lesson: “Look to the life and the fiction starts to fall apart”?


I’m not going to deny that Austen’s happy endings have a fairy-tale dimension, but Hill misidentifies the fantasy elements. It’s fantasy that an a) rich and b) handsome man from c) a distinguished family would get to know, let alone fall in love with, a d) not-rich woman e) far outside his social sphere. Especially in Pride and Prejudice, it’s the social context that supplies the Cinderella-style fantasy.


But let’s say you’ll suspend your disbelief that far. Is it really fantasy that a mature and responsible man confronted with bitter evidence of his failings in the eyes of someone whose opinion he values would undertake a moral inventory and try to do better? I guess I’m not cynical enough to say so.


Perhaps because I missed the online dating moment, Austen’s heroes don’t seem so unrealistic to me. With the notable exception of Darcy, most of them aren’t fabulously wealthy or especially good-looking. Their leading qualities are kindness, wit, generosity, and moral seriousness. I’ve met plenty of men like that. I even married one of them.




* It gets worse: Hill also speaks longingly of the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, a book I love but would hardly take as a relationship guide.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 12 2018 01:00PM

The definitive screen adaptation of Mansfield Park has yet to be made. We’re still waiting for the first full-length movie of Sanditon, once planned for a 2017 release. And yet we are a mere three months away from the broadcast of a sequel to Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a deeply terrible Austen-themed TV movie from 2016.


Life is filled with unfathomable mysteries.


You remember Unleashing Mr. Darcy. It was a badly written, poorly acted Hallmark movie, based on a mediocre Austen fanfic updating Pride and Prejudice to the dog-show world. I watched it two years ago, in pursuit of Jane Austen video completism. Then I panned it. Then I forgot about it.


Apparently, others did not forget it. Apparently, in fact, others liked it – enough others that Hallmark has summoned the charm-free actor Ryan Paevey to reprise his role as dog-show judge Donovan Darcy, in a sequel slated to air in June. No word, at least on IMDB, about whether the talent-free Cindy Busby will return as dog-owner and romantic foil Elizabeth Scott.


Perhaps unaware that the name has already been used for a Jane Austen card game, the producers of this benighted project have christened it Marrying Mr. Darcy. I’m afraid I will have to watch, lest the Girl Scouts revoke my Jane Austen Video Completist badge. Maybe someone can suggest a drinking game to make the two hours pass more quickly.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 26 2018 02:00PM

The Winter Olympics are over, but not without a fleeting Jane Austen moment.


Last week, as my daughter and I were sitting glued to the livestream of the ice dancing competition, I perked up when the announcers informed us that the German team of Kavita Lorenz and Joti Polizoakis would be setting their four-minute free skate to – and I quote -- “Pride and Prejudice.”


Since the Germans were probably not going to be skating to an Audible-style reading of Jane Austen’s immortal masterpiece, we were clearly about to hear a short excerpt from the soundtrack to one of the filmed adaptations of the novel. But which adaptation? NBC’s announcement provided no clue.


And then the swoonily romantic opening bars played, and all became clear. Although both Lorenz and Polizoakis were born in 1995, the year the BBC released its iconic Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt P&P, they skated to music from the 2005 film – aka the Keira Knightley version.


Maybe they should have gone with the music from the earlier, better adaptation. As it was, Lorenz and Polizoakis finished in sixteenth place.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 19 2018 02:00PM

Although it’s been a quiet few weeks on the Austen beat, at least compared with last year’s bicentenary frenzy, a few bits of Janeite news have come in over the transom. Herewith, a roundup:


* Garden seat: Bicentenary commemorations live on, as Jane Austen’s House Museum -- aka Chawton cottage, the Hampshire home where Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels – inaugurated its spring season this month by unveiling a Garden Memorial to Austen.


The memorial consists of two stone benches carved with a delightful quote from Austen’s 1816 letter to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, who had advised her to make her next book a “Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg.”


Deftly deploying self-deprecation to deflect this asinine suggestion, Austen replied, "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter."


The benches sit in view of the cottage, in a corner of the small garden – another landmark for Janeite visitors to check out when they’re next in Chawton.


* Quiz fail: Alas, British twenty-something Madeline Grant – familiar to readers of an earlier blog post -- lost in the semifinals of the beloved BBC quiz show Mastermind, despite correctly answering eleven questions on her specialty subject, Jane Austen’s life and works. (Apparently, she did less well on the test of general knowledge.)


The episode aired on February 9, but rights issues prevent viewing it on this side of the pond. Thus, I can’t tell you anything about the Austen questions, unless one of my intrepid readers knows of an – ahem! – less orthodox viewing method. Here’s hoping for a future Janeite Mastermind champ.


* Football and faux-Austen: One or two times in the past – OK, make that one or two hundred times – I have expressed, sometimes rather forcefully, my displeasure at the Internet’s habit of mistaking quotes from movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels for genuine Jane Austen quotes. (For one such post, click here.)


Sadly, my Sisyphean labor has yet to bear fruit, and the Internet is at it again. On Valentine’s Day last week, Linda Holliday, longtime girlfriend of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, posted to Instagram a photo of the happy couple relaxing on a beach vacation.


Underneath the photo, she wrote, “ ‘You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love ... I love ... I love you!’ ~ Pride and Prejudice” (A heart emoji was also involved, but I can't replicate it here.)


There is nothing wrong with Holliday's caption, since the sentence she quotes – swoonily romantic or irredeemably cheesy, depending on your taste – does, indeed, come from Pride and Prejudice. Not, however, from the Jane Austen novel of that name, but from the 2005 Joe Wright film adaptation of said novel.


The Internet does not understand this distinction.


“Holliday quoted Jane Austen from ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ” the Boston Globe happily – and inaccurately – reported. Yes, agreed the gossip site The Smoke Room: Holliday was “quoting Jane Austen’s 19th century book ‘Pride And Prejudice.’ ”


Inevitably, the next person searching for the origins of the “body and soul” sentence will happen across the Globe’s attribution and, lulled into a false sense of security by the newspaper’s reputation for good journalism, will perpetuate the error.


What is to be done? A friend to whom I ranted about this latest idiocy reminded me of a famous line in the Jewish ethical teachings known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." The work of eradicating faux Austen quotes goes on.


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