Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 14 2018 01:00PM

By now, pretty much every Janeite in the known universe has seen the moment in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice when Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy dives into a lake for a refreshing swim and then strides home across a field with his wet white shirt clinging fetchingly to his manly chest.


Most of us were, um, not paying attention to the scenery when we watched that part. But if you’re the kind of person who found Firth’s pectorals an annoying distraction from the artfully cultivated wildflower meadow through which he walks, I’ve got a job for you: Lyme Park, the estate in Cheshire, England, that stood in for Darcy's Pemberley in the BBC’s P&P, is looking for a new head gardener.


Gary Rainford, who held the job for the last twenty-four years – and who managed the gardens during the filming of P&P – retired in April. The listing for his job quotes a salary of just over £28,000 (about $38,000), plus benefits that include a discounted gym membership, which seems like it would be superfluous for someone supervising seventeen acres of garden. “A broad knowledge of plants and horticultural skills” is among the professional requirements, which puts me – a person who, literally, once killed a small cactus -- well out of the running.


Applications for the job closed yesterday, but hey – maybe they’ll extend the deadline if you can prove you’ve read P&P thoroughly enough to know that the wet-shirt scene isn’t in there.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 10 2018 01:00PM

If only “literary Darwinism” had existed when I was in school, I might have liked science a whole lot more. Yes, according to a story on the BBC’s website last week, a new branch of scholarship is “asking what exactly makes a good story, and the evolutionary reasons that certain narratives – from Homer’s Odyssey to Harry Potter – have such popular appeal.”


The gist of the explanation is that stories give us practice at social strategizing, allowing us to imaginatively navigate complex situations that may arise in our real lives and figure out which responses work, and which don’t. Stories that highlight the importance of cooperation and the social costs of selfishness are especially enduring, the thinking goes, because they help communicate and reinforce norms that smooth the waters of communal life.


Needless to say, Jane Austen gets recruited to support this theory. Apparently, Pride and Prejudice is an example of a classic story trope wherein the baddies are those who abuse their power or seek “social dominance at the expense of others” (think Caroline Bingley) whereas the heroic figures are less interested in individual achievement and social climbing (think Elizabeth Bennet).


P&P also shows Austen to be an “intuitive evolutionary psychologist” because she understands that, while women ultimately prefer “stable ‘dad’ figures (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility),” they are also drawn to the Wickhams and Willoughbys. “The ‘dads’ might be the better choice for the long-term security and protection of your children, but according to an evolutionary theory known as the ‘sexy son hypothesis’, falling for an unfaithful cad can have [its] own advantages since [he] can pass on [his] good looks, cunning and charm to his own children, who may then also enjoy greater sexual success,” the article notes.*


“I think that’s part of the key for these stories’ longevity,” argues University of Michigan scholar Daniel Kruger. “[It’s why] Jane Austen wrote these novels two hundred years ago and there are still movies being made today.”


I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, it would be futile to argue that a human activity as primary and enduring as storytelling has no evolutionary roots. On the other hand, though, it seems mindlessly reductive to suggest that evolution explains “why Jane Austen wrote these novels” and why they still appeal to us today.


We all like stories, but only a minority of us write them, so there must be more to Jane Austen’s motivation than some primal human drive. Surely the powerful need for self-expression is at least as compelling a force as social utility when it comes to a life choice like Jane Austen’s.


As for the appeal of Austen’s stories, even in her own time, she was hardly alone in noticing the potent appeal of bad boys and the countervailing pull of stable, honorable men. But nobody’s lining up to buy tickets to Samuel Richardson adaptations. And while the tropes she helped develop may feature in a boatload of contemporary romance novels, few of those books have achieved Austen-level acclaim or popularity.


Why is that? Because while the success of a work of art may owe something to its ability to tap into deep-seated, even hard-wired, human social needs, ultimately it takes more than that for a story to endure. Call it genius or artistry, an eye for a powerful image or an ear for snappy dialogue: whatever you call it, your explanatory framework has to account, somehow, for quality. By and large, it’s the good stuff that lasts.



* I feel I should point out to all you evolutionary psychologists that publicizing the fact that your field has produced something known as the “sexy son hypothesis” could serve as an excellent recruiting tool for a certain kind of student.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 7 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s mature novels are not, by and large, very foodie. Although important scenes occur over meals – think Mary Crawford’s unfortunate “Rears and Vices” joke – Austen seldom mentions what dishes the characters are eating at the time. Indeed, a preoccupation with food is usually the marker of a fussy, hypochondriacal, or excessively sensuous nature: the gruel-eating Mr. Woodhouse of Emma, the picky Parkers of Sanditon, the gluttonous Dr. Grant of Mansfield Park.


So it’s slightly odd that Penguin Random House has chosen Pride and Prejudice as one of the two inaugural titles in its “Book to Table Reading Experience,” out this fall, which pairs a classic text with a set of recipes chosen by celebrity chefs.


The new edition of P&P – a book that, if memory serves, includes only one or two fleeting mentions of the food served at the Bennet table and the Bingley ball – will include a set of Martha Stewart recipes for “tea-time treats” like scones, tartlets and macarons. The dishes sound mouth-watering, but you won’t find any of them mentioned in P&P – not least because the fancy high-tea menu that Americans think of as quintessentially British is largely a creation of the post-Austen Victorian age.


Still, Penguin is hardly unique in trying to capitalize simultaneously on the Austen craze and the foodie trend. Over the years, food historians and Austen scholars with varying credentials have brought us The Jane Austen Cookbook, Dinner with Jane Austen, Dinner with Mr. Darcy, and not one but two versions of Tea with Jane Austen (here and here). (My unfortunate attempts at Austen-era cooking are chronicled here.)


The gimmick this time is the format, in which, as Penguin’s website informed us last week, the recipes will appear alongside food-related photos, illustrations, and the “full, unabridged text of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”


Wait – what?


Yes, in its initial form the website listing for Penguin’s new foodie P&P included an unfortunate error (since corrected -- alas for the gods of comedy), no doubt attributable to a less-than-judicious use of cut-and-paste. See, the other recipe-laden book in this new series is, indeed, A Christmas Carol, decked out with holiday recipes created by not only Stewart but also Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, and Trisha Yearwood.


Really, A Christmas Carol is a far more intuitive choice for this series, since the Christmas Present section of the story, especially, is stuffed with evocative descriptions of holiday food, from goose to plum pudding. In fact, we could amuse ourselves coming up with a whole list of books better suited to this project than P&P. (Tom Jones? To the Lighthouse?) Meanwhile, however, I’ll be baking Martha Stewart’s maple-glazed scones.


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.


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