Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 18 2019 01:00PM

Pity poor Colin Firth. His IMDB page lists more than seventy-five film and TV credits in a career stretching back thirty-five years, and yet we mostly remember only one of them.

And thus it was that last week, when the British actor and comedian Miranda Hart released the latest three-minute installment in a daily video series designed to raise money for charity, she had herself filmed sitting in front of a roaring fire, reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to . . . you know who.

Janeite fantasy though this scenario may be, the skit is on the lame side. (Though I did giggle at the moment when Hart, rebuffed after trying to steal a kiss from Firth, covers her embarrassment by turning to the camera and indignantly protesting, “Can people stop kissing Colin Firth? That’s really inappropriate!”)

Still, the whole thing proves that Firth can be a good sport about this Mr. Darcy thing, at least when it’s in the service of a good cause. “I've never resented it,” he told an interviewer in an intermittently resentful-sounding 2007 conversation. “If it wasn't for him, I might be languishing. I dare say it will be my saving grace when the only employment available to me is opening supermarkets dressed in breeches and a wig.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 11 2019 01:00PM

Just a few days after my uncharitable swipe at those who promulgate Austenian misinformation, a reminder of human fallibility crossed my screen.

Two years ago, it seems, a young Brit named Max Baker won a coveted slot on a British TV quiz show called Pointless. I can’t quite grasp the rules – the game seems to be some odd combination of Jeopardy! and Family Feud – but there’s little doubt about the incompetence of Baker’s play.

On his first question, confronted with several sets of literary characters and asked to name the books they came from, Baker answered, “Pride and Prejudice.”

Unfortunately, the character list he chose as Austen’s was not the one consisting of Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Charles Bingley. No, Baker instead selected the trio of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, and Zaphod Beeblebrox.

As every British lad of a certain age knows, these folks – while they do indeed hail from an immortal comic novel set in a world far different from our own – people the pages of Douglas Adams’ 1979 classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

As you’d expect, the poor Baker boy was roundly ridiculed. The studio audience chortled, the Twitterati mocked, the Daily Express wrote about the Twitter mockery, and plenty of people contacted Baker directly to share their scorn.

And to what does Baker attribute his idiocy? Nerves. “I was absolutely petrified . . . . I froze,” he explains in a piece published last week. “The bright lights and the eyes of the audience focusing on me, I completely panicked and had a total mental block.” And so he blurted out the first title that came into his head.

For the record, I get it. Long ago in the mists of time, I was a TV quiz show contestant, and I too blew an important answer. It happens. We must try to be less critical of our fellow human beings as they attempt to navigate this crazy world of ours.

On the other hand: while on-the-spot, national-TV nerves are an excuse for stupid errors, no such excuse is available for those who blog and post and tweet their way to Austenian misinformation. Those people have time to check their facts. Even without a third arm to help them.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 7 2019 02:00PM

Jane Austen, it seems safe to say, is one of the most famous writers who ever lived, especially in English-speaking countries. Yet out there in the internet/social media world, Austen-related mistakes and misinformation flourish, providing a near-perpetual irritant to any Janeite with a pulse.

In ascending order of egregiousness, here are the latest Austenian blunders to cross my screen:

1. Brainiac blooper: Last week, the British TV quiz show The Chase – which pits a professional trivia expert against a team of eager amateurs – posed a Jane Austen question: "Which Regency author created the character Miss Bates?"

I pass over the laughable simplicity of this question, answerable based solely on its first three words. (What? You think a modern-day quiz show is going to ask about Fanny Burney or Maria Edgeworth?) I pass over the exceedingly lame answers offered by the contestants (Georgette Heyer for the professional quizmeister, George Eliot for the team of amateurs).

No, the error that caused a teapot-sized tempest in Britain concerned the tweet emitted after the fact by another of the show’s resident experts, Mark Labbett: “#thechase Jane Austin, still relevant today.” It didn’t take long for one of his Twitter followers to correct his misspelling, which Labbett immediately blamed on autocorrect.

Hmm. I’m skeptical, but we’ll let it go this time, Mark. We have bigger fish to fry.

2. Colonial Jane: Over at, a warm-and-fuzzy, female-centric website, writer Kelley O’Brien took it upon herself to create a list of “8 Modern Romance Novels That Jane Austen Would Definitely Read.”

Now, I am a fan of several of the books she lists, one of which – Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – is, in my humble opinion, a modern classic (and not a genre romance novel – but we can save that argument for another day).

For the purposes of this conversation, I will also allude only briefly to my intense skepticism about the likelihood that Jane Austen would have read, let alone enjoyed, the three books on this list that deal with same-sex romance. Much as we might like to recruit our beloved author to the ranks of right-thinking progressives, there is not an iota of evidence in her books or letters to suggest that she disagreed with the nineteenth-century Church of England’s teachings on homosexuality, which were . . . about what you would expect from the established church in a country that did not decriminalize homosexual sex between consenting adults until 1967.

No, for today, I will dwell only on the following mind-boggling sentence, in which O’Brien purports to explain why she has assembled her Austen-approved booklist: “Well, because, as one of the great American writers, Jane Austen's opinion matters.”

I have no words.

3. What’s In a Name? The India-based website Telangana Today decided earlier this week to offer us a quick history lesson: Apparently, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions! Who knew! (OK, all of us.)

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know, though: “The original title was initially rejected by its publishers and the author was asked to rewrite and make a title change, Pride and Prejudice, after which the novels kept disappearing from the shelves faster than ever.”

Let me be clear: This account is entirely fictional. False. Invented out of whole cloth. Bearing no relationship to reality.

First Impressions was Austen’s working title for a book that became P&P roughly fifteen years after it was first begun. There is no evidence that she was still calling it First Impressions by the time she submitted it for publication, or that publisher Thomas Egerton had anything to do with the title change.

Let me repeat: This website made up this story.

Does any of this matter? Well, obviously there are worse sins than telling millions of people that Jane Austen spelled her name with an “i,” or was an American, or changed the title of her most famous book because someone else made her do it. But really: In the age of Google and Wikipedia, it’s so easy to get this stuff right. Why not give accuracy a try?

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 25 2019 02:00PM

Among Janeites, the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice is . . . controversial.

Purists, especially those old enough to have seen an earlier adaptation of P&P in their youth, dislike its Brontesque romanticism and its exaggeration of the Bennet family’s comparative poverty: pigs in the backyard, Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy striding across the dawn fields half-dressed to tell Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth that she has bewitched him body and soul – that kind of thing.

Others, especially those young enough to have discovered P&P for the first time through the swoony vision of director Joe Wright, have no problem with being swept off their feet by a timeless love story. For them: Matthew Macfadyen, half-dressed. What’s not to like?

I’m not here to adjudicate this dispute, which became so heated back when the movie was first released that the Republic of Pemberley eventually barred further discussion of the matter from its online message boards.

I'm merely here to point out that, whatever the state of play among Janeites, the pro-P&P 2005 faction has pretty clearly won the day out there in the larger world. Or so I conclude from a chart I stumbled across earlier this month that purports to list the twenty top-selling romantic comedy DVDs of all time.

Right there at #11: Pride and Prejudice 2005. No other Austen movie – indeed, no other movie with a non-contemporary setting – cracks the top twenty, unless you count the Bridget Jones movies, which are loose Austen updates. P&P 2005: controversial among Janeites, beloved by everyone else.

According to a website called – yes, that’s really what it’s called, so I guess this Chart must indeed be Official – P&P has sold 1.34 million copies, less than half the 2.9 million copies of the top seller, Love Actually, but a pretty robust number any way you look at it.

As a devoted fan of the romcom, I am delighted to say that I have seen nineteen of the twenty movies on this list, nearly all of them during their first theatrical run. I even own some of the DVDs! (I’m looking at you, Notting Hill. And Love Actually. And the Bridget Jones movies. And P&P, of course.)

Why did I miss Coyote Ugly (#14)? IMDB provides the clue: apparently, it was released on August 4, 2000, when I was the exhausted mother of a toddler and a three-week-old infant. It may be the greatest movie of all time, but I wouldn’t have been able to stay awake past the credit sequence. Luckily, however, I can still buy the DVD.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 18 2019 02:00PM

It’s always enjoyable when the mass media provide opportunities for us Janeites to snark about everyone else’s Austen ignorance.

Today’s exhibit: The February 12 episode of NBC’s Today show, during which co-host Savannah Guthrie and two guests picked their favorite literary love stories.

First category: Historical romance. First guest pick: The Remains of the Day, Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 masterpiece, set in 1930s Britain. Second guest pick: Destiny’s Embrace, Beverly Jenkins’ 2013 romance novel set in nineteenth-century California.

And then Guthrie’s pick (at 1:25 on the recording): “I love Pride and Prejudice,” she says.

Already we know we’re in trouble, because even though P&P is all old-timey and proper and the characters wear corsets and gloves and use kinda long words when they talk, Jane Austen is not an historical novelist. Historical novelists are people who write novels set in historical periods other than their own. Jane Austen set her books in her own time, a time that happens to be a long time ago for us. She is a classic novelist, yes, but not an historical one.

And then Guthrie goes on burbling about the joys of P&P: “I know it’s kind of obvious, but it is so enjoyable, it’s such a great read, lots of people have seen the movie, but you have to read the book. I mean you’ll just fall in love with Mark Darcy over and over and over again.”


I mean – props to Guthrie for picking a genuinely great novel. P&P is indeed enjoyable and a great read and a book that you should read even if you’ve seen the movie(s). But if you’d actually read P&P, rather than Bridget Jones’ s Diary, then you’d know that the first name of that swoon-worthy hero is Fitzwilliam, not Mark.

So what do you think, Janeites? Has Savannah Guthrie actually never read Pride and Prejudice? Or did she just misspeak, saying “Mark” when she meant to say “Mister”? I am feeling generous, largely because she has provided such an excellent opportunity for midwinter snark, and so I will cut her a break. As long as she promises to read it again.

Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter