Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2018 01:00PM

It’s been quite a while since I last discussed the unfortunate phenomenon of faux-Jane Austen quotes, usually originating in Jane Austen movie scripts, proliferating in the Internet echo chamber. Perhaps this pause has lulled you into the belief that my good work, along with that of untold numbers of other Janeites laboring to correct the record, has borne fruit, driving the legions of misquoters into retirement.


Alas, no.


Once again, our text is drawn from Bustle, that rah-rah Girl Power website that seems to take a perverse pride in never, ever double-checking its sources, at least when it comes to Austen. The latest offender: a story headlined, with a word-omitting sloppiness that bodes ill for what follows, “15 Quotes From Books To Use Your Personal Mantra On Bad Mental Health Days.”


Parenthetically, I must note the strange self-contradiction of this particular article, which points out the bankruptcy of feel-good bromides – “[b]eing told to ‘just think happy thoughts’ and ‘try harder’ gets really old after a while, as anyone with mental illness will tell you” – before offering up more elegant versions of the same thing from the likes of Alice Walker, Audre Lord, and Sylvia Plath (!) and urging readers to “[m]emorize them to recite like mantras, and you'll always have an uplifting quote to help you muddle through.”


I admit I feel a teensy bit bad about criticizing the writer, who implies that she is among “those of us who live with mental illness every day.” But not bad enough to stay my hand when, right there at number fourteen among the promised “Quotes From Books,” I find this: " 'It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.' — Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility"


Back in November 2015, I laid the issue of this particular misquotation to rest in what I feel I may describe, with all due humility, as the definitive blog post on the topic. Yet, like a zombie out of a Pride and Prejudice mashup, this mistake will not stay dead. So I must repeat: This is not a line from a Jane Austen novel. It is not even really a line from a filmed adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. It is a garbled version of a line from Andrew Davies’ 2008 TV adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.


I think it’s time that someone created an online listicle discussing how best to cope with the stress and anxiety brought on by finding faux-Austen quotes on the web. It probably won’t appear on Bustle.


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, 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 19 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen, writing instructor.


Intimidated much? I wouid be. Although Austen gave kind and useful novel-writing advice to her scribbling niece Anna Austen Lefroy, it’s hard to imagine what she would have made of a classroom full of first-year American college students raised on a diet of five-paragraph essays, text-speak abbreviations, and emoji-studded Snapchats.


And, indeed, learning to write from Jane Austen is “challenging,” reports Dartmouth College first-year student Alexandra Rossillo. “You feel like you have to do her justice in your papers.”


OK, I admit that Jane Austen isn’t actually in the room with Rossillo and her fellow students in the first-year writing seminar currently underway at Dartmouth. (Now that would be news.) Instead, the course is an intensive look at Austen’s work, coupled with a demanding schedule of essay-writing and -revising.


It’s often noted that great writers tend to be omnivorous readers of others’ work; transplanted to the classroom, the operative pedagogical theory seems to be that intensive focus on one great stylist will permit the extraction of generalizable writing pointers.


As a rule, I hate the reductive and nuance-flattening self-help approach to Austen – all those on-line lists of “Ten Lessons Jane Austen Teaches Us About Love/Life/Friendship/Self-Realization/[Insert Desired Noun Here]” make me sick and wicked. But I’d make an exception for the use of Austen as a template for aspiring writers. She’s a great stylist (duh) -- but try nailing down exactly what she does that makes her great and you can’t help learning something about how good writing works.


So what can writing students learn from reading Austen carefully? My list is long, but at the top is the importance of economy. When it comes to words, compression equals power. (N.B.: that doesn’t mean that all great writers necessarily write short; it means that every one of their words counts.)


Consider one of my favorite Austenian sentences (or, actually, half-sentences), from chapter 34 of Sense and Sensibility: “She [Mrs. Ferrars] was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.” Come for the biting description of one vapid individual, stay for the whiplash sting of the insult to the rest of us – all in a mere twenty-two words, each one deployed with the precision of a sniper’s bullet, and the whole proving that, unlike people in general, Austen has ideas enough to outnumber her words.


Yep. It’s a master class.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 12 2017 01:00PM

Austen adaptations, whether on stage, screen or fanfic page, all too often fall victim to an excess of earnestness – the bonnets, the hushed voices, the leisurely strolls through manicured gardens. It’s the disease of costume drama, but in Austen’s case, it’s especially jarring, since the original source material is laced with energy and subversive wit.


Whatever you might have thought of actress/playwright Kate Hamill’s version of Sense and Sensibility, you couldn’t accuse it of lacking energy: As blog readers may recall, this is the version in which furniture careened around the stage on wheels and actors played multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene.


The whole thing was a lot of fun, so I was excited to learn that Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice, which premiered last summer in New York’s Hudson Valley, will be produced in New York City this fall. (My family already has tickets for December. We’re calling it my birthday present.)


And now comes an entertaining interview with Hamill, coinciding with a Dallas-area production of her new P&P. In adapting the book, Hamill says, she set out to break the costume drama mold. “There are several good, straightforward [stage] versions of it out there, along with those on film and television,” she says. “So I wanted to do something very theatrical and surprising, not the typical Pride and Prejudice.”


The company putting on the show has produced a fun promotional video featuring a two-on-two basketball game between Elizabeth and Jane Bennet and Messrs. Darcy and Bingley, all four clad in Regency attire and tennis shoes. Apparently, this picks up on game imagery embedded in Hamill’s script.


“I’m really interested in the way we codify love as a game,” she tells her interviewer. “Love is very serious, yet inherently a little bit silly—and we do tend to play it as something with rules, strategies, wins, losses. . . And the way we treat love as a game does tend to pit people against each other in a way that’s often broken down by gender.”


Looking forward to my birthday. . .


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