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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 13 2018 02:00PM

Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Jane Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”


Let me paraphrase: Of all authors with a reputation for writing romances, Austen is the most difficult to catch in the act of writing something romantic.


Look, for example, at the latest work of the Internet Truthiness Quote Machine: a recent piece on the website of Travel + Leisure magazine offering “101 Romantic Messages to Keep the Love Alive While You're Apart.” The suggestions include a list of fifty “Romantic Quotes for Love Letters,” two of them attributed to Jane Austen.


Given Austen’s popular reputation as a purveyor of swoony, rose-tinted chick lit about handsome young men courting pretty girls in high-waisted dresses while wandering the grounds of palatial English estates, you’d think it would be quick work to find Austen quotes for such a list.


And yet only one of the two quotes that T+L attributes to Austen was actually written by her, and that one – “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope . . . . I have loved none but you,” from Persuasion – seems an odd choice for a message to an accepted lover, since it bespeaks the writer’s uncertainty that his feelings will be returned.


Meanwhile, the other quote – “To love is to burn, to be on fire”— is not by Austen at all. It’s a line from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which the ITQM has been busily misattributing for years. (For details, check out this excellent blog post by researcher Sue Brewton, a woman whose obsession with misquotation rivals my own. I can’t believe I’ve only just stumbled across the work of this soul sister.)


So of T+L’s two Austen love quotes, one is faux and one is out of context. That record is bad, yes, but hardly unprecedented. As blog readers know, I’ve been banging on about both problems for years. Indeed, one of the leading examples of out-of-context distortions concerns a love quote: As I’ve noted before, the supposedly swoony start to Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, in Pride and Prejudice -- "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” – is, in context, not so romantic after all. *


But for would-be Austen love-quoters, the main problem is that despite her reputation for lovey-doveyness, which largely derives from the movies based on her work, Austen isn’t actually a romance writer: she’s a satirist whose stories happen to concern courtship, the crucial moment of decision in a genteel young woman’s life. Thus it is that these alleged romance novels offer a startling paucity of love scenes that Internet listicle-makers can mine for ardent tidbits.


Janeites are well aware of Austen’s stinginess in this regard. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon propose to the Dashwood sisters offstage; Edmund Bertram sues for Fanny’s hand in a couple of highly ironic summary paragraphs; Catherine Morland is “assured of [Henry Tilney’s] affection” in words that readers must imagine for themselves; and Darcy’s successful proposal is the height of respectful restraint – “My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” I’m partial to Mr. Knightley’s declaration – “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” – but note that this is a love quote about the impossibility of love quotes. Captain Wentworth stands alone among Austen heroes in his forthright avowal of his feelings, and as for the heroines – well, let’s just say that Austen’s description of Emma’s reply to her suitor (“What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”) pretty much covers them all.


Why is it so hard to find certifiably, one-hundred-percent-genuine, heart-warming Jane Austen quotes about love? Mr. Knightley’s proposal offers a clue. Unlike the denizens of our therapeutic age, Austen is suspicious of people who talk fluently about their most intense and private emotions. If you can manufacture beautiful phrases about love, she suggests, you probably don’t have much time left to actually experience it. I shudder to imagine what she would have thought about people who turn to Internet listicles for advice on romantic messaging.



* And lest I find myself tempted to stop obsessing on this topic, just a couple of days after I published this post, the website Everyday Power -- founded in 2010 by a middle-school English teacher who wanted to provide "relevant and meaningful material he felt his students needed to experience" -- produced a list of "50 Love Quotes For Your Husband To Make Him Feel Appreciated." The three Jane Austen quotes on the list include Mr. Darcy's first proposal (twice! Don't ask me), and yet another not-in-Austen line -- “My heart is and always will be yours" -- from Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility screenplay. According to the site, Everyday Power is "a curriculum resource for many schools across the country." The mind boggles.



By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 6 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen was a novelist, not an accountant, therapist, scientist, or priest. But you wouldn’t know it from the array of books recruiting her as an authority on, say, game theory, thrift, dating (for instance, here, here and here), and life itself.


Thus it came as no surprise last month to encounter a Philadelphia Inquirer headline posing the question, “Was Jane Austen a health and wellness guru?”


To which I would answer: No, obviously.


But here’s a shocker: Bryan Kozlowski, a chef whose forthcoming book is titled The Jane Austen Diet, disagrees with me. According to the Inquirer interview, Kozlowski sees “connections between the latest discoveries in the science of eating, exercise, and wellness and the somewhat similar holistic philosophies that Austen wrote about 200 years ago.”


It’s possible that the book, which won’t be published until March, treats these matters in a nuanced and useful way. But evidence from the interview isn’t promising: Kozlowski’s claims about Austen’s wellness “philosophies” seem to amount to little more than observations about everyday life in the rural England of the Regency, dressed up as assertions about conscious life choices.


A person who walks everywhere because cars haven’t been invented yet and uses very little sugar because it’s a hugely expensive import isn’t a marvelous exemplar of healthy living with “a very relaxed attitude to working out.” She’s a person belonging to a not-yet-fully-industrialized age whose relative primitivism entailed some accidental health benefits, as well as encompassing a whole bunch of problematic practices (e.g., bleeding, leeching) and unavoidable technological gaps (no antibiotics, no anesthetic).


Indeed, Austen’s own untimely death – probably from an illness that would have been curable in our own time -- is surely an inconvenient data point for a writer holding her up as a model of wellness. Live like Jane Austen, and die at forty-one!


Perhaps I would feel more charitable if Kozlowski didn’t seem prone to sloppy use of Austen’s work, ripping a Sense and Sensibility quote out of context in order to recruit Elinor Dashwood to the cause of body positivity, and citing Austen’s use of the word “thin” to describe the sickly and depressed as evidence that she would have disapproved of the modern obsession with weight. (I will, however, cut him some slack on the article’s confusion of Miss Bates with Jane Fairfax: perhaps that was the reporter’s error and not his.)


Overall, though, color me skeptical. On the other hand, Kozlowski’s book apparently includes Regency recipes, including one for spruce beer. So that’s a plus.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 29 2018 02:00PM

Thirty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Talk about burying the lead.


The letter that Jane Austen began writing to her friend Martha Lloyd exactly 206 years ago today (#77 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) covers a multitude of topics: Martha’s ongoing visit to a dying friend, the purchase of a grey cloak and some calico, the comings and goings of assorted relatives and acquaintances.


And then, more than halfway through, we arrive at this passage: “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”


Yes, thus it is that Jane Austen announces the impending publication of one of the world’s most popular and enduring works of fiction – for which the author received only a single modest payment from publisher Thomas Egerton.


In the notoriously imprecise game of historical currency conversions, her take was the equivalent of somewhere between $6,500 and $8,500 today, depending on which online calculator you use. (Three can be found here, here, and here.) Today, it’s estimated that the novel has sold more than twenty million copies. No wonder that when novelist Michael Thomas Ford turned Austen into a vampire running a bookshop in upstate New York, he imagined her undead ruminations returning repeatedly to the theme of uncollectable royalties.


In retrospect, of course, the Pride and Prejudice deal looks like a financial mistake, but at the time it made sense. In the early nineteenth century, much book-publishing operated on a vanity press model: Authors paid the costs of publication and collected the majority of the profits – or absorbed the losses.


Although Sense and Sensibility, published on these terms in 1811, eventually sold out its first edition and made Austen a modest profit, that outcome was not yet certain in late 1812, when Austen was deciding what to do about P&P. By selling Egerton the copyright of her second novel outright, Austen ensured that her financially strapped family would lose no money.


Further, the deal ensured that Egerton would handle the printing and advertising, which Austen's brother and de facto literary agent Henry would otherwise have had to manage. “Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be most welcome to me,” Austen explains in her letter to Martha Lloyd.


If the gender expectations of 1812 had not left Austen apologetically dependent on male relatives to manage her business affairs, would she have felt empowered to hold out for a better deal? It’s impossible to say. No sooner has she passed on the publication news than she’s on to other matters: the purchase of a shawl for their impoverished spinster friend Miss Benn, the allocation of charitable donations at Christmas, the rain. The event that would still seem newsworthy two centuries later is just one more miscellaneous piece of information.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 8 2018 02:00PM

Back in middle and high school, I took French. In college, I took Italian. I enjoyed them both – beautiful languages, fascinating cultures and histories, great national literatures.


Alas, however, it seems I should have been studying Portuguese.


This belated realization came to me last week, when I learned that Brazilian TV had just concluded the six-month, hundred-hour run of a racy new early-evening soap opera, Orgulho e Paixão (Pride and Passion), that gleefully mingles characters and plot elements from four Jane Austen novels and the novella Lady Susan.


The adapters seem to have taken a few liberties with their source material, and not just in the title pairing. Although the story still concerns a family with five daughters to marry off, it’s set among early twentieth-century coffee barons in rural southern Brazil – “more Downton Abbey than Jane Austen,” writer Marcos Bernstein told the BBC.


In this version, two of the Benedito family’s girls hail from Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and free-spirited Elisabeta has not only a love interest named Darcy but also a close friend named Ema.


Oh, and the proceedings also involve a pregnant Lydia-clone who abandons her groom at the altar, an Elisabeta who attends a party in male costume, a Bingley-equivalent who joins a fight club, and a Darcy who ventures down a mine -- not to mention a gay kiss and a scene in which a couple bathe together under a waterfall. All of it was shocking enough that Brazilian regulators deemed the program unsuitable for children.


OK, so it’s not a strictly faithful adaptation.


But come on – does this not sound wildly entertaining? It’s probably too late for me to learn Portuguese, but according to the BBC, the Jane Austen Society of Brazil (blog here, website here) now boasts four thousand members, making it among the largest Austen societies in the world. Surely someone in this group has a little free time on her hands and would like to spend it creating English subtitles for Orgulho e Paixão? Can you say "Janeite service project"?


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 1 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s novels are filled with marital mismatches. Clever, sardonic Mr. Bennet treats Mrs. Bennet with thinly veiled disrespect. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Palmer has discovered “like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favor of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” The long-dead mothers of Anne Elliot and Henry Tilney seem to have suffered in their marriages to selfish, difficult men. As we close each novel, we trust that our heroine and hero will be happy together, but the specter of marital failure lurks everywhere.


Nevertheless, nearly a quarter-century of swoony screen adaptations of Austen’s novels have persuaded the non-Janeite public that she is the embodiment of all things romantic. Two examples of this phenomenon crossed my desk this week:


* “Derbyshire is the most romantic place in the UK,” declares the no-doubt-completely-impartial website DerbyshireLive, the online home of the Derbyshire Telegraph newspaper. The area “is visually stunning and has inspired love stories which have bewitched the world.”


Cue mention of Pride and Prejudice; unverifiable claim that Derbyshire landmark Chatsworth was the inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley; and mention of other local sites featured in various filmed versions of the novel. (Jane Eyre merits a cameo, too.)


Derbyshire looks gorgeous, so don’t let me discourage anyone from proposing there. (Indeed, Among the Janeites includes the story of a man who proposed to his Austen-scholar wife at Chatsworth, which played Pemberley in the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice.) I’m just a little leery of this “Austen=lifelong happiness” equation.


* “Make the love of your life fall for you all over again with these 50 beautiful love quotes that say ‘I love you’ in different ways,” urges YourTango, which bills itself as “the leading online magazine dedicated to love and relationships.”


I must admit that whenever my Jane Austen Google alert highlights listicles like this one, I experience a certain all-too-familiar sinking sensation. I fear I am about to enter the Land of Faux Austen Quotes, that zone in which any line ever uttered by a character in an Austen movie is automatically attributed to the novelist herself.


Alas, YourTango has indeed harvested its beautiful love quotes from this same barren field. Amid the lines credited to the likes of Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, and Ed Sheeran – plus a selection from Lolita*: how creepy is that? – are two attributed to “Jane Austen.”


Brace yourself. At #25, we have “My heart is, and always will be, yours.” And at #27, we have that hoary classic “You have bewitched me body and soul.”


I loved hearing Hugh Grant sweetly deliver #25 to Emma Thompson in the 1995 movie of Sense and Sensibility. I was less enamored of Matthew Macfadyen delivering #27 to Keira Knightley in the 2005 P&P, but to each her own. Neither line, however, appears in the Austen novel on which the film is based.


Indeed, there’s a reason that romantic sayings from Jane Austen are so seldom drawn from the actual novels of Jane Austen: She didn’t write many swoony love scenes. Her novels are as determinedly un-swoony as it’s possible for courtship novels to be.


But hey: If you want to go around saying these things to the love of your life, perhaps while proposing in front of Chatsworth, be my guest. Just don’t blame Jane Austen if the marriage doesn’t work out.




* Which is, IMHO, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, but not my go-to choice for healthy expressions of romantic love.


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