• Deborah Yaffe

Boo!

It’s the scary season – ghosts, witches, creaking doors in haunted houses. For Janeites, however, the Internet’s frightening capacity to spread inaccurate information about Jane Austen never has an off-season. Herewith, a roundup of the past few months:


* Last June, if you had turned to the lifestyle website Your Tango for its regular “Love Horoscope” feature, you would have found this useful tidbit of information, under the heading “Famous weddings and marriages that took place on June 29”: “English novelist Jane Austen tied the knot with Arthur Bell Nicholls.”


Poor Charlotte Brontë. As if it’s not bad enough that her most famous book should be continually attributed to Jane Austen, now that saucy minx is taking credit for Charlotte’s marriage, too.


* Months before British teenager Emma Raducanu came out of nowhere to win September’s U.S. Open tennis championship, a journalist in The Scotsman newspaper reached for a metaphor to set her meteoric career in context.


“Jane Austen’s Emma was completed at a furious pace, just two months from start to brilliant finish, an incredible burst of creativity by its author resulting in her greatest book,” wrote Aidan Smith. “Ian and Renee [Raducanu]’s daughter Emma went from nowhere to nation’s sweetheart in even less time.”


I’m not taking issue here with Smith’s nomination for Best Austen Novel, or even with his tortured and irrelevant comparison between Emma the Book and Emma the Tennis-Playing Teen.


No, I’m taking issue with his inability to read dates. Because according to the notes made by Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, Emma was written between January 21, 1814, and March 29, 1815 – a less-than-furious pace of fourteen months from start to brilliant finish.


* Earlier this month, a viral New York Times Magazine story set readers arguing over whether fictionalizing a friend’s life in a not-very-complimentary short story represented an unforgivable betrayal or just writerly business as usual. The article spurred journalist Tanya Sweeney of the Irish Independent to worry about the loss to literature if novelists started getting squeamish about their source material.


“Where would we be if Roddy Doyle hadn’t taken inspiration from his fellow Kilbarrack residents? What would Sally Rooney have written about were it not for the culture in Trinity College that she bore witness to during her time there?” Sweeney wondered. “Didn’t Jane Austen base Mr. Darcy on a man she knew in real life?”


I’ll leave it to others to fight over Doyle and Rooney. On Austen, however, the answer is: Probably not – or, at least, no reliable source has convincingly identified the alleged Real Mr. Darcy. And no, Becoming Jane doesn’t count as a reliable source.


Does any of this sloppiness matter? Well, not as much as melting glaciers and low vaccination rates – I’ll give you that. But Internet errors persist long after stale candy corn and rotting jack-o’-lanterns have been tossed in the trash.

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