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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Not loving it

A lot of Austen fans refer to our beloved author as “Jane.”

 

I do not.

 

Partly, that’s because I don’t want to participate in a somewhat infantilizing familiarity that seems to be reserved for female writers—Emily, Charlotte, and Jane sound like less consequential artists than Shakespeare, Dickens, and Fielding.

 

And partly it’s because I doubt Austen would have approved: When the teenaged Catherine Morland progresses rapidly to calling her conniving new friend “Isabella,” or when the officious Mrs. Elton insists on speaking of her downtrodden protégée as “Jane,” it’s not a sign of mature discretion and good judgment.

 

So I’ll admit that my hackles were already up on Saturday night, when I tuned in to Love & Jane, the second of the Hallmark Channel’s four Austen-themed “Loveuary with Jane Austen” movies. (What, they couldn’t call it Love & Austen? Or at least drop the cutesy ampersand?) And then a few minutes in, our heroine tells the member of her Austen book group--the “Jane Society”--exactly what she likes about each “Jane book.”

 

I winced.

 

Still, I might have been able to forgive these cringey familiarities if what followed had been a delightful and heartfelt romcom. Instead, Love & Jane proved to be a charmless and unfunny exercise in faux Austen-love, the Janeite equivalent of a tasteless frozen pizza long past its sell-by date.  

 

The story, such as it is, centers on Lilly (Alison Sweeney), a passionate Austen fan with an uninspiring boyfriend (“You sound like Mr. Collins,” she tells him, to which he replies, “I don’t know what that means”—clearly, he’s a nonstarter) and an unfinished novel gathering dust in a desk drawer. By day, Lilly preps ad copy for a new bookstore/unintelligible web venture owned by Trevor, a haughty rich dude (Benjamin Ayres) who is meant to be a Mr. Darcy stand-in but whose appalling quiff leaves him hopelessly underqualified for the job. By night, Jane Austen herself keeps turning up to offer our heroine pep talks and lessons in tea-pouring.

 

This situation--an Austen fan experiences the ultimate Janeite fantasy!—could be comedy gold,  but that potential goes unrealized here. Lilly doesn’t seem to have anything to ask her idol, and Austen seems remarkably uncurious about the modern world. Subplots—a budding romance between two of Lilly’s shy co-workers, talk of a long-desired trip to England, the aforementioned business venture—are treated with a superficiality that barely deserves to be called perfunctory.

 

As blog readers will recall, last week’s Loveuary entry, Paging Mr. Darcy, contained a wealth of enjoyable Janeite in-jokes. By contrast, Love & Jane is filled with throwaway details that land about thirty degrees off where they should, as if the script had been written by someone whose knowledge of Austen and her fans came solely from a rapidly skimmed Wikipedia entry.

 

Characters refer to Austen’s best-loved novel as Pride, rather than P&P, or describe the widely adored Clueless as “underappreciated.” Lilly’s shelves hold a thick bound volume titled Lesley Castle and another called The Beautiful Cassandra—two scraps of Austenian juvenilia that run to, respectively, thirty pages and four pages in my printed edition. Our heroine’s last name is Thorpe—what, are we not supposed to like her?--and the kindly proprietor of the local pub is Mr. Wickham. When the Austen avatar shows up, she uses un-Austenian Latinisms like “emolument”; claims that it was the Prince Regent, rather than his librarian, who suggested novel plots to her; and evinces a curious obsession with how many head of cattle eligible suitors own, as if the time-machine flight that delivered her into 2023 had passed an eight-hour layover on the American frontier.

 

And when, at movie’s end, the coupled-up, soon-to-be-published Lily announces that, for her next project, “I thought I could tell the story of Pride, but from Mr. Darcy’s point of view,” Austen doesn’t offer either of the responses provided in my TV room: “It’s been done” (me) or “How dare you steal my intellectual property?” (husband). Instead, she calls this well-worked idea “interesting.”

 

The apotheosis of all this ersatz Austen detail comes, appropriately enough, during that classic romcom moment, the public declaration of love. Midway through a Jane Society meeting, Trevor—previously identified as someone who doesn’t like Austen—begs Lilly to give him a second chance, à la Persuasion, which he has now read.

 

“ 'I examined my own heart, and there you were—never, I fear, to be removed,' ” he tells her soulfully.

 

“Jane!” she coos, apparently in delighted recognition.

 

“Yes,” he replies.

 

“WTF?” I exclaimed.

 

Because, as a few minutes of Googling and cross-checking established, Trevor’s line comes not from any Austen novel but from the 2009 adaptation of Emma, which stars Romola Garai in a screenplay by Sandy Welch. But I guess Love & Sandy just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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