• Deborah Yaffe

On the road with Jane Austen

In her too-short life, Jane Austen traveled very little, barely venturing beyond a few counties in southern and midlands England and never making it even as far as Scotland, let alone the European continent. So perhaps it was inevitable that a recent episode of The Grand Tour, a British reality show featuring comic yet rugged automotive undertakings, should have deployed her name as tiresome shorthand for decorous, unadventurous Englishness. I do not watch The Grand Tour, but my husband and daughter have been fans for years. They loved it in its classic BBC incarnation as Top Gear and stuck with it when it changed its name and moved to Amazon four years ago, after the BBC fired its star, Jeremy Clarkson, for an array of offenses that culminated in his punching a co-worker. Thus it was that in the waning days of the old year, these amoral members of my immediate family convened in our TV room* to catch the latest episode, wherein Clarkson and his two sidekicks travel to Madagascar to search for a priceless treasure supposedly buried by the eighteenth-century French pirate Olivier Levasseur, known as La Buse (“The Buzzard”). Because one of the gang, James May, warns that his friend Mary told him years before that Madagascar had the world’s worst roads, the three men modify their vehicles for rough terrain before heading out. But at first, the roads seem fine, and Richard Hammond laments that he has wrecked his high-performance hatchback by adding a set of tractor treads. “I prepared my car for Armageddon, and you brought me to a tea party!” Hammond tells May. “What were we thinking? We took off-roading advice from Jane Austen!” Hammond riffs further on his vision of the offending Mary (“some girl in a floaty skirt”) who, he is sure, exaggerated the risks. “The worst thing that happened was a daffodil fell out of her bicycle basket and she panicked,” he opines. Switching to a falsetto, he imitates the supposedly overwrought, Austen-like Mary: “Oh, this is terribly rough! It’s absolutely awful!” So far, so misogynistic (Girls! Such prissy whiners!) until, of course, the punchline: The roads quickly turn not just bad, but epically bad, with mud puddles as deep as moon craters and ruts that resemble small hills. “My friend Mary was right,” May concludes. Mary may get her revenge, but no apology is offered to Jane Austen, caricatured here – and not, alas, for the first time -- as the epitome of safe, spinsterish tedium, in marked contrast to Real Men leading exciting, physically taxing lives. Austen’s vindication will just have to wait for the episode in which the Grand Tour guys try to navigate genuinely treacherous terrain: life as a woman in nineteenth-century England. * OK, yes: I skimmed through the episode once I heard about the Austen mention. Still not a fan, though.

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