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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Speaking well enough to be unintelligible

A few weeks ago, the British press was suddenly awash in articles (for example, here, here and here) about the new! exciting! previously unsuspected! phenomenon of Jane Austen memes.

For those of us who pay a lot of attention—or, really, any attention at all—to Austen’s online fandom, it was not exactly news that young Janeites enjoy pairing stills from Austen screen adaptations with clever captions. Nor was the research on which these stories were based exactly hot off the presses, either, since “ ‘OMG JANE AUSTEN’: Austen and Memes in the Post-#MeToo Era” had been published in the online journal Humanities back in September. (The really new part was the press release about the research that the University of Cambridge PR department sent out in late January.)

The article--written by the Greek academics Katerina Kitsi-Mitakou of the University of Thessaloniki; Maria Vara of the Athens School of Fine Arts; and Georgios Chatziavgerinos, a doctoral student at Cambridge--argues that Austen is especially amenable to meme-ification because her characteristic irony is itself a kind of meme avant la lettre. “Austen memes are, in other words, miniature doses of irony, this quintessential tongue-in-cheek element in her writing,” the authors claim.

Further, they argue, the character of Mr. Darcy, as embodied in the performances of Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, provides a perfect vehicle for addressing contemporary debates about the nature of masculinity. “At their strongest, memes respond to a social world in transformation, just as Austen’s novels do,” they argue.

If your tolerance for literary theory is reasonably high, the article is worth a read. My tolerance for literary theory is . . . middling, so rather than ponder Mr. Darcy’s engagement in “the domain of hegemonic masculinity,” I found myself giggling at this instance of cultural/linguistic misunderstanding, meme-interpretation division:

The paper discusses Northanger Abbey memes drawn from the 2007 screen adaptation, starring Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland and JJ Feild as Henry Tilney. In particular, the authors focus on this meme (originally posted on the late, lamented Drunk Austen site), which features a shot of a smirking Feild/Henry captioned “Muslins and chill?”

The meme “distills the essence of the novel,” the article’s authors write. “Catherine and we are cordially invited to the ‘muslins and chill’ game, by a smirk and sardonic wink . . . . the reader shares Catherine’s seduction by ‘muslins’ (the 1790s material culture of fashionable fabrics, laces and false manners) and ‘chill’ (the 1790s vogue of the literary Gothic).” Henry’s parodic Gothic tale, with its dark passageways and frightening thunderstorm, represents “the ‘chill’ part of the meme game that we, along with Catherine, are invited to play by digital Henry’s farcical archness,” the article’s authors write. “Obviously the meme winks at the novel’s counterfeit horror experience.”

So unless I’m missing something here, the authors of this article believe that the Tilney meme’s use of the word “chill” is a reference to scary Gothic horror, along the lines of a sentence like “That Hitchcock movie sure had a chilling climax.” But if you speak American English, the meme obviously alludes to something completely different—the familiar date-night plan to “Netflix and chill,” a phrase typically taken as a wink-wink euphemism for “make out on the couch while a Netflix movie plays unheeded in the background.” Hence the humor: The meme recasts a contemporary sexual come-on in an Austenesque register, turning Henry Tilney into a Regency version of some hot guy you matched with on Tinder.

Perhaps understandably, the Greek authors appear completely unfamiliar with this piece of contemporary American slang, and maybe even with the underlying meaning of the word “chill” as a synonym for “relax” or “veg out.” Less understandably, the people who peer-reviewed and edited their paper appear equally unfamiliar with this context.

As Henry Tilney himself might have observed, it all seems like a fine satire on modern language. A topic for a meme, maybe?

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