• Deborah Yaffe

Stocking stuffers

Christmas is almost here, but I have no sugar plums or partridge-equipped pear trees with which to gift my blog readers. Instead, I will share with you some of my favorite recent examples of the internet’s inability to get straight on even the simplest facts about Jane Austen.


#1: Cradle


“Who doesn’t think they know Jane Austen?” asks the author of a listicle on the website of Book Riot, headlined “13 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen.”


Well, here’s one thing I didn’t know: “With six brothers and a beloved sister named Cassandra (‘Cassie’), Austen was the baby of the family.” And the reason I didn’t know it is because it’s not true: the baby of the Austen family was little Charles, born three and a half years after Jane.


#2: Career


Earlier this year, Spain was a-twitter over the revelation that a series of prize-winning crime novels attributed to a female author had actually been written by a team of three men using a female pseudonym. That event moved one writer to reflect on pseudonymous publication, in an article posted on an Indian news website.


After mentioning the nineteenth-century Spanish writer Cecilia Böhl de Faber, who used a male pseudonym, the writer opined, “It is striking that half a century earlier, in England, Jane Austen published her novels with her name, which indicates a ferment of advanced ideas that did not exist in Elizabethan Spain.”


Except, of course, that Jane Austen didn’t publish her novels under her own name: Her first novel was attributed to “A Lady” and her next three to “the author of” the previous books. True, her last two novels were known to be hers, but by then, Austen was dead. (And “Elizabethan Spain”? Böhl’s first book was published in 1849 – hardly Elizabethan.)


To be fair, it’s not clear if the author of this piece quite knows what she's saying: the prose is so bizarre that it appears to have been written in an imperfectly mastered second language, or perhaps translated by a badly programmed bot. How else to explain sentences like “the whole of the UK was not oregano either”?


#3: Grave


It’s a pretty standard travel piece on a pretty average travel website: “Westminster Abbey: Why Visiting Is A Must For History Buffs,” the headline proclaims.


After a smattering of Abbey history and some information about joining tours, the piece notes, “Some of the big names of people now buried at the Abbey include Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, George Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare.”


Unfortunately, of course, this isn’t true: as every Janeite knows, Jane Austen is buried some sixty miles away, in Winchester Cathedral, under a stone that makes no mention of her writing career. (Yes, a tablet to her memory hangs in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, but that’s not the same as a grave.)


At least the writer of this piece is an equal-opportunity error machine, however. In case you were wondering, George Eliot is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery; D.H. Lawrence’s grave is in Taos, New Mexico; and Shakespeare lies in Stratford-on-Avon. Chaucer and Dickens really are buried in Westminster Abbey, though, so that’s two for six.


Enjoy the holidays! We can hope that next year will fill our stockings with fewer Austen errors, but . . . don’t bet on it.

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