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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Walk the line

It’s not every day that Jane Austen gets name-checked in a newspaper article that also mentions Tucker Carlson, Ron DeSantis, and the porn actress who allegedly slept with Donald Trump.


But just such a day arrived earlier this month, as I discovered while reading the New York Times’ weekly opinion column “The Conversation,” wherein liberal Gail Collins and conservative Bret Stephens joust companionably about current events, demonstrating that it’s possible for colleagues to disagree without vitriol.


The subject was President Biden’s recently introduced federal budget, which proposes taxing the rich in order to increase spending on such domestic priorities as child care, affordable housing, and school lunches. Predictably, Collins was all for it: “Obviously, Biden knows his plans aren’t going anywhere with a Republican-sort-of-controlled House,” she wrote. “But he’s laying his cards down, and I think the cards look great.”


Equally predictably, Stephens had another view. More precisely, he wrote, “To steal a line from Pride and Prejudice: ‘My feelings are so different. In fact, they are quite the opposite.’ ” To which Collins replied, “Love that you’re bringing up Jane. Even if it’s to disagree with me.”


Now, the line that Stephens quoted was not, in fact, written by Jane Austen. It was written by Andrew Davies for the climactic Darcy-Elizabeth proposal scene in his iconic 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Davies was filling in the dialogue that Jane Austen summarizes this way: “Elizabeth . . . immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change . . . as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.”


Ordinarily, I love to troll people who quote lines from Jane Austen movies as if they are lines from Jane Austen books. (See, for example, here and here.) But note how deftly Stephens avoided falling into that trap: He acknowledged stealing a line “from Pride and Prejudice,” not from “Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” In her turn, Collins praised him for “bringing up” Austen, not for “quoting” her. So technically, they both stayed on the right side of that famously fine line between stupid and clever.


Did these columnists, or their copy editor, carefully choose their words in order to avoid inaccuracy in the throwaway Austen reference? Or did they just luck into a phraseology that skirted disaster? Hard to say, and I must admit that I’m a tad suspicious. But I’ll try to learn from the example of these congenial colleagues and, for once, play nice.

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