The sad first anniversary of Nora Ephron’s all-too-early death came and went less than a month ago, and once again, I’ve been reminded of how clever and insightful a literary scholar Ephron must have been, and You’ve Got Mail is Exhibit A in evidence thereof.
I first posted about the erudition about Pride & Prejudice hidden in plain sight in You’ve Got Mail a year ago…..
…and the prompt for my post today was my realization the other day (while re-watching an hour’s worth of You’ve Got Mail already in progress on cable tv) that this seemingly what-you-see-is-what-you-get, unpretentious romcom (that’s what I took it for when I first saw it in a movie theater 15 years ago) covertly alludes in a sophisticated way not only to the Jane Austen novel which Kathleen Kelly brings to dinner, but also to the Shakespeare’s comedy which itself is so significant a covert source for Pride & Prejudice, i.e., Much Ado About Nothing! (which I recently posted about, vis a vis Joss Whedon’s wonderful adaptation):
The scene in YGM which brought that latter allusion to MAAN into sudden awareness for me comes when Shopgirl (Kathleen) is already waiting at the restaurant for NY1952 (Joe), and has a copy of P&P in hand with a rose inside it. Joe is warned by employee/wingman/scout Kevin that Shopgirl is actually Kathleen, who, Joe knows, hates Joe for putting her out of business. Joe must decide whether to go in and meet her:
KEVIN What are you going to do?
KEVIN You're going to let her just wait there?
JOE Yes. Yes I am. That's exactly what I'm going to do. Why not?
But then Joe promptly reverses himself, comes in and starts trashing NY1952 (of course, himself!) for standing Kathleen up, and Kathleen, in defending her online bosom buddy, draws blood from Joe:
KATHLEEN If he's not here, he has a reason, because there is not a cruel or careless bone in his body. I can't expect you to know anything about a person like that. You're NOTHING but a suit.
A beat. Joe gets up.
JOE THAT IS MY CUE. Good night.
For starters, both of those exchanges show each of the unwilling lovers mouthing the word “nothing” (as in Much Ado About…). But they also pick up, respectively, on two of Beatrice’s many zingers in MAAN. First this one from Act 2 Scene 1:
LEONATO Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes: his grace hath made the match, and an grace say Amen to it.
As you can see, Ephron’s allusion to “cue” is ironic, because Beatrice is prompting the tongue-tied Claudio to embrace and kiss Hero, whom he has just “won” in courtship, whereas Joe is noting that Kathleen’s insult is his prompt to leave the courtship lists defeated, with a mortal wound to his heart.
And the second allusion to MAAN turns out to be the lead-in to the first one! It is when Beatrice, speaking about Benedick, refers to him as the Elizabethan version of “a suit”, i.e., a man who isn’t really there, an empty man with no mind, guts or heart:
BEATRICE It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man: but for the stuffing,--well, we are all mortal.
So, how brilliant was Ephron, and also so subtle—the best allusions are those which do not announce themselves with self-congratulating explicit fanfare, but which instead slide into the audience’s ears and eyes, subliminally. The above are the quintessence of the latter category.
And so it turns out that Ephron has layered her modern love story of sparring lovers on top of what are arguably the two most influential romantic comedies in all of English literature, both with their sparring lovers. And, to get her point across to the knowing viewer, she inserts a subtle repeating hint to that effect throughout her film, by using the word “nothing” significantly, not only in the two above-quoted scenes, but also numerous times more, including the following most significant ones—significant, because, despite the characters’s protestations, they are not “nothing” but “something”, i.e., about love:
CHRISTINA What's going on with you?
CHRISTINA You're in love.
CHRISTINA Well, don't do it. The minute you do, they lose all respect for you.
KATHLEEN It's not like that. We just E-mail. It's really NOTHING, on top of which I'm
definitely thinking of stopping because it's getting --
CHRISTINA Out of hand?
KATHLEEN Confusing. But not really. Because it's NOTHING.
KATHLEEN You're turning my apartment into a typewriter museum.
FRANK I'll stop. I'll try. I probably can't. I see one and my knees go weak. Anyway,
what were you starting to say?
KATHLEEN That woman on television, right? Sidney-Ann.
FRANK I mean, NOTHING's happened or anything.
KATHLEEN I think she's a Republican.
FRANK I can't help myself.
SHOPPER Thank you.
As she walks away.
KATHLEEN (to herself) They know NOTHING, they know absolutely NOTHING.
KATHLEEN (VO) Six months ago, when you and I first met, I knew everything about myself -- what I
would be doing for the rest of my life and even the person I would be doing it with. Now I know NOTHING.
KATHLEEN -- It was business. What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that.
All it means is it's not personal to you, but it's personal to me, it's personal to
a lot of people. (she shrugs helplessly) What's wrong with personal anyway?
KATHLEEN I mean, whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.
And note as to that last exchange, in which the male surprises the female with a version of “Touche”, there is the following telltale source exchange in P&P:
"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."
And there are yet a few more “nothings” in YGM worth “noting”:
JOE I knew it wasn't possible. What can I say? Sometimes a person just wants the
impossible. Could I ask you something?
JOE What happened with that guy at the cafe?
JOE But you're crazy about him –
And two more usages of “nothing” were added after the final screenplay. First, this one:
BIRDIE: You feel like a big fat failure now. But you're not. You are marching into the unknown armed with... [pause] NOTHING. Have a sandwich.
But my personal favorite out of all of them is this one, when Shopgirl emails NY1952:
KATHLEEN The odd thing about this form of communication is you're more likely to talk about NOTHING than SOMETHING. But I just want to say that all this NOTHING has meant more to me than so many... SOMETHINGS. So, thanks.
Kathleen’s speech filled with “nothings” and “somethings” shows that while shooting the film, the allusion to MAAN became even more salient to Ephron, and so she added that speech to imply it as much as humanly possible without being explicit!
[Added 7/21/13: Perhaps Ephron was even scholarly enough to have read Jane Austen's letters, and in
Kathleen's email to Joe we are being given an echo of what Jane Austen wrote to sister Cassandra:
Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?"]
All of this erudition, when recognized, brings a deeper humor when we hear the following dialogue between Joe and Kathleen when Joe visits Kathleen at home not long before the romantic climax:
JOE George says hello. He told me you weren't feeling well.
KATHLEEN How is George?
JOE Great. He's revolutionizing the place. No one is allowed to work in his
department who doesn't have a Ph.D. in children's literature.
A Ph.D in adult literature, he should have said, because there’s a lot going on here beneath the breezy surface, even beyond that superficial joke. Consider the following:
George, you’ll recall, worked for Kathleen till she went out of business, but now has apparently gone to work for Kevin. Which must make us wonder whether Kevin and George have perhaps covertly conspired to bring Joe and Kathleen together? George speaks to Kathleen, hears that she is sick, reports this to Kevin, so that Kevin will tell Joe, thereby prompting Joe to visit Kathleen.
Isn’t this sounding an awful lot like all the friends who bring Beatrice & Benedick together, by devious means, in the middle of MAAN?
And…coming full circle back to Pride & Prejudice once more, I suggest, via my reading of the shadow story of P&P, that Ephron is also showing, covertly, that she understands that various friends (Charlotte Lucas and the Gardiners, most prominently) were covertly working throughout the novel to bring Lizzy and Darcy together!
Ephron, in short, has demonstrated a profound grasp of the tangled romantic web initially spun by Shakespeare, overlaid by Austen, and then given a third layer by herself, carefully interwoven with her two great literary “ancestors”!
And now that I revisit the allusion in YGM to the shadow story of P&P, I realize that Ephron may well have seen very deeply into it. For example, Joe Fox is shown to be deeply flawed as a lover because of having been raised by his father, a rich careless, selfish man. That fits uncannily with my sense of Darcy’s father as having been exactly that way too!
And how about this--- Joe’s father remarking twice on the irony of his latest girlfriend running off with the nanny seems a hint toward the irony that pervades the shadow story of P&P, vis-à-vis Charlotte’s unrequited lesbian feelings toward Elizabeth.
And what’s perhaps most telling of all in this vein is the scene in which Kathleen visits the Fox SuperStore and initially, in spite of herself, seems dazzled by it all, before the sales associate’s incompetence breaks the apparent spell. And note that at this moment Joe watches Kathleen unknown to her as she enters his “Pemberley” —which is exactly what I think happens in P&P! And so, when Kathleen does ultimately embrace Joe, who has finally unmasked himself (recall the elaborate masquerade party in Messian early in MAAN!), is it being too cynical to wonder whether Kathleen’s willingness to forgive Joe for his extended deception of her will depend, at least in part, on her having seen that NY1952 is a rich powerful man? Food for thought!
There’s even more, but I will save it for another time, as I wish to end with something I only sussed out with the help of Google.
As I watched Joe walk his big loveable dog, it suddenly occurred to me that Ephron had inserted here a very sneaky subliminal joke about Darcy and Bingley, to wit: the name of Joe Fox’s dog (which is funny anyway, for a Fox to have a dog, given that in Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s day, dogs chased foxes!) is Brinkley, which sounds a great deal like Bingley!
And what tells you that it was intentional on Ephron’s part is that, for most of P&P, Bingley behaves like Darcy’s dog, obeying his every command in an impulsive unreflective way, giving him undivided obedience.
But if even that wasn’t enough to prove it to you, consider that P.G. Wodehouse (who was himself a well known Janeite), in his Bertie & Jeeves stories, has a character initially named Brinkley, who is Bertie's (sounds suspiciously like “Birdie”) valet at one point, but whose name Wodehouse changed to Brinkley midway in the series, so that he could use Bingley as the name of the manor or court where some of the action takes place. And isn’t a valet the very epitome of a man who takes orders from another, more powerful man?
So, Ephron has added the finishing touch with this bit of wordplay, adding Wodehouse as a fourth layer to her house of literary allusions!
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