Is there anyone living today who knows Jane Austen's stories well who was not shocked and saddened to wake up to the news of Nora Ephron's death this morning? I would guess, very few Janeites, if any.
I found out about NE's death this morning when I woke up, even before I
heard or read any news, because a good Janeite friend had emailed me the
following and I always read my emails first:
She assumed I already had heard the sad news, so It took me about 5
seconds to realize why she had sent the article to me today---but, as I
read it, I was not at all surprised to learn that Nora Ephron had left
all these many clues to her mortal illness hidden in her 2010
publication---and the reason I was not surprised is the same reason why I
was not at all surprised to then see "Pride and Prejudice" in the list
of things Nora Ephron would miss.
Like all other Janeites who've seen You've Got Mail, one of my many favorite scenes in the film (and there truly is no need for a spoilers
alert, as I am pretty sure that pretty much everyone reading this post
has already seen You've Got Mail...probably has seen it at least six
times!) is when Kathleen arrives for her fateful first meeting (and
planned mutual in the flesh viewing) with her longtime email friend.
Of course, the email friend who shows up is actually Joe Fox, in real
life her mortal corporate enemy, and when he realizes who she is while
she has no clue who _he_ is, he does little credit to his character by
deciding to have some unwholesome totally one-sided fun at her expense,
by concealing his true identity. As he lingers around, revealing (to the
viewer) a sadistic streak, he ribs her about the copy of Pride &
Prejudice which she has brought along as part of her "costume", and
which, it is clear, he has read in advance of their rencontre. And as
he's a smart guy, perhaps he even realizes that he bears an unsettling
resemblance to Darcy, and so he proceeds to take a few potshots at
Darcy, just to really aggravate her, while he is enjoying her increasing
discomfort waiting for her "friend" who has (apparently) not shown up.
As I said, pretty sadistic, with a strong dose thrown in of enjoyment at
exercising power over another person who does not like to be
controlled. _Definitely_ not gentlemanly.
Now to my point in sketching that scene---I would imagine that most
people (including most Janeites) who have seen the film do not give much
thought, if any, as to whether Nora Ephron may have had some covert
meaning in mind when she chose Pride & Prejudice, as opposed to some
other romantic novel, as the book that Kathleen brings to the
restaurant (and of course the gag about P&P is returned to once--or
twice?---later in the film as well). If this authorial choice on
Ephron's part is given consideration, I would imagine that the analysis
that follows is usually limited to taking note of the obvious parallels
between Darcy and Lizzy in P&P, and Joe and Kathleen in YGM--the
sometimes hot sparks that fly, accompanied by a plethora of witty,
barbed repartee, between the rich powerful egotistical young man and the
feisty, sensitive young woman, before true love is eventually
recognized by both at the end of the story, to great romantic effect.
As the literary jargon would put it, it's a _trope_ (God, I hate that
word, and what it stands for!) that NE has wheeled out, and not worth
more consideration than that.
Well, I saw You've Got Mail in the movie theater when it came out in
1998, but it was only in 2006, several years after I began my own quest
to unravel the mysteries of Jane Austen's shadow stories, and I noted
the thread in the Janeites group which mentioned P&P as a source for
You've Got Mail, that it began to dawn on me that Nora Ephron might
have had a literary trick or three of her own up her sleeve as well,
beyond the obvious, in putting P&P in Kathleen's hands in that
At that time in 2006, I added the following interesting quoted comments
by Ephron to that thread, and they are worth repeating now:
[Ephron] "For many years I had a problem with Emma, as
compared to, say, Pride and Prejudice. I loved P and P, and I loved its
practically perfect heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. Emma, on the other hand, has a
much more problematic heroine: Emma Woodhouse is bossy, controlling, obstinate,
pigheaded, and manipulative. In short, she is horribly like me at my worst.
Getting older has mellowed me in many ways, and now that I like to delude
myself that I'm not as much like Emma Woodhouse as I used to be, I've grown to
love the book. Still, Pride and Prejudice is probably my favorite book ever,
ever, ever. "
That last sentence, with its almost Shakespearean repetition of "ever,
ever, ever", came as no surprise. And so it stood with me until a
_month_ ago when, after what seemed like the 5th time in as many months
that I was flipping channels on the treadmill TV at the gym and You've
Got Mail popped up on the screen again, and I watched 40-50 minutes of
it _again_. As the final third of the film came on the screen, this time
I watched the romantic climax for the first time in a while, and I was
struck _again_ by a troubling thought that had been nibbling at my
brain for at least a decade, which is, "After the film credits stop
rolling and Kathleen has time to think about the fact that Joe had
intentionally concealed from her his true identity as her email friend
from that fateful meeting in the restaurant until he came strolling up
(sans wet shirt) with his dog along Riverside Drive, will she truly
forgive him for this months-long continuous, elaborate deception? And if
she will, _should_ she?"
I am still on the fence in terms of my own answers to those questions,
and that these questions are put into play at all is a crucial clue to
the sly brilliance (not Austen level genius, but I am sure Ephron
herself would have been the first to place JA above her in the literary
pantheon) of You've Got Mail, which is that I believe the allusion to
P&P is actually _central_ to a deeper appreciation of Nora Ephron's
screenwriting excellence in the construction of You've Got Mail, and
that allusion goes to the heart of those troubling questions beneath the
light bright and sparkling ending of You've Got Mail.
A full explanation of what I mean is beyond the scope of this post--I
plan on including same in my book, as I believe that Ephron actually glimpsed not insignificantly into the heart of what I call the "shadow story" of Pride & Prejudice---but suffice to say that the parallels
I see between Lizzy and Darcy, on the one hand, and Kathleen and Joe,
on the other, run very deep, and some of them are hiding in plain sight,
but, to my mind, have never been fully articulated in print (and I've
looked for it).
I will briefly touch on two as illustrations of a much
First, as was pointed out by Jane George in Janeites back in 2003, there
is an interesting parallelism between the _original _ epistolarity of
First Impressions (of course, JA's first version of P&P) and the
virtual epistolarity of Kathleen's and Joe's long correspondence. But,
that is only the most superficial layer of the parallelism--what makes
it much more interesting is that in both P&P and in You've Got Mail,
it is "mail" that the heroine receives from the hero that utterly
changes her perception of him to, in the end, a very positive one.
In P&P, of course, it is the letter that Darcy writes and then hand
delivers to Lizzy which rocks her world, and reverses her longstanding
negative opinion of him--Ephron very cleverly alters the periphery of
that structure while preserving its essence---it is not one piece of
"mail" written by Joe which alters Kathleen's opinion of Joe, but many,
and over a period of time which continues right up till the final
And so in both stories, we see that a woman's opinion of a man, based on
her face to face conversations with him, and observations of his
behavior in the flesh, is subject to alteration by words written by that
man and read by that woman. Is this a good thing? Most readers and
viewers would say, in this case, yes. But it's something to think about,
I suggest, that both Austen and Ephron meant for at least some folks to
And here is my second example of covert allusion to P&P in You've
Got Mail---before meeting Joe in person, Kathleen is at the center of a
vibrant female community, with both an older woman and a younger woman,
who create a uniquely female space where the business of selling books
is humanized, and which strikes such a deep chord in the neighborhood
(composed of more than 4 and 20 families) that the closing of the story
takes on an almost tragic feeling. And what do we see at the end, the
vague promise that somehow that female wisdom and aura will be
incorporated (ha ha) into the corporate structure of the megastore that
has supplanted Kathleen's store. Is this a good thing? Again, I suggest
that Ephron has picked up on something deeper in P&P, something
beyond the happy ending, that is troubling, and that I touched upon a
few years ago here in discussing the ending of P&P:
Had one of Kathleen's co-workers said to her, "The men shan't come
between us", or words to that effect in 1998-speak, what would she have
replied? What should she have replied?
Yes, perhaps Kathleen has found true love with Joe, but these most
romantic of stories are also great enough to raise questions about the
costs of romance, and also... (and here I also would like to think that
Nora Ephron would find my comments intriguing--but I fear I will never
know for sure)..whether true love _really_ is as true as it seems, even
when it appears to have passed through a rigorous vetting process of a
So, RIP Nora Ephron, and thank you for being the closest thing Hollywood has seen to Jane Austen during my own lifetime.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: And I am sure Ephron, if she saw Friends With
Benefits, was well aware of, and enjoyed, the covert allusion to When
Harry Met Sally in FWB that I wrote about here:
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