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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When Kathleen Met Joe (a while after Nora met Jane and a LONG while after Darcy met Lizzy)

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 restaurant.

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 deeper pattern: 

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 scene. 

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 reflect on.

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 "merry war"?

So, RIP Nora Ephron, and thank you for being the closest thing Hollywood has seen to Jane Austen during my own lifetime.

Cheers, ARNIE
@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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