When I tell people that I’m in the home stretch of my PhD, empathy creases their face. ‘Let me get you a vodka,’ they say, and then they tell me stories of their own doctorates, when they almost joined a cult of white-clad fruitarians who worship Keanu Reeves, or their friends, who tossed it in to move to Peru and volunteer at a shelter for abandoned alpacas.
‘I’m loving my PhD,’ I tell them.
They pat my shoulder, mutter ‘Stockholm syndrome’, and slip the business card of their therapist into my purse.
But I am loving it, which I put down to a lucky alignment of my wonderful supervisor, my supportive institution, and a topic that sparks Kondo-ian joy every day I work on it.
My topic is ‘Romantic Comedy through Time and Form’, which boils down to analysing, comparing and parodying three specific writers: Molière, the seventeenth century French playwright and master of comedy; Jane Austen, the nineteenth century English novelist and satiric genius, and Nora Ephron, the twentieth century America screenwriter and feminist—and I couldn’t recommend three finer dead people with whom to spend time.
Molière was the least familiar to me when I began, and there aren’t many books about him in English so I started with Molière: His Life and His Works, by the theatre critic and academic Brander Matthews, published in 1910. This left me adoring Molière even more, and hating Matthews, and when read I Matthews’ own A Book About the Theatre and found references to Matthews in other books, like the wonderful American Drama: The Bastard Art by Susan Harris Smith, I loathed him even more. (What a bumptious shithead.)
It’s often said that Molière’s plays are meant to be performed rather than read, but I’ve never felt that. On the page, every line shines, even in translation. I’m inspired by his dialogue that reveals character economically and with such wit; his fearless skewering of those who need to be skewered; and individual sentences that surprise and delight. For Moliere’s plays themselves—choosing the best translation was a challenge but I largely went with the Methuen Drama version, specifically Five Plays, which has The School for Wives, Tartuffe and The Misanthrope translated by Richard Wilbur, and The Miser and The Hypochondriac translated by Alan Drury. I have zero knowledge of French so can’t comment on their accuracy—but from my understanding of the time and Molière’s character, I feel that Wilbur and Drury had the vibe. I’ve always seen Molière as earthy and street-wise, a kind of Ancien Régime punk/rebel, and this version seems just right.
If there are too few works about Molière, then Jane Austen has the opposite problem. Austen books are so, so numerous that long after the Zombie Apocalypse, the last remaining book will likely be something like, The Empire Lines: How High Waistlines Were the Secret Inspiration Behind the Most Romantic Sentences in English Literature, or Make Me a Boiled Mutton Sandwich: Jane Austen’s Kitchen Secrets for Catching a Rich Husband. Even Buzzfeed is mostly correct in A Definitive Ranking Of Jane Austen’s Male Hotties (spoiler: Captain Wentworth, by the length of Pemberley’s driveway, though it grossly overvalues Edmund Bertram).
My difficulty was slant: with the honourable exception of John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, parts of The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen and parts of Critics on Jane Austen, edited by Judith O’Neill, I seemed alone in finding Austen unromantic and violently sharp; a misanthropic, brilliant, savage social commentator. Thank heavens for Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, which made me feel I wasn’t alone in my reading of the novels, and the Amazon e-book Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen From the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps, by Robert Rodi, which is about 200 pages too long and near to useless as an academic resource, but delighted me with quotes like:
How did someone whose vision is so darkly, even bleakly comic—whose work brims with vicious, gabbling grotesques, most of whom are never adequately (or even minimally) punished for their sins (as Dickens, not so many years later, felt compelled to punish his)—become the patron saint of the turgid, chest-heaving, emotionally pornographic genre called ‘Regency Romance’?
I read a number of the Austen biographies, my favourites being Park Honan’s Jane Austen: her Life, Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: a Life and David Nokes’s Jane Austen—and it thrilled me to see how often they disagreed. I also tackled Jane Austen’s Letters, collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, and it’s here I found the quote that best distills Austen’s character for me. In a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1798, when Jane was 22, she wrote: ‘Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.’
I reread Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, of course, as well as the unfinished work and the juvenilia, but rereading these is a regular occurrence for me. I have this (and this alone) in common with the Oxford Philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who, when asked if he ever read novels, reportedly replied, ‘Oh yes—all six, every year.’
Which leaves only Nora Ephron. The more I studied Molière and Austen the more I adored them, but I can’t say that for Ephron. I still admire her work enormously, but she remains unresolved in my brain, even after reading more about her, especially She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron by Richard Cohen and I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson. Ephron was a one-time war correspondent and committed leftist who yelled at chauffeurs and abused waiters. She was culturally Jewish but after her first movie, starring the also-Jewish actor Julie Kavner, failed at the box office, she resolved to cast the WASP-ish Meg Ryan and Meryl Streep from then on, and give them names like Kathleen Kelly or Sally Albright. She was an accomplished and generous collaborator (the ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ line from When Harry met Sally was Billy Crystal’s) who hated it when anyone was funnier than her. And she was an ardent feminist who was both obsessed with and deeply insecure about her appearance. This insecurity was more than just a background biographical detail: it grounded all of her work, from her classic 1972 Esquire column, ‘A Few Words about Breasts’, to her essay collection, I Feel Bad about My Neck.
Towering over all of this, though, are the three remarkable scripts: When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Ephron was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay for the first two: her other nomination was for Silkwood (1983). The dialogue is sparkling and fearless and clever, but at least as revolutionary was her focus: the top three box office hits in the USA in 1989 were Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2. In 1993: Jurassic Park, Mrs Doubtfire (not about a Mrs) and The Fugitive, and in 1998, Saving Private Ryan, Armageddon, and There’s Something about Mary (a film which was, needless to say, not actually from Mary’s perspective). Nora Ephron wrote films where a woman’s lived experience was front and centre, and she got those films made. She also directed You’ve Got Mail, and the audacious, rule-breaking Sleepless in Seattle, where, contrary to every accepted idea about what made great romantic comedy, the hero and heroine only meet in the very last scene.
Scriptwriting is collaborative by nature, so in order to see Nora Ephron’s pure brilliance I also read her ‘autobiographical novel’, Heartburn, a thinly disguised retelling of the breakdown of her marriage to the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. It’s unbelievably sharp, funny and vicious (the film, with Meryl Streep as Nora and Jack Nicholson as Carl, is much gentler after Bernstein’s lawyers had been through it). It’s also deeply affecting: here is a betrayed woman—humiliated, heart-broken, gutted—using her intelligence and her pain to both strike back at the man she loved and the woman he betrayed her with, and build a new career for herself.
Ephron’s favourite saying was one she inherited from her mother, half of the husband-and-wife screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron: ‘Everything is copy.’ It’s a fine coda to the focus of Ephron’s work but even better, I think, is this line from Streep, quoted in She Made Me Laugh. Ephron was concerned while watching the filming of Heartburn that Jack Nicholson’s charisma was distorting the story in Carl’s favour, but as the mere author, she had no power to stop it. Streep, though, also saw what was happening.
‘This is about a person who got hit by a truck,’ Streep told director Mike Nichols. ‘It’s not about the truck.’
Toni Jordan is the author of five novels, including the international best-seller Addition (2008) and the Indie award-winning Nine Days (2012). Her latest novel is The Fragments (2018).