Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 18 2019 02:00PM

It’s always enjoyable when the mass media provide opportunities for us Janeites to snark about everyone else’s Austen ignorance.


Today’s exhibit: The February 12 episode of NBC’s Today show, during which co-host Savannah Guthrie and two guests picked their favorite literary love stories.


First category: Historical romance. First guest pick: The Remains of the Day, Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 masterpiece, set in 1930s Britain. Second guest pick: Destiny’s Embrace, Beverly Jenkins’ 2013 romance novel set in nineteenth-century California.


And then Guthrie’s pick (at 1:25 on the recording): “I love Pride and Prejudice,” she says.


Already we know we’re in trouble, because even though P&P is all old-timey and proper and the characters wear corsets and gloves and use kinda long words when they talk, Jane Austen is not an historical novelist. Historical novelists are people who write novels set in historical periods other than their own. Jane Austen set her books in her own time, a time that happens to be a long time ago for us. She is a classic novelist, yes, but not an historical one.


And then Guthrie goes on burbling about the joys of P&P: “I know it’s kind of obvious, but it is so enjoyable, it’s such a great read, lots of people have seen the movie, but you have to read the book. I mean you’ll just fall in love with Mark Darcy over and over and over again.”


Sigh.


I mean – props to Guthrie for picking a genuinely great novel. P&P is indeed enjoyable and a great read and a book that you should read even if you’ve seen the movie(s). But if you’d actually read P&P, rather than Bridget Jones’ s Diary, then you’d know that the first name of that swoon-worthy hero is Fitzwilliam, not Mark.


So what do you think, Janeites? Has Savannah Guthrie actually never read Pride and Prejudice? Or did she just misspeak, saying “Mark” when she meant to say “Mister”? I am feeling generous, largely because she has provided such an excellent opportunity for midwinter snark, and so I will cut her a break. As long as she promises to read it again.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 14 2019 02:00PM

Valentine’s Day, the celebration of lovers, dates back to the Middle Ages. Yet Jane Austen – often described as the mother of the romance novel, albeit by people who haven’t read her very carefully -- never mentions today’s most romantic of all holidays.


Or does she?


At least as far back as R.W. Chapman, the legendary editor who brought out the first scholarly editions of Austen’s work in the 1920s and -30s, Janeites have scoured Austen’s novels for hints to the dates on which events are supposed to be taking place.


Sometimes these are explicitly provided, as when Mr. Bingley reminds Elizabeth Bennet that the Netherfield ball took place on November 26. More often, however, they must be inferred from subtler clues that link a particular novel’s chronology to the almanacs for specific calendar years.


In 1986, the Austen scholar Jo Modert noted that if we take Emma – published at the end of 1815 – to be set in 1813-14, then internal clues indicate that its major events correlate with church holidays. Modert’s sleuthing uncovered fascinating evidence of Austen’s cleverness -- for instance, the fact that it is Shrove Tuesday, traditionally the religious holiday on which Christian believers were supposed to confess their sins, when Frank Churchill nearly tells Emma about his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax.


But the best known, and most delightful, of Modert’s discoveries is Austen’s hidden reference to Valentine’s Day – which, it turns out, marks the arrival of the piano that Frank secretly sends to Jane. And as the crafty Frank tells Emma in chapter 26, “Your reasonings carry my judgment along with them entirely . . . . now I can see [the gift] in no other light than as an offering of love."


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 11 2019 03:07PM

Jane Austen is popular, but is she pop?


This pressing question presented itself irresistibly when, just in time for Valentine’s Day, I happened across a gift-recommendation listicle on the women’s-magazine-ish site SheKnows.com.


The piece -- “15 Galentine’s Day Gifts for Your Pop Culture-Loving Crew” – offers a corrective to the relationship-focused view of the holiday, suggesting that you spend February 14 appreciating family and platonic friends, instead of significant others. The list, author Samantha Puc promises, offers great choices for “your pop-culture savvy besties . . . . some of the best pop culture-related gifts money can buy.”


The choices include books, DVDs, jewelry, and assorted decorative or semi-useful accessories and appurtenances. Most are themed to a you-go-girl canon: female-centric television shows (Friends, Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City), female-centric blockbuster movies (Wonder Woman), progressive female political figures (Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama).


Smack in the middle of the list – right after the Gertrude Stein beer mug and the Frida Kahlo candle, and just ahead of the Mad Men desk doodad -- is Jane Austen bath soap, which Puc recommends as “the perfect accompaniment to a pop culture-themed night of self-care.”


As someone who wrote a whole book about Jane Austen’s curious dual life as both classic author and ubiquitous brand, I’m used to seeing Austen merchandise lumped in with Leslie Knope greeting cards and Carrie Fisher tote bags. All those beloved Austen movies and mini-series have spawned a generation of consumers who met Our Jane first (or only) on a screen.


And yet I still find it a bit startling to see Austen described as primarily -- even solely -- a pop-culture figure. Unlike Lorelei Gilmore or Peggy Olson, Austen also means something outside the world of TV shows and social media memes. If you were organizing an Eng.Lit.-themed night of self-care, her scented soap would be at home there too, along with the Shakespeare bath oils (“for the Ophelia in your life”), the Emily Bronte heather-mixture potpourri, and the Sylvia Plath cookie sheets. (I made all those up, by the way, so don’t waste your time Googling.)


I’m not complaining, exactly – just looking on with a certain measure of bemusement as a literary giant who became a pop icon is transmuted, through the magic of the Internet, into a pop icon who maybe also wrote some books.


Although, frankly, it’s not as if Jane Austen is the oddest of the oddballs in this supposed pop-culture brew. I mean, I ask you – Gertrude Stein? Talk about no there there! When did her movie come out?


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 7 2019 02:00PM

Jane Austen wrote only seventy pages of Sanditon before her final illness left her unable to work. In the intervening two centuries, her promising start has inspired plenty of fanfic (six years ago, I reviewed a dozen examples) but no screen versions.


Last year, however, exciting news broke about a planned Sanditon television adaptation by revered screenwriter Andrew Davies, of Mr.-Darcy-in-a-wet-shirt fame. We Sanditon fans have been burned before – it’s been nearly a year and a half since we heard anything about the Fluidity Films adaptation that was originally projected for a 2017 release – but it looks like the Davies version is really happening.


The latest hopeful sign comes buried in a longer inews.com interview with Kevin Lygo, director of television for ITV, the British network that is collaborating with PBS’ Masterpiece on the production. (Scroll down to the grey text box for Sanditon news.) Shooting will start this spring, Lygo promises. Woo hoo!


With its strong female characters and “handsome men,” Sanditon is “gold dust for TV,” Lygo opines. “We can keep it going for years.” Obviously, ITV, the people who brought us Downton Abbey, are hoping to see a repeat of that particularly profitable lightning strike.


Despite its period trappings, Downton Abbey was never much like Jane Austen, and there’s reason to believe that, whatever its origins, Sanditon won’t be, either. We’ve already heard talk of nude bathing, West Indian locations, and scenes set in London’s rotting alleys. And now the inews interview describes Austen’s fragment as “the story of the impulsive and unconventional Charlotte Heywood,” making her sound like a Marianne Dashwood type, when Austen’s Charlotte is much closer to Elinor Dashwood: the cool and sensible center around whom a host of crazies revolves. I love Elinor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if ITV thinks Marianne makes for better TV in our overheated, un-sensible age.


It’s possible that Davies is going to bring us a faithful adaptation of Austen’s fragment, followed by a whole lot of stuff she never had time to write (or, more likely, never would have written). Or perhaps the whole thing, from beginning to end, will have nothing to do with Our Jane. But at least we’re going to know for sure within a year or so.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 4 2019 02:00PM

It’s not every day that Jane Austen turns up in a teen sex comedy. So imagine my pleased surprise last week as I was watching the final episode of the new Netflix series Sex Education.


For the uninitiated: Sex Education chronicles the sexual, romantic and parent-related problems of teenagers attending a British high school that resembles nothing so much as an American high school, à la John Hughes. It is funny, clever and touching, as well as a bit raunchy. (Let's just say that after seeing Episode 5, you'll never think of Spartacus the same way again.) I highly recommend it, and not just for the Jane Austen reference.


But back to business. In the relevant scene from Episode 8, our teen heroine Maeve – a brilliant but troubled girl from the wrong side of the tracks who we already know reads everyone from Langston Hughes to Virginia Woolf -- has taken the rap for something she didn’t do. Now she faces an expulsion panel convened by her loathsome principal, Mr. Groff:


Mr. Groff: Please tell us why you should stay at this school.

(Long pause.)

Mr. Groff: Nothing? Very well, then—

Maeve: I’m really smart, sir. I’d read all of Jane Austen by the time I was twelve, including her lesser-known work Lady Susan, which is a severely underrated piece of feminist literature.


As she continues her defense, Maeve goes on to mention existentialism, transcendentalism, Sartre, the school music teacher, and her family problems, but I’m sure my fellow Janeites will agree: She had us at hello.


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