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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 27 2019 01:00PM

The Janeite word of the moment, it would appear, is “fragment.”


* Last week, Jane Austen’s House Museum launched an urgent appeal for donations to fund the purchase of a recently rediscovered portion of an 1814 Austen letter.


* A few days later, the British broadcaster ITV released tantalizing on-set photos from its shoot of Sanditon, the upcoming eight-part television mini-series based on the novel Austen left incomplete upon her death in 1817.


* And yesterday it was announced that playwright Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, an unfinished novel that Austen abandoned around 1805, will have a London premiere this fall.


Among these three fragments, the Austen letter is the least mysterious, since it comprises the lion’s share of a text that was published in full before its physical pieces were dispersed. By contrast, no one knows how Austen planned to finish The Watsons and Sanditon (although I’ve reviewed later efforts at completions here and here).


Given this built-in uncertainty, it’s no surprise that the current adapters felt free to take some liberties. Sanditon screenwriter Andrew Davies is apparently bringing us a rollicking melodrama that, judging from the photos, will feature the gorgeous production values and even more gorgeous actors we’ve come to expect from the company that brought us Downton Abbey. The British air date is sometime this fall; Masterpiece, which will air the show in the U.S., has not yet announced a schedule.


Wade’s theatrical version of The Watsons, which was produced last year at a theater festival in southeast England, takes a different tack, making post-modern hay out of the Pirandello-esque concept of literary characters left stranded in an unfinished work. Wade herself – or, at any rate, a writer named Laura -- shows up to debate matters with her heroine. The reviews were great, and if I had any chance of being in London between September 20 and November 16, I’d be first in line when tickets go on sale next week. Since that, alas, cannot be, I'll rely on blog readers to report back.



By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 21 2019 02:00PM

Production of the new television adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, is moving along even more quickly than I realized when I wrote about it earlier this month: PBS, which will air the eight-part mini-series on Masterpiece, reported recently that filming has begun and – squee! – provided details of casting.


Many of the names are unfamiliar to me, but Anne Reid, who will play the grasping and imperious Lady Denham, is a wonderful actress. And no heterosexual woman with a pulse could object to the casting of Theo James as the hero, Sidney Parker: James played the extraordinarily dishy Turk who seduced Lady Mary, back in the first season of Downton Abbey, only to die inconveniently in her bed. With luck, Sanditon will keep him alive longer, so we’ll have more time to admire his . . . acting talent.


In Austen’s fragment, Sidney Parker is barely a character: He makes his entrance only a few pages before the end, and his hero status is only an assumption, albeit one shared by most of Sanditon’s readers over the years. Thus, Andrew Davies, the revered screenwriter who is adapting Sanditon, had free rein. And here’s what we’re getting, according to PBS:


“Unpredictable, roguish and restless – seemingly never settling in one place for very long – self-made man Sidney finds his responsibilities to his family in Sanditon somewhat tiresome. And yet his cynicism masks a sensitive soul wounded by a broken heart that has never fully healed. In the company of Charlotte, Sidney must rediscover who he is and crucially, learn to trust again.”


In other words, it’s my all-time favorite Regency romance plot: Sensible, strong-willed heroine heals hero’s emotional wounds (usually the result of a bad childhood or PTSD from the Napoleonic Wars, but a broken heart works too). Typically, the hero repays the heroine’s wound-healing by introducing her to passion (see also: Jane Eyre, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.), and although PBS doesn’t spell this part out in its Sanditon preview, I think we can count on Andrew “Wet Shirt” Davies not to let us down, don’t you?


OK, I’m now officially looking forward to Sanditon, despite the many, many reasons to suspect that it won't be very much like Jane Austen and, indeed, may not be very good.


“You know you have a win-win situation here,” my husband said. “If you really like it – you’ll just really like it. And if it’s really bad, you’ll bitch about it for months on your blog.”


What can I say? We’ve been married a long time. The man knows me well.


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, Jul 12 2018 01:00PM

For the Jane Austen world, it qualifies as blockbuster news: Revered screenwriter Andrew Davies, the man behind the iconic 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice and adaptations of three other Austen novels, has adapted Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, into a miniseries of its own.


Earlier this week, PBS’s Masterpiece series announced that it is collaborating with Britain’s ITV on a version of Sanditon, the story of Charlotte Heywood's adventures in an up-and-coming seaside resort, that will likely begin filming next spring.


“The twists and turns of the plot, which take viewers from the West Indies to the rotting alleys of London, expose the hidden agendas of each character and sees [sic] Charlotte discover herself… and ultimately find love,” the press release promises.


Those of us who have read Sanditon’s tantalizing 24,000 words will not remember any scenes set in the West Indies or in London alleys, whether rotting or otherwise, so it’s pretty clear that this production will be more Davies than Austen.


Indeed, a lot more: Masterpiece is promising us eight hour-long episodes, and even shaving off a few minutes per episode to allow space to advertise Danube cruises, that’s a big chunk of airtime. Davies managed to squeeze all 122,000 words of P&P into a mere six episodes running to five and a half hours. Heck, his version of War and Peace ran less than six and a half.


Davies, famed for allegedly "sexing-up" Jane Austen, is apparently up to his usual tricks this time around: His new version of Sanditon features "quite a bit of nude bathing," he promises, possibly with tongue firmly ensconced in cheek (although, with Davies, you never know).


For Sanditon fans, the big unanswered question is what the new production means for an earlier Sanditon project, Fluidity Films’ long aborning feature-length version, based on the 1975 completion of Austen’s fragment by Australian journalist and novelist Marie Dobbs.


More than two years ago, we were treated to exciting casting news – Charlotte Rampling as Lady Denham! – and confident-sounding predictions of a 2017 release date. Late that year, filming was said to be delayed until 2018. And although Fluidity Films’ website still lists the production, it offers no details about timing.


Could two separate Sanditons – one a conventional two-hour-long period film, the other a sweeping seven-hour wallow in melodrama – find audiences, potentially within mere months of each other? If Janeites ran the world (and wouldn’t everyone be better off if we did? You know it), the answer wouldn’t be in doubt.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 21 2017 01:00PM

The Jane Austen adaptation factory never seems to stop churning out fresh material. By now, the proliferating combinations and recombinations for stage and screen – I’m not even talking about the books! -- are enough to make the head spin: straight-up Regency, Regency plus zombies, Regency plus murder mystery, Regency plus time travel, modern-day update (American), modern-day update (Indian), Austen biographical, ballet, opera, talking dog. . .


And yet more is on the horizon, judging from a few tidbits of news that came my way in the past week or two.


* ABC plans to air a pilot, and perhaps an entire TV series, adapted from Curtis Sittenfeld’s best-selling 2016 novel Eligible, which updated Pride and Prejudice to contemporary Cincinnati. Regular blog readers will recall that I enjoyed Eligible, and a “soapy drama series” based on it could be kind of fun – though after the first few episodes, it presumably won’t have much to do with Jane Austen. No word on when we can look for this, but I hope it's soon! I'm having new-Austen-adaptation withdrawal symptoms.


* Jane Austen’s relatively quiet life has, improbably, already spawned not one but two screen dramatizations (Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets). And now Austen the Musical – which is, as you might expect, a musical-theater version of that same quiet life – is launching UK and US tours. (The UK performances run from October 2017 to April 2018; no US dates have been announced yet).


Apparently, the show has already played to good reviews in arty venues like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I must confess that I felt a qualm when I ran across website copy telling me that “Austen the Musical explores Jane’s struggle to have her work published in a male dominated environment, her romances and her vow to reject a woman’s lifestyle in Georgian England.” (Qualms since a) it’s not clear that her publishing struggles were gender-related; b) her romances are mostly fictitious; and c) I’m unaware of any such feminist “vow.”) But I’m willing to give the show a shot if it comes to a theater near me.


* Meanwhile, the horizon has receded a bit for the long-awaited movie of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, according to an interview the film’s producer gave to the period drama website Willow and Thatch. (Scroll down to “Update 9/6/2017.”) Back in early 2016, there was talk of a 2017 release -- I blogged about the movie here and here -- but now it looks as if filming won’t even start until next year. Until then, I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with other products of the Austen adaptation factory.


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