Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 14 2019 02:00PM

Why do people keep trying to mess with Clueless?

Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie, which updated the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills, is about as perfect a Jane Austen adaptation as there is – witty, clever, and true to the spirit of the original.

The most appropriate response to perfection ought to be . . . admiration. Respect. Keeping your hands off.

But first came talk of a Clueless remake. (The horror!) Then came the Heckerling-created off-Broadway Clueless jukebox musical. (The meh.) And now – well, last month -- comes word of a proposed Clueless TV show currently sparking interest in Hollywood.

The idea, apparently, is not to remake the 1996-99 TV show, itself based on the movie, so much as to reboot it. The central character would no longer be the Emma-like Cher but instead her friend Dionne, whose closest equivalent in Austen’s novel (although not that close, really) is Mrs. Weston. Cher disappears mysteriously; Dionne must investigate! Cher was high school queen bee; can Dionne take her place? Instead of 1815 England, we’d get 2020 Los Angeles. In place of matchmaking and moral growth, we’d get sleuthing and social climbing.

Although I’m at least three times older than the target teen demographic, I could imagine finding this sort of thing entertaining, if it weren’t for one thing: They plan on calling it Clueless. Because I don’t want anyone messing with perfection.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 11 2019 02:00PM

By now, Jane Austen has made so many top-novel lists that it’s hard to come up with anything new to say when she makes yet another one. (Indeed, you’ll note from the links that half the time I can’t even come up with an original headline.)

But it’s always entertaining when Our Jane strays into unexpected company, as she does on the BBC’s latest Book List Designed To Court Controversy And Thus Pump Up Viewership. Oh, sorry – I meant the BBC’s list of “100 Novels That Shaped Our World.”

Apparently, the network decided to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, arguably the first English novel, by putting together a panel of writers and critics and inviting them “to choose 100 genre-busting novels that have had an impact on their lives,” divided among ten categories with titles such as “Adventure” and “Identity.”

Pride and Prejudice has been placed in the “Love, Sex & Romance” category, even though it could surely have qualified for “Coming of Age,” “Class & Society,” “Family & Friendship,” or even “Rule Breakers.” But I will not cavil, because by putting P&P here, the listmakers have created a delicious juxtaposition.

Yes, Austen’s novel of manners, more or less synonymous in the popular mind with buttoned-up propriety, is right next to Riders, Jilly Cooper’s steamy 1985 bestseller set in the world of competitive show-jumping.

I have not read Riders, although I hear it’s pretty good, at least as voluminous, sex-filled, guilty-pleasure romance novels go. I have, however, seen its cover. It is a classic of the snarky-yet-sexy genre, deserving of an entire category all to itself. It shows a male hand resting on a shapely, jodhpurs-clad female posterior. Oh, and there’s a riding crop. It is not a cover that will likely ever make you think of Jane Austen.

Really, this whole list is worth it just for reminding me of that cover. Sometimes I miss the '80s.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 7 2019 02:00PM

Music plays intermittent cameo roles in Jane Austen’s novels: think of Mary Bennet delighting us long enough in Pride and Prejudice, or Anne Elliot wearily cranking out dance tunes for the oblivious Musgrove girls in Persuasion.

Music is even more important in making the many screen adaptations of Austen’s work memorable and distinctive, from the jangly ‘90s pop of Clueless to the yearning innocence of Marianne Dashwood singing her way into Colonel Brandon’s heart in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility.

To satisfy all your Austen music needs, it turns out that the audio streaming platform Spotify includes among its offerings a thirty-track “Jane Austen Soundtracks” playlist – a total of about an hour and forty-two minutes of music.

The playlist includes eight pieces – popular songs and classical works -- from the Austen family’s music collection; twenty tracks drawn from sixteen Jane Austen-related movies, whether straight-up adaptations of the novels, modernizations like Aisha and Bridget Jones’s Diary, or Austen-themed confections like Austenland and The Jane Austen Book Club; and one song from First Impressions, the 1959 Broadway musical of Pride and Prejudice.

Among the selections are Carl Davis' familiar theme music to the BBC’s beloved 1995 adaptation of P&P; a version of “Robin Adair,” the traditional song that Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill sing together in Emma; and a Radiohead track from Clueless. (I don’t know how long the playlist has been available on Spotify; the most recent recording seems to be from Love & Friendship, the 2016 movie adaptation of Lady Susan.)

The mathematically adept among you will have noticed that the above accounting adds up to only twenty-nine. Yes, as I noted, there is a thirtieth item on this “Jane Austen Soundtracks” playlist. It is Carl Davis' theme music from Cranford, the 2007-09 BBC adaptation of the 1853 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. Who is not Jane Austen. It seems that Spotify has delighted us long enough.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 4 2019 02:00PM

By now, we’ve gotten used to seeing Jane Austen in rather. . . um . . . interesting company. She’s been paired with zombies and sea monsters, mentioned in the same breath as pulpy romance writers, and been transformed into a shill for scented candles and knitting patterns.

Still, the past month or so has turned up a couple of Austen pairings calculated to give even the most jaded among us a frisson of startlement:

* Jane of Arc: Inspired by the example of sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate-change activist, the magazine India Today went looking for “other so-called ‘children’ who were the same age when they battled against their adversaries.”

They found two bona fide examples: Joan of Arc, the medieval prophet-warrior who led the French to (eventual, after her time) victory over the English in the Hundred Years’ War; and Malala Yousafzai, the outspoken Pakistani girls’-rights activist who survived a murderous attack by the Taliban. Fair enough: two teenagers who battled against their adversaries. Check.

But India Today was not satisfied with Joan and Malala. They added “one of the most iconic faces of young resistance” -- Anne Frank, a victim of the Nazi Holocaust whose haunting diary was published years after her death in a concentration camp. Hmm. Seems a stretch to me, but I suppose that works if you define “resistance” broadly enough to include any effort to cling to humanity in the face of evil.

And then they included Jane Austen. Who is of course a pioneering novelist and a great artist, but a teenage resistance fighter? Umm – no. It’s clear, however, that India Today barely bothers with trivia such as accuracy, since their 221 words on Austen manage to include at least three factual errors -- including the claim that Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice at sixteen.* You know, the same age as Greta Thunberg.

* Chance the Janeite: As a proud son of Chicago, famously known as America’s Second City, Chance the Rapper turned his musical monologue at the opening of the October 26 Saturday Night Live into an ode to all things second. “I’m the kind of guy that likes the second-best best,” he rapped.

He offered numerous examples: Burger King fries beat out McDonald’s, Scottie Pippen’s basketball skills outdo Michael Jordan’s – and then the kicker: “Sense and Sensibility is better than Pride and Prejudice,” Chance proclaimed, as two cue-card chicks in slinky purple dresses held up the movie poster for the 1995 Emma Thompson S&S. (It’s at 2:26 on the clip.)

And then he rhymed "Pride and Prejudice" with “Sega Genesis.” Which is definitely not a juxtaposition I ever expected to hear.

* P&P: Probably begun c. 1796-7. When Austen was at least twenty.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 31 2019 01:00PM

I really should cease being surprised by how indiscriminately purveyors of goods and services slap the name “Jane Austen” onto items with virtually no link to her life or work. And yet, I still shook my head last month when I learned of the Austen Coat, now available from the British clothing company Boden.

The coat, which retails for £220 (about $276), comes in fetching shades of navy and red, with two interchangeable faux-fur collars, one in navy and one in leopard print. The leopard, according to Boden’s website, is for those days when you want to “channel your inner Lydia Bennett (sic).” (So wearing a flamboyant coat collar is the 2019 equivalent of risking social death for a lusty interlude with a hottie in a militia uniform?)

To be fair, it’s not just Our Jane who is getting the Boden Non Sequitur treatment. The Austen Coat is part of a new line of thirty coats dedicated to “remarkable historical British women who dared to be different,” Boden explains. “Because being brave never goes out of style.”

There’s a suede-and-shearling number inspired by archaeologist Gertrude Bell, a wool-blend duffle with Paddington Bear-style toggles that is named for Emily Brontë, and a velvet blazer, available in solids or flamboyant prints, that is styled after Virginia Woolf’s lover, the daring novelist and garden designer Vita Sackville-West.

The Austen Coat, Boden tells us, riffs on pseudonymous publication: “She may have had to hide her true identity, but there's no concealing her sparkling wit and unforgettable characters (Mr Darcy, anyone?)” According to the digital version of Woman & Home, a British magazine for women over forty, the leopard-print collar represents the true, writerly Austen concealed beneath the façade of proper ladyhood. Or something like that.

Although it’s all pretty ridiculous, I can’t stop puzzling over the significance of the price points. The Jane Austen coat appears to fall somewhere in the middle of the line – more expensive than the Mary Wollstonecraft puffer coat (£175) or the Emily Brontë duffle (£180), but less than the double-breasted Fanny Burney (£250) or the longline Margot Fonteyn (£275). And what does it tell us that the wool-blend Ada Lovelace is already marked down by thirty percent?

Are computer-science pioneers less valuable than famous ballerinas? Do we price over-the-top emotion on the Yorkshire moors at a lower rate than Regency stiff upper lips? Surely Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of us all, deserves better?

What’s that you say? Maybe I’m overthinking this? Perhaps – but it seems I’m not the only one.

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