Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 21 2019 01:00PM

Once again, it’s time to cue a chorus of “If I Were A Rich Janeite”: another Austen artifact is on the market, set to be auctioned on Wednesday in New York.


This time, it’s a September 1813 letter (#88 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) that Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra at Chawton while visiting their brother Henry in London.


In the letter, Austen reports on her nieces’ hair-raising visit to the dentist -- Regency dental care: another reason to be glad we don’t live in Austen’s world -- and describes the purchase of a china dinner service that is still on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage.


Along the way, there are minute discussions of London shopping expeditions and some tidbits of news about family and friends. If it’s not quite the “Incredible, Intimate Austen Letter” promised in one news headline, it is certainly a more substantial missive than the 1814 letter-fragment that the museum bought over the summer, with the help of a successful crowdfunding campaign.


With so few Austen letters extant, it's rather a fluke to have two changing hands in the same year. Alas, however, the latest letter seems unlikely to make it into the museum’s collection.


Bonhams, the firm handling the auction, is projecting a sale price of £63,000 to £94,000, or $80,000 to $120,000, roughly two or three times the £35,000 negotiated price of the previous letter. “If the present owners had consulted privately with us, of course we would have been happy to try to reach a mutually fair accommodation,” Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland, a museum trustee, told the Guardian newspaper, “but auction house prices do not sit well with what public institutions can in most cases afford to offer.”


A quixotic GoFundMe effort launched by the moderator of Facebook’s Jane Austen Fan Club page had raised only $785 as of this morning. “It's so important to keep these pieces of history in their home country,” one contributor to the GoFundMe effort opines.


Laudable as that sentiment may be, however, the fact remains that this particular letter hasn’t lived in its home country for well over a century. Jane Austen’s great-nephew, Lord Brabourne, sold it at auction in 1891 to New York businessman and literary collector Louis J. Haber; in 1909, Haber sold it at auction to another New Yorker, Cleveland H. Dodge, a copper baron and philanthropist. It’s the Dodge family who are now auctioning the letter for the third time – likely to yet another rich Janeite with a substantial private collection.




By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 17 2019 01:11PM

Last month, as blog readers will recall, we jointly pondered a Jane Austen Christmas mystery: why a made-for-TV movie named Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen – allegedly based on Austen’s novel of the same title, minus the snowmen – had vanished from the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas schedule.


But thank goodness! In keeping with the spirit of the season, joy can now spread across the land! The movie will air after all, albeit as part of Hallmark’s Miracles of Christmas schedule, which features seven new sappy romcoms, as opposed to Countdown’s busier slate of twenty-four.


Last year, as blog readers will recall, Hallmark aired not one but two nominally Austen-inspired Christmas movies. Both claimed to be based on Pride and Prejudice but turned out to have essentially no connection to Austen’s novel. Instead, as I pointed out at the time, both told “the story of a driven workaholic named Darcy who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.”


Judging from the video preview available on the Hallmark Channel website, this year’s Austenesque offering, Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, represents a radical departure from that model. It’s the story of a driven workaholic named Edward who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.


And get this, you stick-in-the-mud Janeites with your purist notions of literary fidelity: While the movie centers on two sisters who co-own an event-planning company, the free-spirited one is named Ella, while the staid, responsible one is named Marianne.


Mind-blowing, I know. I’m reeling, too.


Still, a mystery remains – and I don’t mean the mystery of why people with no actual interest in Jane Austen keep slapping her name onto properties bearing only the most tenuous relationship to her work. That’s a puzzle whose solution is a five-letter word beginning with M.


No, the mystery I have in mind concerns the scheduling of the new movie, which, according to Hallmark’s publicity, will premiere on November 29 at 9 pm. Meanwhile, over at the Countdown to Christmas schedule, a film called Christmas at the Plaza is scheduled for the same night at 8 pm.


Unless Plaza is an hour-long divertissement, which seems unlikely – Hallmark’s hour-by-hour schedule for the end of next month doesn’t appear to be available yet, so I can’t check for sure – we may be facing a veritable Clash of the Titans, or at least of the Titanically Mediocre Christmas Movies. How can two films occupy the same hour of air time? Making that work may take a true Christmas miracle.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 14 2019 01:00PM

We Janeites may love Austen’s heroes and heroines, but it’s her secondary characters who make us laugh out loud. Fanny Dashwood’s selfishness, Mr. Collins’ sycophancy, Isabella Thorpe’s insincerity, and [insert your favorite here] never fail to divert us.


So it’s encouraging to hear that the gifted character actress Bebe Neuwirth, whom some of us remember fondly as the toxic ex-wife in Frasier, has a part in the upcoming movie Modern Persuasion, which recently completed filming. (It’s – wait for it -- a modern version of Persuasion. Bet you didn’t see that coming.)


Alas, the movie’s IMDB entry, which lists characters with names like “Wren Cosgrove” and “Grayson Keller,” provides no clues to which Austen-inspired part, if any, Neuwirth (“Vanessa Perry”) will be playing. Is she Elizabeth Elliot? Penelope Clay? Lady Russell? Mrs. Croft? Each one offers promising scope for Neuwirth’s genius, assuming the script is any good, so I am all anticipation. With no release date yet announced, I’ll just have to be patient.


Meanwhile, however, another Jane Austen vehicle that does have a release date promises similar pleasures. The new feature film of Emma will arrive on U.S. screens on February 21, and although its star, Anya Taylor-Joy, is an interesting actress, I’m more excited about two of her co-stars. The hilarious Miranda Hart has the potential to be the Miss Bates of our dreams, and the chameleonic Bill Nighy should make a wonderful Mr. Woodhouse.


And of course January will bring us, via PBS, Anne Reid as the imperious Lady Denham in the controversial UK TV version of Sanditon. It should be a great year for Austen sidekicks.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 10 2019 01:00PM

In David Lodge’s classic 1975 academic novel Changing Places, the English-professor characters discuss a game of intellectual chicken called Humiliation. The rules are simple: Name a book you’ve never read, and earn a point for every person in the group who has. The more glaringly unusual the gap in your reading, the higher your likely score – but the greater your helping of the titular state of mortification. *


Judging from a recent poll conducted by the British TV channel Sky Arts, many Brits could rack up serious Humiliation points, if only they were willing to tell the truth. Among the two thousand people surveyed, more than half admitted to having lied about their reading, falsely claiming to have finished books they had barely cracked open.


Fifth on the list of twenty most-fibbed-about classics: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, lied about by eight percent of those surveyed. Austen is in good company, outranked by only the Bible (twelve percent), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (ten percent), Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (ten percent), and George Orwell’s 1984 (nine percent).


"We say we are a nation of readers,” Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones told the Independent newspaper, “but it turns out we're also a nation of fibbers when it comes to getting stuck into a book."


The reasons for lying were predictable: The fibbers wanted to look smarter or to join a literary conversation. In pursuit of these goals, they placed unread classics on their bookshelves, created social media photos of themselves with highbrow tomes in hand, or even memorized famous quotations. To conceal their ignorance of important details, they relied on screen adaptations or claimed to have finished books so long ago that their memories were fuzzy.


For many of the books on the list, it’s not hard to see why would-be readers preferred to lie rather than buckle down and turn those pages. Some of the books are very long and/or very difficult: Joyce’s Ulysses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.


Other books on the list, while not so long and hard, are the kind of trendy non-fiction bestsellers that come up often at cocktail parties: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Read a couple of reviews, and it’s probably not hard to discuss these books as if you’ve read them.


But a few items on the list leave me truly mystified. Why lie about reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island? It’s short, thrilling, and so easy to read that it’s a classic of children’s literature. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea each run to less than two hundred pages. Far from being highbrow esoterica, To Kill a Mockingbird is (allegedly) America’s favorite book.


And what to make of P&P’s presence on this list? It’s not all that long or, in my humble opinion, all that hard. I’d say the same about Nabokov’s Lolita and Dickens’ Great Expectations, two other favorite books of mine that made the most-lied-about list. I realize that many readers struggle with older prose styles, but really – give these a try!


Rather than feeling aggrieved on my favorite authors’ behalf, however, I will strive to feel smug instead. Obviously, if people seem compelled to lie about reading these books, mastery of their contents must constitute some kind of cultural touchstone, a Good Housekeeping seal of intellectual approval. And – nyah, nyah! -- I’ve read these books! I don’t have to lie!


OK, fine. Short as it is, I haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea. Ditto for Gladwell, Hawking, Hariri, and Rand. Not gonna lie. Could we just talk about Jane Austen instead?



* Lodge’s relevant passages are excerpted by retired English professor Robin Bates here, on a blog delightfully titled Better Living Through Beowulf.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 7 2019 01:00PM

I recognize that not everyone craves another Jane Austen-themed screen drama.


Some may have balked at the all! sex! all! the! time! hype surrounding Sanditon, the British TV series based on the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, which wraps up its eight-part UK run on Sunday night. Others may have reached saturation point earlier, with last year’s onslaught of terrible Austen-influenced Hallmark movies, or with the 2016 release of the appallingly bad Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For still others, the aversion may go back decades – perhaps to the 1940 P&P adaptation that turned Lady Catherine de Bourgh into an old softie.


For the rest of us, however – those who will see anything, no matter how dubious, as long as a savvy marketer has slapped a Jane Austen label on it – I’ve got news of two planned Austen-ish projects.


--A contemporary update of Pride and Prejudice--wait, don’t fall asleep yet: I promise this is a little bit different—is coming to a cellphone near you.


The American actor and comedian Joel Kim Booster is writing the series -- Trip, set on the gay mecca of Fire Island, New York -- for the streaming platform Quibi, which serves up its dramas in ten-minute-long episodes (Quibi = quick bites) designed to be consumed via phone.


“The story centers around two best friends who set out to have a legendary week-long summer vacation with the help of cheap rosé and a cadre of eclectic friends,” explains the Hollywood news site Deadline. I guess we’ll have to wait for the show – no release date announced yet -- to find out if those besties are Jane and Elizabeth, or Darcy and Bingley.


As the LGBT+ site Pink News notes, this is not the first gay P&P: the 2017 movie Before the Fall, which I have yet to see, centered on a male-male romance. And that’s not even counting fanfic like Ann Herendeen's Pride/Prejudice, which gives both Darcy and Elizabeth same-sex interests.


I hate watching video on my phone – that’s one way you know I’m old – and I haven’t seen Booster’s earlier TV work. But he is the author of a sweet and wistful 2018 piece about the resonance of Austen’s work for gay readers. Plus, a savvy marketer has already slapped a Jane Austen label on Trip. So you know I’ll be watching.


--We Janeites do not owe our name to Rudyard Kipling’s 1924 short story “The Janeites”; the term was actually coined thirty years earlier by the Victorian literary critic George Saintsbury.


Still, Kipling’s oddly affecting tale of soldier-readers struggling to hold onto their sanity in the trenches of World War I marks a milestone in the popularization of the term. And so it’s intriguing to hear that a young Australian director is trying to raise money for a film based on Kipling’s story.


The project’s Indiegogo site doesn’t make clear whether the projected film would be a short or a feature, although given the sums involved, a short seems most likely. Director Toby Morris’s previous work seems to consist of music videos, commercial work, and shorts. And twelve days into the thirty-day campaign, fundraising is off to a slow start, with only $34 of a hoped-for $20,000 raised. (An earlier campaign raised $1,600, falling far short of its target; apparently Morris and producer Sean O'Reilly are trying again.)


I’m wishing them well this time around. As far as I know, "The Janeites" has never been filmed; this really would be an Austen screen drama we haven’t seen before.


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