Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 26 2020 01:00PM

Pandemic life has made clear, at least to me, that online interactions are no substitute for the in-real-life kind. Still, it’s heartening to see artists and cultural organizations seizing the opportunity to create high-quality virtual experiences for those of us who don’t have better choices right now.

The latest example of this lemonade-out-of-lemons approach is “Jane Austen’s House From Home,” a menu of online experiences designed to introduce visitors to Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.

Back in June, the cottage – now a museum of Austen’s life -- staged an ultra-successful crowdfunding appeal, raising more than £97,000 (over $126,000) in a campaign that had initially sought only £75,000. Donations poured in after the museum warned that its long-term viability was at risk after months of pandemic-induced closure.

Chawton is open again, but travel restrictions and social-distancing rules mean that fewer people can visit. Starting last week, however, the museum can come to you, via a nifty 360-degree virtual tour that takes you through every room in the cottage and lets you zoom in on everything from the floorboards to the ceiling rafters, as well as a slew of treasured artifacts – Austen’s writing desk, say, or the topaz cross that was a gift from one of her sailor brothers. If you've been to Chawton, the tour will bring back warm memories of that magical place, and if you're a newbie, it's bound to whet your appetite. Plus, there's a bonus: For once, the cottage is empty! No tourists jostling for elbow room in front of the famous Austen quilt!

The “From Home” site also features a children’s audio tour of the cottage and its grounds, purportedly narrated by the museum’s black and white cat, who quotes liberally from the Juvenilia. (Who knew cats had such great taste in literature?) And you can visit two virtual exhibitions, one on Austen’s letters and one featuring items related to Austen’s teenage years.

No, it’s not the same as being there. But for now, it’s what we’ve got, and it’s quite a bit better than nothing.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 22 2020 01:00PM

Back in March, a trio of young British academics decided to counteract the loneliness and isolation of lockdown by producing a series of short videos about ideas, culture, and the arts. The videos go up twice a week, with a rotating cast of academics and their guests talking about everything from wrestling to social history to Shakespeare.

The intended audience for the videos -- which you can find on YouTube or on the purpose-built website A Bit Lit -- is high school students, college students, professional academics, interested people stuck at home with nothing to do . . . pretty much everyone, in other words. The videos aren’t polished to a high gloss, but they’re far from amateurish, with entertaining cartoons and tongue-in-cheek visual effects enhancing the presentation.

Over the summer, I got a taste of the project when one of A Bit Lit’s creators -- Emma Whipday, a lecturer in Renaissance literature at Newcastle University – interviewed me about Austen fandom.

The segment produced from our conversation is available starting today; it’s the fourth part of Whipday’s ongoing “At Home with Austen” series. (The earlier episodes are available here, here, and here.) If you’re stuck at home with nothing to do – and isn’t everybody, at least outside of New Zealand? – check it out and let me know what you think.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 19 2020 01:00PM

The past eighteen months have brought us a couple of made-for-the-small-screen Jane Austen spinoffs: the Lifetime movie Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta in June 2019 and the ITV/PBS series Sanditon, which began airing in the United States in January 2020, after premiering a few months earlier in Britain.

Notably, both shows aimed to expand Jane Austen’s mostly all-white world to include important characters of color (or, in the case of P&P: Atlanta, a virtually all-Black cast).

And now comes word of another project that updates Austen’s story to a far more diverse world: a planned HBO adaptation of Ibi Zoboi’s 2018 young-adult novel Pride, which sets P&P in gentrifying, multiracial contemporary Brooklyn. The project seems to be at an early stage, with a writer and producer on board but no word on casting.

Pride, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is by a Haitian-American writer who lives in Brooklyn, just like the novel’s seventeen-year-old protagonist, Zuri Benitez. Zuri is an aspiring writer who hopes to attend her dream college, Howard University, but plans to return to the noisy, close-knit neighborhood where her working-class Dominican-Haitian-American family lives.

When the affluent African-American Darcy family moves into the refurbished home across the street, Janae, the oldest of the five teenage Benitez sister, immediately falls for Ainsley, the oldest Darcy son. But Zuri takes a dislike to Ainsley’s younger brother, Darius, whom she pegs as a stuck-up and inauthentic bougie.

You pretty much know how it goes from here, although – as so often happens in Austen fanfic produced by genuinely accomplished writers – the most interesting bits of the story are those that abandon Austen’s template in favor of something more individual. In the case of Pride, that’s Zoboi’s evocation of the sights, sounds, and social codes of Zuri’s Bushwick, and her depiction of Zuri’s heartbreak over the unstoppable changes overtaking her beloved neighborhood, as gentrifiers like the Darcy family move in and rising real estate prices displace longtime residents.

Not exactly Austenian, but hey -- great fodder for a film. I’m on board!

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2020 01:00PM

Fifty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

“Only think of Mrs Holder’s being dead!” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in the letter Austen finished exactly 207 years ago today (#92 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.) “Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her.”

It’s hardly news to any reader of Jane Austen’s letters that the great author could sometimes be a Mean Girl—catty about other people’s looks, brains, personalities, and conversation. And this letter from Godmersham, the stately home in Kent where Austen was staying with her widowed brother Edward’s large family and an array of other houseguests, seems to have brought out her mean streak in spades.

The deceased Mrs. Holder (what was wrong with her? We’ll never know) is the least of it, although it is delicious to hear Austen skewering the “poor woman” in the very act of proclaiming her beyond skewering,

Elsewhere, Austen cuttingly sums up Lady Fagg and her five daughters (“I never saw so plain a family, five sisters so very plain!”), a new acquaintance named Mr. Wigram (“They say his name is Henry. A proof how unequally the gifts of Fortune are bestowed.—I have seen many a John & Thomas much more agreable”), and even her own niece Cassy -- the daughter of the youngest Austen brother, Charles, and his wife, Fanny Palmer Austen -- who was all of four years old (“Poor little Love.—I wish she were not so very Palmery—but it seems stronger than ever.—I never knew a Wife’s family-features have such undue influence”).

Even when Austen claims to be pleased with the company, she puts a sting in the tail of her praise: “I like him very much. I am sure he is clever & a Man of Taste,” she writes of a fellow guest, Stephen Lushington, who at the time was representing Canterbury in Parliament. “He is quite an M.P.—very smiling, with an exceeding good address, & readiness of Language.—I am rather in love with him.--I dare say he is ambitious and Insincere.”

It’s enough to make you agree with one of Austen’s most unsympathetic biographers, John Halperin, that “one does have the feeling, reading Jane Austen’s letters, that the milk of human kindness was often kept in the larder, and the tea served with lemon.”

To be fair -- fairer than Halperin is -- Austen's little digs seem to have been kept between herself and Cassandra; as far as we know, she never taunted the Fagg sisters with their plainness or told Mr. Wigram how unfavorably he compared with the Johns and Thomases she knew. Her letters to Cassandra were safe places for Austen to vent her frustration and fatigue about the weeks she spent as a guest, mandated to gratitude and required to make small talk with dullards instead of investing her time in those she truly valued. Perhaps, like the embattled Jane Fairfax in Emma, Austen found herself longing for "the comfort of being sometimes alone!" (ch. 42)

“The Comfort of the Billiard Table here is very great,” Jane confided to Cassandra, in a throwaway remark that illuminates, and perhaps mitigates, the unkindness on display elsewhere. “It draws all the Gentlemen to it whenever they are within, especially after dinner, so that my Br[other] Fanny & I have the Library to ourselves in delightful quiet.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 12 2020 01:00PM

Sanditon, the much-hyped TV adaptation of the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, is probably not getting a second season, but the enthusiasm of its uber-fans, the #SanditonSisterhood, is the gift that keeps on giving.

Last month, as you’ll recall, the Sidney-and-Charlotte brigade commissioned a sand artist to create a huge mural of Sanditon’s young lovers on the beach near Bristol, where the currently canceled show was filmed. The fans hoped to bring IRL attention to their online campaign, which aims at persuading a broadcaster to finance more episodes. (More than 72,000 people have signed a petition deploring the series’ unhappy, cliffhanger ending.)

But here’s the thing about sand art: Much like the affections of TV audiences, it does not long endure. And before artist Simon Beck could finish his work, the tide rolled in and swept it all away – bonneted Charlotte, top-hat-wearing Sidney, and “Who Will #SaveSanditon?” caption.

Beck, however, is a man of his word, and so days later he returned to the beach to finish filling in the outlines of his abortive Sidney Parker. Admittedly, the figure bears only a slight resemblance to the dishy Theo James, who played Sidney in the series, but sand may not lend itself to photorealism.

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