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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 26 2020 01:00PM

For Austen fans everywhere, it’s a burning question: WWJD (What Would Jane Do) in the time of coronavirus quarantine?


Luckily, we now have our answer, reported via Twitter just yesterday: “Over breakfast, Jane announced she'll be finishing Sanditon in order to give that Andrew Davies more to work with. ‘Poor man’s been playing without a net.’ ”


This welcome insight into Austen’s productive response to global pandemic comes to us via Pride & Plague, a delightful new Twitter account that purports to chronicle how Our Jane and her pal William Shakespeare are holding up amid social isolation.


Apparently, the two great writers – or at least their action-figure avatars – have remained friends ever since jointly starring in “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” the wonderful exhibition mounted at Washington D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library in 2016.


Equipped with tiny surgical masks bearing a marked resemblance to repurposed Band-Aids, Jane and Will have spent the past five days much like the rest of us: shopping for emergency groceries, perfecting their handwashing technique, and bingeing on TV – the newly-available-for-streaming 2020 adaptation of Emma, natch.


The Pride & Plague account is unsigned, but judging from the identity of its Facebook publicist, it seems to be the brainchild of Austen scholar Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who was co-curator of the Folger exhibit.


Luckily, Barchas appears to have grasped an important truth about our current woeful reality. Toilet paper, canned goods, and Tylenol may be the staple necessities of the quarantined, but another item will surely prove equally important in getting us through all this: a sense of humor.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 23 2020 01:00PM

I like to think that I do not “rant” about Jane Austen-related error. I merely point it out, in a snarky yet restrained way.


At times, it may be true, I do allow my annoyance at the total sloppiness that surrounds us at all times and would be so easy to avoid if only people would avail themselves of the greatest research tool ever known to humankind which they all have at their very fingertips every moment of every single day. . . where was I again? Oh, yes. . . allow my annoyance to issue in the occasional bit of mocking chastisement. But always with restraint.


Still, it’s very tempting to rant when an entertainment news site that actually calls itself ScreenRant is the latest source of ridiculous Austen-error, such as appears in the site’s recent listicle “James McAvoy’s 10 Greatest Films, According to IMDB.”


This is not the time to argue with the users of IMDB over whether Atonement is better or worse than various installments of the X-Men franchise, or whether Split should or should not have beaten out The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.


It is, however, the perfect time to take issue with this description of Becoming Jane, the Austen biopic that comes in at #8 on the McAvoy Greatest Hits list: “Based on letters written by Jane Austen to a young Irishman, McAvoy's Tom Lefroy, this movie focuses on Austen's pre-fame romance instead of the romance from one of her classic novels.”


Yes, that’s right: Apparently, we now have letters written by Jane Austen to Tom Lefroy. Actual, bona fide Jane Austen love letters.


Also, the Loch Ness Monster surfaced on camera recently, and the Holy Grail was discovered underneath a parking lot in the Lake District.


I might be less inclined to. . . not rant. . . offer a strongly worded critique of this entirely false claim about Austen’s correspondence were it not for my fear that this error will soon spread like a coronavirus, infecting the entire internet faster than you can say, "It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do."


You know how it happens: ScreenRant claims that Becoming Jane is based on Austen’s (non-existent) letters to Tom Lefroy; then three more stories about James McAvoy link to ScreenRant’s listicle and repeat the letter claim; then an introductory paragraph to a Valentine’s Day feature on Bustle titled “15 Ways Jane Austen Makes Us Love Love” notes in passing that “she wrote passionate love letters to an Irish heartthrob named Tom Lefroy”; and pretty soon you can’t Google “Jane Austen” without being offered “letters to Tom Lefroy” as a search term.


It’s enough to inspire a rant. At least from someone less restrained than I am.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 19 2020 01:02PM

There’s an upside to everything, apparently – even a global pandemic that threatens to sicken and perhaps kill millions while tanking the world economy.


Yes, the latest Jane Austen screen adaptation will be available for streaming tomorrow, months before anyone could have expected it.


Arthouse films like Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., which opened in big cities last month and went into wide release on March 6, get clobbered when they don’t have time to build an audience through word of mouth. Indeed, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down movie theaters, the industry predicted “carnage at the box office,” to quote one recent, dubiously tasteful headline.


Instead, Universal Pictures announced Monday that it would send three of its current theatrical releases to home rental screens immediately. In case a light-hearted period romance-cum-social-satire isn’t your cup of tea, you can also opt for a creepy science fiction stalker flick (The Invisible Man) or a politically edgy gorefest (The Hunt).


It’s not clear whether early release to streaming is the wave of the future, which would alarm movie theater chains, or just a response to the current crisis. But we can think about all that tomorrow, or whenever we're again free to leave the house. Meanwhile, I recommend Emma., which is beautiful to look at, features some lovely performances, and offers a thoughtful take on the novel.


While regretting that viewers won’t experience her carefully curated sounds and colors exactly as intended, de Wilde is embracing the chance for her movie to Do Its Part in our current circumstances.


“I do think it’s a good thing, what Universal is doing,” de Wilde told the New York Times. “We need to keep people sane at home and give them a place to escape to. Emma. is a great escape movie.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2020 01:00PM

No one in Jane Austen’s novels becomes infected with a coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say on the subject that now occupies all of our minds. At least three important characters* in her novels experience significant bouts of infectious disease:


--Harriet Smith “was very feverish and had a bad sore-throat . . . . ‘a throat very much inflamed, with a great deal of heat about her, a quick low pulse, &c.’ ” (Emma, ch. 13)


In an early example of self-quarantining, poor ailing Harriet has to miss the Westons’ Christmas party.


--Harriet’s illness seems to be a random act of God, but Marianne Dashwood courts disaster with “two delightful twilight walks . . . . not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where . . . the grass was the longest and wettest . . . assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 42)


Eventually “heavy and feverish, with a pain in her limbs, a cough, and a sore throat,” she grows progressively worse, is confined to her bed, and begins calling deliriously for her mother; a week later “the fever was unabated; and Marianne only more quiet -- not more herself -- remained in an heavy stupor.” (chs. 42-43)


Rather than self-quarantining, however, Colonel Brandon sets out for Barton Cottage, risking the transport of a nasty bug across county lines. Arguably, however, bringing a mother to her child’s potential deathbed counts as essential travel.


* If Marianne’s illness stems from imprudence, Tom Bertram’s is born out of downright recklessness, not to mention dissipation: “Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where a neglected fall and a good deal of drinking had brought on a fever.” (Mansfield Park, ch. 44)


By the time Tom is back at Mansfield Park, “some strong hectic symptoms, which seemed to seize the frame on the departure of the fever” leave Edmund and Sir Thomas “apprehensive for [Tom’s] lungs” and forced to nurse the patient through “nerves much affected, spirits much depressed.” (ch. 45)


On the bright side, however, there’s nothing like a scandalous extramarital elopement to encourage a family toward a bit of social distancing.


Let’s take it as a good omen for our perilous times that all Austen’s patients eventually recover their health. Happy hand-washing, everyone!



* I omit the numerous parents and parental figures who expire offstage, often before the narrative commences, and the long convalescence of Louisa Musgrove, who is the victim of an accidental injury, not an infectious disease.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 12 2020 01:00PM

Twenty-five years ago this summer, we Janeites flocked to movie theaters to see a brand-new modernization of Emma, set among affluent Beverly Hills high school students.


Since then, the costumes, music, and slang of the immortal Clueless have become indelible pop-culture touchstones, and just about everyone who loves Cher Horowitz has bought the DVD or, at the very least, subscribed to a streaming service that makes the movie available for right-this-minute viewing.


Nevertheless, there’s something special about the communal experience of seeing a movie, up there on the big screen, amid a crowd of strangers. Or so, apparently, thinks Paramount Pictures, which has teamed up with Fathom Entertainment to celebrate Clueless’ quarter-century with a three-day theatrical release.


More than seven hundred cinemas across the country will show Clueless at four screenings over three days – May 3, 4, and 6 – along with a short feature about the witty, unforgettable teen jargon that writer-director Amy Heckerling created for her characters. (Find a location near you here.)


I’m willing to bet that at least a few of these screenings will turn into Rocky Horror-style cosplay events featuring a whole lot of yellow plaid skirts and knee socks. (Not that this would be a problem! As if!)


Meanwhile, Autumn de Wilde’s lovely new adaptation of Emma – you know, the original novel? – is doing pretty well for an indie costume drama (nearly $21 million in international ticket sales, and counting). If the movie continues to succeed, that opens the delightful possibility of a true Janeite wallow: an Emma double feature, with stops at Hartfield in the afternoon and Bronson Alcott High School in the evening. Like, totally!


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