Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 28 2020 01:00PM

Had 2020 not been so – well, 2020-ish – throngs of happy Janeites from across the globe would have staggered home earlier this month from the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, phones overflowing with photos of fellow revelers in Regency costume.

Instead, Austen fans must continue to make do with virtual celebrations--even in Bath, where the venerable Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution in England is sponsoring this week’s “Rediscovering Jane Austen” series.

Events kick off tonight, at 7:30 pm British time, with a live “interactive discussion” of Persuasion. Every day through Sunday features another live talk (or recorded-talk-plus-live-Q&A) relating Austen’s life and work to such topics as marriage, feminism, spirituality, and the slave trade; additional pre-recorded videos deal with Regency fashion and dance.

And if you missed last month’s Jane Austen Quiz, sponsored by Chawton House, you’ll get another shot at Janeite trivia glory with the BRLSI’s version, on Sunday at 5 pm British time. Ticket prices for all events are modest.

The BRLSI, which traces its antecedents back to the eighteenth century, is a non-profit cultural society headquartered in Queen Square, where Austen and some of her relatives stayed during a 1799 visit to Bath. Attending its virtual Austen program isn’t the same as being there, but hey—in 2020, we take what we can get.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2020 01:00PM

Twenty-five years ago today, the BBC’s beloved adaptation of Pride and Prejudice began airing on UK TV. By the time the show made its way to American airwaves a few months later, it was already a phenomenon.

And now it’s dessert.

Earlier this month, the British TV channel Drama launched its latest “Jane Austen Season” – i.e., three Sunday-night screenings of popular Austen adaptations -- by commissioning a six-foot-high sponge-cake likeness of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy and parking it on the lawn at Lyme Park, the stately home that played Pemberley in the adaptation.

Created by cake designer Michelle Wibowo, the confection exhibits remarkable attention to detail (those sideburns! That draped linen!), even if it portrays its Darcy/Firth in a fully dressed state, rather than the more famous damp and disheveled.

The Drama channel seems to make a habit of hosting these Jane Austen seasons and planning elaborate publicity stunts to launch them: The 2017 version was an expert historical reconstruction of What Mr. Darcy Would Really Have Looked Like (spoiler: not as hunky as Colin Firth).

Yes, it’s all a bit silly. But it’s also an amazing testimony to the pop-culture staying-power of this particular mini-series. Most TV, even the expensive, beautifully costumed, high-production-values kind, is forgotten long before we get around to vacuuming the stray popcorn kernels out of the couch cushions. But not this one. Twenty-five years later, we’re still ready to dig in. Pass me a fork.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 21 2020 01:00PM

We Janeites love our Jane Austen movies. Can’t get enough of ‘em! Want more! And more! Or so you’d conclude from recent news:

* Plans for a big-screen Persuasion, word of which first surfaced last month, seem to be proceeding nicely: The Australian actress Sarah Snook, recently nominated for an Emmy for the HBO business dramedy Succession, has reportedly been cast as Anne Elliot. There’s plenty of time for the project to fall apart – remember that big-screen Sanditon, starring Charlotte Rampling? – but in the meantime, we can entertain ourselves by casting our fantasy Wentworths.

* This year’s Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, was canceled because. . . well, you know. But a local production company with the delightful name of Bonnetland hopes to interest a broadcaster in a six-part mini-series set during the festival. Early next month, the team will film a ten-minute pilot in Bath, and they’re looking for Janeites with their own Regency costumes to feature as extras.

The storyline is vague – “two characters on their humorous journey throughout the day" – but the extras seem likely to have a good time even if the series isn’t picked up. Says a spokeswoman, "This is a great opportunity to be involved in a lighthearted and fun project for all those missing out on the festival this year." Which is all of us.

* The irrepressible #SanditonSisterhood are not giving up on their quest for a second season of the much-hyped-but-not-successful-enough TV series based on the novel Austen left unfinished at her death. A year after ITV launched the show by commissioning a giant billboard mural in the seaside town of Bournemouth, fans who have spent months protesting the broadcaster’s decision to leave Sanditon’s star-crossed lovers dangling for all eternity arranged a public art project of their own.

Last week, on the sands of Bristol, where the show was filmed, artist Simon Beck created a giant portrait of protagonists Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker, captioned “Who will #SaveSanditon?” Alas for the fans, who crowdfunded Beck’s fee, the answer so far seems to be “no one”: a feeler earlier this summer from Amazon Prime Video’s UK branch has so far come to nothing. But that’s not likely to deter a band of intrepid, and adaptation-hungry, Janeites.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 17 2020 01:00PM

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. Even though it bears no relation to anything else going on in Jane Austen World, you must allow me to tell you about the rooster.

See, a couple of months ago, I happened across a delightful post on the Facebook page of Columbia State Historic Park, a preserved Gold Rush town in Northern California. As you can see, the photo shows a handsome barred rooster with an impressive red comb and wattle, and the caption reads, “Columbia’s unofficial mascot, Mr. Darcy. The only rooster among the many hens.”

The photo drew some admiring comments, a factual demurral – apparently, two other roosters do frequent the park – and one Colin Firth GIF (“I have not that talent which some possess of conversing easily with strangers.”)

For weeks now, I’ve been wracking my brains to think of a clever way to link this picture to--well, just about any tidbit of Austen news. Last year, blog readers will recall, a Baltimore zoo named a penguin after Mr. Knightley, but as I’ve noted before, journalists require three instances of a phenomenon in order to label it a trend. A mere two avian Austen namesakes just won’t cut it.

But now I’m officially giving up on sense and succumbing instead to sensibility: Really, I have no excuse for writing about a rooster that just happens to be named Mr. Darcy. But at times like these, it’s somehow heartening to think instead about . . . chickens.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 14 2020 01:00PM

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

The letter that the 28-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 216 years ago today (#39 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is dated from Lyme, where the Austen family was spending a late-summer holiday.

For fans of Austen’s novels, that dateline, and the echoes of Persuasion that it summons, may be the most notable thing about this letter: Although we know that the Austens spent two holidays in the seaside village, in 1803 and 1804, this is the only letter that survives from either visit.

The letter provides a kaleidoscopic, slightly mordant glimpse of the social scene that Cassandra had recently left behind, as she journeyed to spend time with family friend Martha Lloyd and her ailing mother.

Miss Bonham, Austen writes, is recovering from an illness but “tho’ she is now well enough to walk abroad, she is still very tall & does not come to the Rooms.” The relations of an Irish viscount are “bold, queerlooking people, just fit to be Quality at Lyme.” (Ouch!) A throwaway mention of a tradesman called Anning—Richard Anning, cabinetmaker and carpenter? Austen doesn’t say--conjures up tantalizing visions of an unrecorded meeting between two great nineteenth-century women: Jane Austen unwittingly crossing paths with Anning’s then-five-year-old daughter, Mary, the future paleontologist.

But my favorite passage in the letter describes a morning visit to a Miss Armstrong, which had revealed that “[l]ike other young Ladies she is considerably genteeler then her Parents; Mrs Armstrong sat darning a p[ai]r of Stockings the whole of my visit,” Jane tells Cassandra. “But I do not mention this at home, lest a warning should act as an example.”

Given that the Austens' own mother was not only a clever woman seeking to marry her daughters off advantageously but also a distant relation of a duke, it seems unlikely that Jane seriously worried that she would take up stocking-mending in company. No, to me this reads like a private joke between sisters: Parents! Aren’t they embarrassing?

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