Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 12 2019 02:00PM

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,” I texted my husband.


I was not providing dampening commentary on our nearly twenty-nine-year union, or even channeling Charlotte Lucas. No, I was trying out my new “What Would Jane Austen Say?” app, downloaded from Apple minutes earlier for $2.12, including tax.


“And thus the digital dumbs us down further,” he texted back.


I surveyed my twenty Austenian choices and then clicked on the most apposite. “One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s,” I replied. I felt like the character in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club, the one who invented an Austen Magic 8-Ball that kept answering every question by noting, “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves.”


The app, which was apparently created by one Marisa Marquez two years ago but only intruded itself on my consciousness recently, seemed kind of fun, I thought.


“Indulge your imagination in every possible flight,” I texted my college-age daughter, who was studying for finals. “Thank you, I def will,” she promised.


“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal,” I informed my son, six months into his first full-time job. Except that on my screen, the quote trailed off: “saves me the trouble o. . .” Presumably, I figured, it would arrive intact.


I was quickly disabused of this naïve notion. “When I click to see the whole quote it asks me to download the app,” my son explained. “Which ain’t happening.”


I could hardly believe my eyes. Jane Austen quotes used as bait in a virtual chain letter designed to suck a couple of dollars out of all my friends’ bank accounts? Austen as a Madoff-style pyramid schemer? What would Jane Austen say about that?


On second thought, however, I realized I should have been suspicious from the get-go. For nestled amid the genuine Austen quotes on the list provided by the app was an all-too-familiar cuckoo: “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”


This schemer couldn’t even tell genuine Austen from movie Austen! No wonder she couldn’t be trusted! If I’d known her number, I would have texted her an apt reply from her own list: “Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 9 2019 02:00PM

As the holidays approach, you may be bracing for the arrival of that winter perennial, the fruitcake -- baked months earlier, soaked in alcohol, and stashed in a cupboard until gift-giving time.


Here in my little corner of the Janeite universe, I’ve got a few well-preserved morsels of my own: incidental Austen mentions that I’ve been saving up all fall, waiting for the right moment to unwrap the cheesecloth and present them to you. Feel free to sip from a snifter of aromatic brandy as you read.


* Back in September, a Bangladeshi soap opera based on Pride and Prejudice aired its two hundredth (!) episode. The show, Man Obhiman, tells the story of two sisters whose “quest for love creates a series of complications in their lives.” (Doesn’t it always?)


The show airs six nights a week and has been running since January, so for all I know, it may well have passed its three hundredth episode by now. Meanwhile, Google’s Bengali translator isn’t up to the job of figuring out what the title means, so I welcome reader input.


* A young Missouri woman with a Pride and Prejudice obsession and an Austen tattoo – “most ardently,” inked on her right arm – hopes to earn a doctorate and teach literature in college. It’s news because the woman, Abigail Morrall, has a genetic illness called spinal muscular atrophy that seemed likely to kill her in childhood.


Recently, however, a new drug gave her renewed hope for the future, and now she looks forward to a full life. “My favorite place to be in this entire world is in a literature classroom at a university,” she told the University of Missouri’s crack PR team, which fed the story to a local TV station. Here’s hoping -- most ardently! -- that she gets to have the life she wants.


* From time to time, an obituary makes you bitterly regret the passing of a fabulous character you never had the chance to meet. Such was my reaction to the death earlier this year, at age 91, of Elizabeth Burchfield (née Elizabeth Austen Knight), a retired publicist for Oxford University Press and a descendant of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward.


Burchfield, a New Zealander who spent most of her long life in England, was a green-eyed, auburn-haired book-lover who married, in middle age, Robert Burchfield, described in the London Times’ obituary as a “renowned lexicographer and the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.”


“At a home in Oxfordshire filled with thousands of books, including their fine collection of works from New Zealand. . . . Bob and Elizabeth jousted with guests over words, their provenance and their pronunciation,” the article goes on to say.


Elizabeth gave her eight step-grandchildren books as gifts, employing a careful record-keeping system to ensure no one ever got a duplicate. Included with each gift was a Post-It note describing the book’s virtues.


And in old age “she wrote crisp letters to the press, invariably involving the usage of English,” the obituary notes. “In The Spectator in 2013, for instance, Elizabeth observed: ‘Sir: Dot Wordsworth writes about blazers and jackets. I was always led to believe that gentlemen wore coats; potatoes had jackets.’ ”


OK, they had me at “home filled with thousands of books,” but really – doesn’t she sound irresistible?



By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 5 2019 02:00PM

These days, it takes a lot for an instance of Austenian inaccuracy to surprise me. I hardly turn a hair when quotes from Austen screen adaptations are attributed to Austen’s novels, or when movies that barely gesture toward her plots brandish titles implying a close relationship to the original, or when cosmetic and hygiene products unknown to the Regency claim an association with her brand.


So hats off to Republic World, an online news platform from India, for pulling me up short with its recent listicle “Hollywood Movie Adaptations: Five Classics That Were Adapted From Plays.”


Three of the items on the list are filmed versions of Shakespeare plays (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo + Juliet), while a fourth is the adaptation of a Broadway classic, Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.


The fifth item is the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility, based, in this telling, on “the original play. . . written by legendary playwright and author Jane Austen.”


We could, I suppose, spend time contemplating writer Drushti Sawant’s selection of the adjective “legendary”: did she mean to imply that Austen’s status as a playwright is a matter of legend, rather than fact? Or we might speculate that Sawant has chosen sides in the scholarly debate over whether Jane Austen or her young niece Anna was the true author of the play Sir Charles Grandison, the manuscript of which is now in the possession of Jane Austen’s House Museum.


Or we might go for the simplest explanation and conclude that Sawant figured the Austen name is always good for clickbait, even when the novelist herself has absolutely no relevance to the topic at hand.


Either way, Sawant did manage to surprise me. Which is something, I guess.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 2 2019 02:00PM

My husband seems befuddled, even a tad shell-shocked. His maiden viewing of a Jane Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie – Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, which premiered last Saturday night – has paused for its first commercial break, and he has a question.


“People watch this?” he says. “For fun?”


After nearly four years of Austenesque Hallmark movies, my expectations of each new offering have hit rock-bottom. Seventeen minutes into Saturday’s broadcast, it is no surprise to me that SS&S bears almost no relationship to Austen’s work. I don’t flinch – well, not much, anyway – at the predictable storyline, the limp writing, or the bargain-basement acting.


But my husband, poor lamb, is new to it all. “The acting in the adverts is better,” he points out plaintively a few minutes later. (He’s a Brit. Over there, they say “adverts” instead of “commercials.”)


Arguably, his statement is true, but still, as mediocre Austen spinoffs go, SS&S is no worse than average. For plot: a (sort-of) Enemies to (tepid) Lovers tale, wherein a driven workaholic (here, a staid toy-company CEO named Edward Ferris) falls for a creative free spirit (here, a winsome event planner named Ella Dashwood) while they jointly plan a communal Christmas gathering (here, a last-minute holiday party for important clients).


In place of Austen’s plot, we get name-dropping: Ella’s sister, the cautious and conservative Marianne, exchanges an off-stage ex named Willoughby for a nice-guy lawyer named Brandon. Edward’s high-school-girlfriend-turned-company-VP is Lucy Steele. Brandon’s law firm, we learn from a nameplate on a lobby wall, is Morton, Middleton & Jennings. (OK, that one makes me laugh.)


Wait – what? Marianne is cautious and Ella is free-spirited? “I’m confused,” my husband says, as the second commercial break dawns, a mere nine minutes after the conclusion of the first one. “Why did they swap the names? They could have the original names and it would be exactly the same. Now it’s just confusing.”


“Only if you’ve read the book,” I point out. (And actually, he's wrong: more has changed than the names alone. In the original, it's the wild sister who gets Brandon and the staid one who gets Edward.)


The film winds on. Edward tells Ella that his company has discontinued its signature teddy bear because it is “no longer marketable.” (What? A teddy bear no longer marketable? In what universe?) Ella introduces Edward, who has allegedly grown up in the toy business, to the revolutionary concept of testing toys on focus groups of actual children. A pair of French toy-store owners named Jacques and Vivienne arrive in town. Their accents wax and wane, like the moon in December.


“I think they’re not really French,” my husband opines darkly.


Ella chides Edward for his lack of Christmas spirit, as evidenced by his boring, solid-color ties. Edward ribs Ella over her corny, Yuletide-inspired scarves. Ella suggests the party theme should be “Winter Wonderland.” I note that this was also the theme of the party in Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe, one of last year’s Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movies. (That’s what we English-major types call intertextuality, boys and girls.)


My husband shows signs of bailing. Hang in there, I urge him. Before long, our protagonists will decorate a Christmas tree together! They will have a snowball fight! They will bake cookies and drink hot chocolate!


Ella offers to help decorate Edward’s home for the holidays, as “an extra service.”


“Ooh. . . extra services. . .” my husband comments wolfishly. Apparently, he has forgotten the movie’s TV-G rating.


Forty-seven minutes into our evening, as the third commercial break concludes, my husband leaves for the home office adjoining our TV room. I try to guilt him into staying. I fail. “It’s really bad,” he says. He sounds apologetic. Well, half-apologetic, anyway.


Three minutes later, Edward and Ella are decorating a Christmas tree. I announce the milestone in a voice loud enough to be heard in the room next door. My husband grunts. He seems curiously unimpressed. Five minutes later, an onscreen snowball fight breaks out. I report that, too. “You called this half an hour ago,” he says. “I still think the Big Reveal is the French people aren’t really French.” Then he goes to bed.


Edward and Ella decorate a gingerbread house together, which I decide is close enough to count as cookie-baking. Hot drinks are distributed – but do the cups contain cocoa, or just coffee? Hard to tell. The French characters hop into a sleigh. “Salut!" Jacques exclaims, Frenchly. "Joyeux Noel!”


Edward’s company relaunches its signature teddy bear. The big party goes off without a hitch, even though the servers are dressed as elves. The Dashwood sisters have a small, implausible tiff. The lovers have another. The sisters make up and agree to expand their business together.


The lovers go for a walk through a quaintly snow-covered town center. Edward is wearing a corny, Yuletide-inspired scarf. He and Ella kiss and make up. My heart leaps, but not because of the kiss, which is Hallmark-chaste. No, I’ve spotted a hot chocolate stand in the background! Will they. . . .?


But no. Onscreen, it is Christmas Day, and so the stand is unstaffed. I retire to bed.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 28 2019 02:00PM

As we sit down to our turkey tonight, perhaps in company with relatives or acquaintances whom we carefully avoid the rest of the year, let us turn our thoughts to a similar ordeal faced by the Dashwood sisters.


Invited for dinner at the London home of their selfish, neglectful half-brother John and his equally grasping wife, Elinor and Marianne endure a dinner party that may remind one or two of us of Thanksgivings past:


“The dinner was a grand one, the servants were numerous, and everything bespoke the Mistress's inclination for shew, and the Master's ability to support it. . . . no poverty of any kind, except of conversation, appeared--but there, the deficiency was considerable. John Dashwood had not much to say for himself that was worth hearing, and his wife had still less. But there was no peculiar disgrace in this, for it was very much the case with the chief of their visitors, who almost all labored under one or other of these disqualifications for being agreeable--Want of sense, either natural or improved--want of elegance--want of spirits--or want of temper.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 34)


Here's hoping that your Thanksgiving meal is a cut above the Dashwoods' dinner!


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