Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 15 2019 06:00AM

Thirteen years ago, when PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre aired a new adaptation of Jane Eyre, the network offered viewers a chance to buy something advertised as, if memory serves, “the companion novel.” That would be Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 masterpiece, one of the landmarks of English literature.


Beginning next week, ITV in Britain will air a new adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death. As Maggie Sullivan of AustenBlog has noted, ITV is clearly hoping that Sanditon will become another Downton Abbey-style period blockbuster. Since the screenwriter is Andrew “Wet Shirt” Davies, famed for turning Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy into the definitive Historical Hottie, we’ve already been treated to a moony trailer and many, many teasing allusions to All!The!Sex! we’re going to see.


And now . . . the companion novel.


Yes, it seems that Trapeze Books, an imprint of the UK’s Orion Publishing Group, itself a subsidiary of Hachette, will be issuing two Sanditon tie-in books this fall, just in time for the show’s UK airing, which begins August 25. (Sanditon will make it to the US sometime next year.)


One of the new books, The World of Sanditon, is a non-fiction work by Sara Sheridan, whose numerous previous books include a mystery series set in post-World War II England and a non-fiction tie-in to Victoria, another PBS-ITV costume-drama-cum-soap-opera. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) The other new book is a novel entitled Sanditon by -- shall we guess? Jane Austen?


No, by Kate Riordan, a British journalist and fiction writer who has published three historical novels.


Many writers have tried, with mixed success, to finish Austen’s fragment; six years ago, I reviewed most of those efforts. But Riordan’s book is not another continuation of Austen. It’s a novelization of Davies’ screenplay for an eight-hour series that uses up Austen’s material halfway through Episode 1. Yes, this Sanditon is a novel that expands a screenplay that adapts a fragment of a novel. I get dizzy just trying to keep all the layers of adaptation and reinterpretation straight.


I’ve never seen the point of novelizations myself. Why not just watch the movie/TV show? And although Riordan may be an excellent writer -- I've never read anything of hers -- it’s pretty obvious that this particular effort is motivated not so much by a burning artistic drive as by a desire to put the name “Jane Austen” on the cover of a book that is not yet out of copyright.


Personally, I’ll be watching the Sanditon show and skipping the Sanditon book – except for the Sanditon book that is out of copyright. You know -- the one by Jane Austen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 12 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen, her brother Henry would have us believe, didn’t care about making money. “She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination,” Henry Austen wrote in 1817, in the biographical note appended to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. “Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.”


Austen herself was franker about her financial ambitions. “People are more ready to borrow & praise than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight four months after the publication of Mansfield Park. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” (Letter #114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


Conventional wisdom holds that poor Jane Austen earned barely a pittance from her work (Egad! She sold the copyright of perennial bestseller Pride and Prejudice for a mere £110!), and sometimes it does seem as if everyone has made money off her work except Austen herself. What Janeite – after perusing the groaning shelves of Austen paperbacks, streaming yet another filmed Austen adaptation, or buying the latest Austen-themed tote bag, fridge magnet, or coloring book -- hasn’t sighed over the unfairness of it all?


New research using Bank of England archives shows that the picture is a bit more complicated, however. In a piece published online earlier this month, independent scholar John Avery Jones, a retired judge, concluded that Austen earned a lifetime total of £631 pounds before tax, or £575 after tax, which he calculates is the equivalent of £45,000 (about $54,600) in today’s money.


Jones’ ingenious research draws on indexes of stock sales and prices, as well as contemporary income tax rates. Unlike earlier scholars, who based their calculations of Austen’s earnings on estimates of her proceeds from book sales, Jones looks at how much she was able to invest in “the Navy Fives” -- government securities sold to the Regency public at a discount, rather like today’s savings bonds.


Jane Austen’s career as a published writer lasted only six years, from the 1811 appearance of Sense and Sensibility until her death in 1817, and Jones’ calculations seem to cover the income only from the four books published during that span. Pro-rated across six years, Jones’ number works out to a yearly income of $9,100. It’s not a lot, certainly – and, as Jones notes, some of her contemporaries earned more from their writing.


But it’s enough to be proud of – and we know that Austen was. “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold,” she wrote to her brother Frank in September 1813 (Letter #86). “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 8 2019 01:00PM

According to my parents, one of the most important promises they made to each other upon their marriage was this one: no surprise parties.


I share the parental distaste for such enforced spontaneity -- perhaps it’s genetic? – so I had a mixed reaction to a news tidbit that finally crossed my desk recently, a few weeks after its initial splash.


Back in mid-July, as an actor named Geneviève Lowe wrapped up her final performance as Elizabeth Bennet in a British theater company’s spoofy production of Pride and Prejudice, her real-life boyfriend, Shane Grant, came on stage and proposed marriage in front of an audience of three hundred and fifty.


He got down on one knee. There was a ring. She said yes. They kissed. And all the people cheered.


Apparently, Lowe loved it, telling the local paper, “It was such a beautiful moment. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect proposal.” Which is wonderful. Grant, also an actor, correctly assessed his target market and delivered exactly what she wanted. I hope they’ll live happily ever after.


All I can say is – there’s no accounting for tastes. Killjoy that I am, the public proposal, that staple of romantic comedies, has always struck me as at best exhibitionistic and at worst coercive. I know that Kids These Days think nothing really happens unless it can be immortalized on Instagram, but TMI, people! Declare your undying love to each other, not to the rest of us!


Jane Austen, you will recall, regarded marriage proposals as so private that half the time she wouldn’t even let the reader listen in. I’m with her – at least when it comes to real people. I would have been happy to eavesdrop on those fictional proposal scenes.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 5 2019 01:00PM

It’s been a wet week for Janeites.


Last Monday, we were treated to the first trailer for Sanditon, the forthcoming ITV-PBS adaptation of the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death. As Janeites know, Sanditon is set at an up-and-coming seaside resort, and so it’s no surprise that the trailer features plenty of sweeping shots of sandy strands, ocean vistas, and attractive actors disporting themselves on the beach.


By which I mean playing cricket! What were you thinking?


Well, OK: the eight-part miniseries is written by Andrew “Mr. Darcy in a Wet Shirt” Davies, who, at nearly eighty-three, seems to have lost none of his – um – lust for life, not to mention his talent for extracting free publicity from credulous media journalists. In the year since the Sanditon project was announced, Davies has entertained himself by throwing the press pool tidbits of chum, in the form of quotes about how energetically he’s “sexing up” this latest Austen project.


I’m willing to bet that the sex in Sanditon will fall well short of the Fifty Shades of Grey standard – we’re talking PBS here -- but either way, it’s pretty clear that the project won’t have much to do with Austen. She’d barely gotten started on Sanditon before illness forced her to stop work, and in his latest interview Davies says he used up all her material halfway through his first episode.


And speaking of Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt. . .


We Janeites had barely finished toweling off after our trip to Sanditon’s seaside before word arrived that, last Wednesday, flooding had devastated the gardens of Lyme Park, the Cheshire estate that played Pemberley in Davies’ iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


It was the reflecting pool in Lyme’s now-inundated grounds that featured in the Davies P&P’s most famous scene, the one starring – oh, irresistible irony! – a soaking-wet Colin Firth in a clingy white shirt.


Although energetic sandbagging seems to have saved Lyme Park’s interior from damage, the flooding, which followed days of torrential rain, forced the evacuation of Wednesday’s visitors and will keep the site closed indefinitely.


Meanwhile, if you’re seeking a watery Janeite fix, you’ll just have to wait for the arrival of Sanditon, screening in the U.S. sometime next year. Or you could just watch P&P again.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 3 2019 06:40PM

If you've commented on my blog at some point in the past few months and felt aggrieved that I hadn't approved and replied to your remarks -- I apologize!


My blogging platform is supposed to notify me when comments are posted so that I can moderate and answer them, but -- as I noticed only today -- this function has apparently been malfunctioning for quite awhile. I'm hoping to get the problem fixed, and in the meantime, I'll be checking on my comments often, but if I neglect you again, feel free to nudge me via email.


And please keep commenting! I love hearing from my small but loyal band of readers. . .



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