Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 25 2019 02:00PM

The new year is shaping up as a happy one for Janeites, at least American ones, since it will usher in two new Austen adaptations – the controversial British mini-series based on Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death; and a new feature film of Emma, with a screenplay by Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton.

The past two weeks have brought smidgens of news about both projects:

* By now, any Janeite with an internet connection has probably heard all about Sanditon’s mixed reviews and reviled ending (no spoilers here!) And many of us (though not me) have found ways to watch the show online even before its American debut on Masterpiece on January 12.

Apparently, however, once the show officially airs, much is riding on our reaction: The British celebrity mag Hello! reports that a second season will be commissioned only if the show is “a huge hit in America!”

Such a responsibility! Do we want to encourage a second season? I guess we’ll know in January.

* Meanwhile, Focus Features -- the people who brought us the much-loved-and-in-some-quarters-much-loathed 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen -- just unveiled a trailer for their new Emma, which opens February 21.

In an intriguing and slightly odd minute and a half, we glimpse plenty of bonnets, Empire waists, and stately homes, as well as a few incongruities: a startlingly spry Mr. Woodhouse – he jumps down several stairs, without a bowl of gruel in sight! – and a Mr. Knightley who, with his bee-stung lips and shock of blond hair, looks more like a boy-band hottie than a morally upright landowner.

I’m a tad dubious, but I’m willing to let Johnny Flynn win me over with his performance of our hero. Bill Nighy, who is playing Mr. Woodhouse, need not even try – I love him in everything. Ditto Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, who only gets a few seconds of screen time here but whom I trust we’ll see more of in the full version.

Judging from the trailer, the film is going for an off-kilter vibe, clearly intended to suggest that this is Not Your Mother’s Emma. Bring it on, I say.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 21 2019 02:00PM

Disaster averted! Collision avoided! Christmas catastrophe curtailed!

Last month, as blog readers will recall, it appeared that the Hallmark Channel’s latest Jane Austen-themed Christmas movie – Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen – had been scheduled in a pre-holiday time slot that overlapped with that of a different saccharine Christmas confection. How was this possible? What could be done?

Reader, they changed it. Instead of airing at 9 pm on Friday, November 29, a mere hour after a non-Austen movie entitled Christmas at the Plaza, SS&S will instead premiere at 9 pm the next evening. In case you want to make a night of it, Triple S will be preceded at 7 pm by A Godwink Christmas: Meant for Love (woman nursing broken heart meets hunky out-of-towner and Learns to Love Again) and followed at 11:03 pm by A Christmas to Remember (woman crashes car on way to small-town retreat and is nursed through her amnesia by hunky local).* For an extra Janeite bonus, the star of A Godwink Christmas is Cindy Busby, who was so memorably terrible as the heroine of Hallmark’s first foray into Austen spinoffs, Unleashing Mr. Darcy.

Meanwhile, Christmas at the Plaza (woman works with hunky local on Christmas event at New York landmark) has been rescheduled for Thanksgiving night. Once again, however, Janeites have a special incentive to finish up their turkey in time to watch: the role of hunky local is played by Ryan Paevey, who was so memorably unmemorable as the eponymous hero of Unleashing Mr. Darcy.

Two Janeite crossovers and a new Austen-themed Hallmark movie, all in one long weekend! It really is the most wonderful time of the year, isn’t it?

* On the other hand, this movie stars a for-real Oscar winner, Mira Sorvino. Might that make it worth watching?

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 18 2019 02:00PM

Forty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

For devotees of the Tom-Lefroy-was-the-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life-and-the-inspiration-for-all-her-best-material school of thought – and blog readers will recall that I am not a member of this gushy clan -- the letter that Jane Austen finished writing exactly 221 years ago today is a crucial piece of evidence.

Almost three years earlier, Lefroy had spent a few weeks in the neighborhood, visiting his aunt Anne Lefroy, an older friend and mentor of Jane Austen’s. The two young people met, danced, talked, and enjoyed each other’s company – perhaps too much: The Lefroys, concerned that the not-rich Tom might contract a disadvantageous marriage with the not-rich Jane, seem to have rapidly hustled him out of town.

How deeply Austen cared for Tom Lefroy, and how much his departure hurt, are unresolvable questions whose very unresolvability has spawned rampant speculation, not to mention the biopic Becoming Jane. As an old man, Lefroy told a younger relative that he had felt a “boyish love” for Austen. So there’s that.

And there’s this: Letter #11 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.

Writing to her sister, Cassandra, who is in Kent to help out after the recent birth of their brother Edward’s latest child, Austen reports on a recent visit from Anne Lefroy.

“Of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little,” Austen tells Cassandra. “She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practice.”

“Too proud to make any enquiries”: That smacks of wounded pride, at least, and a desire not to let even a close friend – perhaps the close friend Austen blamed for breaking up the budding romance – see how much she had cared. It suggests that even three years later, Austen felt vulnerable and self-protective when it came to Tom Lefroy. That’s not slam-dunk proof that she had loved him, let alone that she still did, but it’s evidence that the relationship was more than a casual flirtation.

On the other hand, she never mentioned him again in a single extant letter, and there is exactly zero evidence that she used him as a model for any of her characters. Could Cassandra have burned all the letters in which Austen despairingly confessed that she would never be able to love again, and that Tom was the man she imagined every time she sat down to create a hero? I suppose anything’s possible.


Rather than indulge such speculations, however, I prefer to note that one person quietly acquits himself beautifully in the scene Austen sketches in this letter: Her kind father, who presumably knew or suspected that his daughter’s heart had been bruised, and who found a way to get her the information she was too proud to ask for.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 14 2019 02:00PM

Why do people keep trying to mess with Clueless?

Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie, which updated the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills, is about as perfect a Jane Austen adaptation as there is – witty, clever, and true to the spirit of the original.

The most appropriate response to perfection ought to be . . . admiration. Respect. Keeping your hands off.

But first came talk of a Clueless remake. (The horror!) Then came the Heckerling-created off-Broadway Clueless jukebox musical. (The meh.) And now – well, last month -- comes word of a proposed Clueless TV show currently sparking interest in Hollywood.

The idea, apparently, is not to remake the 1996-99 TV show, itself based on the movie, so much as to reboot it. The central character would no longer be the Emma-like Cher but instead her friend Dionne, whose closest equivalent in Austen’s novel (although not that close, really) is Mrs. Weston. Cher disappears mysteriously; Dionne must investigate! Cher was high school queen bee; can Dionne take her place? Instead of 1815 England, we’d get 2020 Los Angeles. In place of matchmaking and moral growth, we’d get sleuthing and social climbing.

Although I’m at least three times older than the target teen demographic, I could imagine finding this sort of thing entertaining, if it weren’t for one thing: They plan on calling it Clueless. Because I don’t want anyone messing with perfection.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 11 2019 02:00PM

By now, Jane Austen has made so many top-novel lists that it’s hard to come up with anything new to say when she makes yet another one. (Indeed, you’ll note from the links that half the time I can’t even come up with an original headline.)

But it’s always entertaining when Our Jane strays into unexpected company, as she does on the BBC’s latest Book List Designed To Court Controversy And Thus Pump Up Viewership. Oh, sorry – I meant the BBC’s list of “100 Novels That Shaped Our World.”

Apparently, the network decided to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, arguably the first English novel, by putting together a panel of writers and critics and inviting them “to choose 100 genre-busting novels that have had an impact on their lives,” divided among ten categories with titles such as “Adventure” and “Identity.”

Pride and Prejudice has been placed in the “Love, Sex & Romance” category, even though it could surely have qualified for “Coming of Age,” “Class & Society,” “Family & Friendship,” or even “Rule Breakers.” But I will not cavil, because by putting P&P here, the listmakers have created a delicious juxtaposition.

Yes, Austen’s novel of manners, more or less synonymous in the popular mind with buttoned-up propriety, is right next to Riders, Jilly Cooper’s steamy 1985 bestseller set in the world of competitive show-jumping.

I have not read Riders, although I hear it’s pretty good, at least as voluminous, sex-filled, guilty-pleasure romance novels go. I have, however, seen its cover. It is a classic of the snarky-yet-sexy genre, deserving of an entire category all to itself. It shows a male hand resting on a shapely, jodhpurs-clad female posterior. Oh, and there’s a riding crop. It is not a cover that will likely ever make you think of Jane Austen.

Really, this whole list is worth it just for reminding me of that cover. Sometimes I miss the '80s.

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