Deborah Yaffe

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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!


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 9 2020 01:00PM

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


It’s no secret that Jane Austen’s relatives, while immensely proud of her achievements, sometimes felt that her rough edges could use a bit of smoothing.


Thus it was that her brother Henry, in the biographical notice appended to the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, insisted that none of her unpleasant characters were drawn from life. Thus it was that her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his 1869 Memoir of Jane Austen, portrayed the acid satirist as a kindly and domestic spinster aunt.


And thus it was that earlier generations were treated to an absurdly bowdlerized version of the letter that Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 206 years ago today (#99 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


In 1884, Austen’s great-nephew, Edward, Lord Brabourne, published a collection of Austen letters – including this one -- discovered among his mother’s effects after her death. Brabourne’s mother, Fanny Knatchbull, was the eldest Austen niece, and she and her Aunt Jane were remarkably close: “I found her . . . almost another Sister, & could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me,” Austen wrote in 1808, when Fanny was fifteen and Jane thirty-two.


Brabourne was a sensitive reader of Austen’s work: “She describes men and women exactly as men and women really are, and tells her tale of ordinary, everyday life with such truthful delineation, such bewitching simplicity, and, moreover, with such purity of style and language, as have rarely been equalled, and perhaps never surpassed,” he wrote in an introduction to the letters. Nevertheless, in her real-life persona, Austen’s earthy straightforwardness made him squeamish.


In Letter #99, Austen, visiting her brother Henry in London, sends an account of her doings back home to Cassandra, who has been hosting their five-year-old niece, Cassandra Esten, at Chawton Cottage.

Apparently, little Cassy had slept in Aunt Jane’s bed, for in her valediction, Austen writes, “Love to all. If Cassandra has filled my Bed with fleas, I am sure they must bite herself.”


This joke, which hardly seems scandalous to modern eyes, was too much for Brabourne’s Victorian sensibilities: Cassy’s fleas are silently omitted from his transcription of the letter. And so Jane Austen’s perhaps undeserved reputation for ladylike unconcern with indecorous physical matters survived for another day – or another forty-eight years, until R.W. Chapman’s edition of Austen’s letters restored the missing fleas.

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 5 2020 02:00PM

I was a teenage book nerd. Also a pre-teen one. And an adult one.


Basically, I’ve had my nose in a book (or, more recently, my eyes on a Kindle) since the age of five. I loved going to the public library on Saturdays, stacking my gleanings next to my bed, and watching the height of the pile drop precipitously over the course of the week. I loved school recess, because it meant I could curl up in a corner of the playground and read. My idea of heaven: a rainy weekend afternoon with a good book and nothing else to do. My idea of hell: stuck somewhere (doctor’s office, airplane ride, line at the post office) with nothing to read.


So I was touched by the story of Callum Manning, a thirteen-year-old from northeastern England who was reduced to tears when kids at his new school added him to their group chat and then availed themselves of the opportunity to mock his Instagram account, on which he reviews his reading (“Yo, it's me Cal and I LOVE books.”)


Middle schoolers are a feral lot. You couldn’t pay me enough to return to those days.


Luckily, this story has a happy ending: When Callum’s big sister tweeted the tale over the weekend, hoping to encourage a few of her friends to cheer him up by following him on Instagram, her tweet went viral. Soon, she had replies from Waterstones, a leading British bookseller; Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London, praising Callum for his love of Romeo and Juliet; numerous survivors of childhood bullying; and a slew of famous writers, including Neil Gaiman, who tweeted, “All the interesting people I know were once considered weird kids with books. Including me.”


Within two days of his sister’s tweet, the follower count for Callum’s Instagram account, on which he’s posted his reactions to books ranging from Crime and Punishment to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, stood at 245,000. Take that, bullies!


In case you were wondering, Callum seems to be reading Pride and Prejudice right now, and so far, so good. “I've started reading this cause I saw some good reviews,” he reports, with more enthusiasm than punctuation. “It's great I wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was but it's great for you guys who like romance/old English literature.”


Welcome to the book-nerd club, Callum. Some of us actually have annual meetings.


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