Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 3 2019 01:00PM

It’s that time again, Janeites: The Jane Austen Society of North America is holding its Annual General Meeting (AGM) over the next four days. This year’s gala – theme: “200 Years of Northanger Abbey: ‘Real, Solemn History’ ” – is taking place in the period-appropriate setting of Williamsburg, Virginia.


At this point, I’ve been to a lot of AGMs – if memory serves, this one will be my eleventh. But even when the offerings in the shopping emporium seem over-familiar, I always enjoy catching up with old friends, meeting interesting new people, and gaining unexpected insights into the ever-fresh work of Jane Austen, via an assortment of plenary lectures and breakout talks delivered by an eclectic array of speakers. This year’s lineup includes university professors, novelists, booksellers, librarians, costume experts, and even a professional matchmaker.


Because I’m a sometime chronicler of JASNA’s history (chapter 8 in Among the Janeites), this year’s AGM has special resonance for me: Saturday night’s banquet will be held forty years to the day after the very first JASNA gathering, the society’s kickoff dinner in a mirrored, gold-draperied room at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City. A Friday morning panel will feature reminiscences by three people who have been members of JASNA since the beginning, or as close as makes no difference.


JASNA’s three founders – Joan Austen-Leigh, Henry Burke, and Jack Grey – are long dead, but their vision lives on. Surely they would have been thrilled to see us all now.



By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 30 2019 01:00PM

I don’t speak Kardashian. I have trouble distinguishing among the K-named females of the clan, disentangling the one who married Kanye West from the one whose jewels were stolen in Paris from the one who divorced about ten minutes after staging a nationally televised wedding. (What? That’s all the same one? Seriously?)


Now, however, I finally know something useful about at least one of the Weird Sisters: Kourtney Kardashian, it seems, is an Austen reader.


Or so the eldest Kardashian invited us to presume last week, when she posted an Instagram photo of herself, clad in a white Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up, dangling her bare feet out of an empty bathtub while reading a green hardback of Emma.


Admittedly, the focus of the shot is not the book but the crystalline white orb perched on the corner of the tub – the Kourtney-designed Positively Poosh essential-oil diffuser, which goes on sale today. “Diffusing has become a part of my daily wellness routine,” Kardashian explains in the accompanying caption.


The post quickly amassed more than 700,000 likes and countless comments, a fair number of which evince a rather creepy obsession with the soles of the Kardashian feet. But it isn’t all slavish adoration: “YOU KNOW DAMN WELL YOU AIN’T READING NO BOOK!” one skeptic exclaimed.


This strikes me as unkind. Can it be coincidence that Kardashian is posing with the Austen novel featuring the heroine most likely to discuss everyone else’s love life on reality TV while promoting clothing lines and skincare products? Obviously, someone read the book.


Mostly, though, the Kardashian post provides more fodder for every Janeite’s favorite game: What Would Jane Do With This Material? It’s not hard to imagine a twenty-first-century Austen, finally granted the health and strength to complete Sanditon, finding room in her fictional seaside resort for a trio of self-absorbed socialites who can’t stop prattling about -- and, not incidentally, monetizing -- the latest dubious “wellness” fad. Come to think of it, she would probably have had them say things like “Diffusing has become a part of my daily wellness routine.”


Austen, I’ll bet, would have spoken fluent Kardashian. What a tragedy that she died two centuries too early to learn it.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 26 2019 01:00PM

Bipartisanship is sadly rare in Washington these days, so it’s refreshing to find one instance of agreement across the aisle, even in these polarized times. Hot on the heels of the news that First Daughter Ivanka Trump is (possibly) a Janeite comes word that Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a leading contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, is also an Austen fan.


“In Iowa City, Elizabeth Warren is asked her favorite book,” New York Times politics reporter Thomas Kaplan tweeted last week. “ ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ she says, ‘because it's about an observant woman who cuts through all of -- I know Jane would never call it this -- but the BS.’ ”


When I read Kaplan’s tweet, I assumed Warren was referring to Elinor Dashwood, who is indeed an observant woman with a sensitive bullshit detector, although more often than not she keeps her findings to herself. On the campaign trail, I figured, Warren probably found herself paying the compliment of rational opposition to many who didn’t deserve it. No wonder Elinor appealed to her.


But apparently Warren had someone besides Elinor in mind, and luckily another intrepid reporter was on hand to clarify her point.


During that same trip to Iowa City, it appears, Warren sat down for a fifteen-minute Q&A with Marie Claire magazine, covering trivial matters like climate change, abortion rights, and the crushing costs of housing, education, and child care. Luckily, however, the final question touched on a truly important topic: What book does Warren reread frequently?


Warren’s answer: yes, Sense and Sensibility. “Every time I read it, I see another layer in it,” she said. “The characters are interesting and far more complex than appears on the surface. I am reminded that a serious woman who is a sharp observer has the capacity to open our eyes in ways we had never thought of before.”


“Are you referring to Jane or Elinor?” asked interviewer Chloe Angyal, who – props to her – had clearly read the book, or at least seen the movie.


“Both,” Warren replied. “I was really thinking about Jane, but it’s both of them. It’s the whole notion of, it celebrates the observer. And I like that.”


If all this reading and rereading weren’t enough to confirm Warren’s Janeite status, the repeated references to the novel’s author as “Jane” would probably do it. But perhaps the most revealing detail is Warren’s transparently autobiographical interpretation of S&S as a celebration of “a serious woman who is a sharp observer.” Reading yourself into your favorite Austen novel: That’s the mark of a true Janeite.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 23 2019 01:00PM

See that headline? The one right above this blog post? I’m kind of proud of it. Doesn’t it totally sound like it could be the title of a new Hallmark Christmas movie?


Which is appropriate, since the mystery in question concerns the strange disappearance of a Jane Austen-themed movie from the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” schedule.


“Countdown to Christmas,” now in its tenth year, is Hallmark’s annual saccharine-laced marathon of cookie-baking, hot-chocolate-drinking, snowball-tossing, small-town-holiday-visiting made-for-TV romcoms, which begins airing right before Halloween and stretches on until a few days before New Year’s.


Last year, as blog readers will recall, “Countdown to Christmas” included not one but two nominally Pride and Prejudice-inspired movies, although in both cases fidelity to Jane Austen’s original was pretty much nil. So when I learned recently that Hallmark planned to include a new Austen-themed outing this year, my expectations were low.


They got lower when I learned that this year’s offering, Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, was apparently based on a book by Melissa de la Cruz, the author of the stupendously terrible Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, allegedly the inspiration for one of last year’s movies.


And then things got a little odd.


The buzz for Sense, Sensibility and Snowmen began over the summer, when Entertainment Tonight reported that the movie would star Erin Krakow, who plays the protagonist in Hallmark’s beloved period drama When Calls the Heart, set in the Canadian West in the early twentieth century.


In June, de la Cruz – who actually hasn’t published a book called Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen; maybe she just worked on the screenplay? -- tweeted about the cast. In July, Krakow tweeted pictures from the set. A couple of weeks ago, the movie was all set to air on November 27 – at least according to Passion for Savings, a thrifty-living website, which posted the full "Countdown to Christmas" schedule, along with a visual of Hallmark’s own suitable-for-printing one-page version, featuring a photo of an adorable little dog wearing a red scarf.


But last week, when I went to the Hallmark Channel’s website and found my own copy of that printable schedule with the cute little doggie, SS&S was nowhere to be seen, its slot on the roster apparently taken by something called Christmas Under the Stars. Although air dates had changed for a number of films since the posting of the earlier schedule, Triple S was the only one of the twenty-four that had vanished entirely.


Hmm. Was the movie not finished in time? Was its tale of party-planner sisters named Ella and Marianne who tangle with an irascible toy-company CEO named Edward insufficiently faithful to Jane Austen? (OK, probably not that.) Did the finished version fail to meet the standards of excellence expected of a Hallmark Christmas movie? (Stop laughing!)


I emailed Hallmark to see if they’ll tell me. Meanwhile, we’ll just have to hope – if that’s the right word – that the movie turns up sometime later on the Hallmark schedule.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 19 2019 01:00PM

A few weeks ago, as ITV began airing a much-hyped miniseries based on Sanditon, the seaside novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, a painter commissioned by the broadcaster started work on a giant billboard promoting the series (see under: much-hyped).


Artist David Downes finished the job earlier this month, and from the photo I’ve seen, the completed painting, on a twelve-meter-wide billboard in the British seaside town of Bournemouth, looks rather lovely: a green and rocky coastal seascape dotted with sails, under a sky full of wispy, streaming clouds. Even the rather prominent “ITV” logo in the lower left-hand corner doesn’t detract from the scene’s intriguing combination of tranquility (those peaceful boats) and edgy energy (those scudding clouds).


Sanditon won’t officially make it to US screens until January, although YouTube appears to be replete with opportunities to view the four episodes that have screened so far in the UK. (I will not be availing myself of these opportunities, given their dubious safety and legality; as a producer of intellectual property, I try not to collude in the likely theft of other people’s.)


Judging from the reviews in the British press, however, the show seems long on titillation – male nudity! Outdoor sex! Hints of brother-sister incest! – and short on the wit and subtlety that notably characterize the works of Jane Austen. (No big surprise, since screenwriter Andrew Davies has said he ran out of Austen material halfway through episode 1.) I’m withholding judgment until January, but it’s entirely possible that this billboard may turn out to be the best thing to come out of ITV’s Sanditon.


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