Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 5 2018 02:00PM

Emma really does seem to be having a moment.


Last week, I wrote about plans for both a new filmed adaptation of the novel and a remake of Amy Heckerling’s immortal Clueless, the 1995 movie that updated the story to high school in Beverly Hills. I’d already taken note of a musical version of Clueless, which is opening soon Off-Broadway.


But I’d missed the news of yet another Emma-influenced project: a five-year-anniversary sequel to the 2013-14 YouTube series Emma Approved, a modern-day update from the people who brought us The Lizzie Bennet Diaries a year earlier.


Although I was a big fan of LBD, which used a vlog format and a clever set of in-universe social media accounts to update the story of Pride and Prejudice to contemporary California, I was less enamored of Emma Approved. (And don’t even get me started on the team’s third Austen-related effort, Welcome to Sanditon.)


EA’s contemporary updating seemed less compelling to me, and Joanna Sotomura’s Emma Woodhouse – in this version, the head of a lifestyle/event planning company – really was a heroine that no one but her creators could much like.


It’s too early to tell if the sequel, whose first weekly installment was posted on October 8, will prove more successful, although I’ll admit to feeling a certain nostalgic fondness as the familiar characters made their appearances, in the old five-to-six-minute episode format.


While the LBD creators’ two follow-up series both engaged in occasional inter-novel crossovers – LBD’s Caroline Bingley character became the bride of EA’s Mr. Elton character, for example – that approach seems central to the new series. LBD’s Mr. Collins has already shown up as Emma’s newest client, and characters have darkly mentioned a professional disaster involving Anne Elliot. We could be in for a video-and-social-media version of the first-ever Jane Austen fanfic: Sybil G. Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies, the 1913 book that freely intermingles characters from different Austen novels.


The sequel is scheduled to run for two months – far shorter than the original, which comprised seventy-two biweekly episodes – but that could change: Pemberley Digital, the creator of the Auston vlog series, is seeking a thousand Patreon subscribers, for a monthly fee ranging from $5 to $100. If the crowdfunding works, the series – and Emma’s current moment -- will be extended.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 1 2018 01:00PM

Sometimes it feels as if only die-hard Janeites are still thinking about Jane Austen. And other times – like these past few weeks -- you’d think the whole world was composed of die-hard Janeites, given the sudden flurry of news about impending or recently released Austen-themed work.


Herewith a roundup:


1. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is set to star in a new adaptation of Emma, with a screenplay by New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton, the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize. There’s no shortage of Emmas – think Romola Garai in 2009, Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996, and Doran Godwin in 1972, not to mention Alicia Silverstone in 1995’s Clueless – but Janeites still disagree about whether the definitive adaptation has yet been made. I’d say there’s room for another version.


2. But is there room for another Clueless? Apparently, we’re going to find out: the writers of recent female-themed hits Girls Trip and GLOW plan to remake Amy Heckerling’s deathless film, which updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. I’m not sure why Clueless is suddenly hot again – a musical version opens Off Broadway next month – but personally I’m quite happy with the original, thank you very much.


3. Meanwhile, over in the world of books, an Italian artist named Manuela Santoni recently published Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper, a graphic novel for young adults based on Austen’s life. Judging from the online descriptions, the book sounds as if it owes more to the biopic Becoming Jane, with its highly speculative Tom-Lefroy-love-of-her-life-and-inspiration-for-Mr.-Darcy plotline, than to more sober biographical reflections. But the pictures look nice. . .


4. And speaking of highly speculative biography: In 2020, the British writer Gill Hornby will publish Miss Austen, a novel about Cassandra Austen and her relationship with her famous sister. The book by Hornby -- whose works of fiction and non-fiction include The Story of Jane Austen: The Girl with the Golden Pen, a 2005 Austen bio for kids -- will focus on Cassandra’s late-life decision to burn many of her sister’s letters, thus breaking the hearts of Janeites and biographers everywhere. I’m crossing my fingers that this won’t be yet another tale of Austen’s allegedly star-crossed love life, but – well, let’s just say I’m reserving judgment.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 29 2018 01:00PM

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. So perhaps the definition of Janeite insanity is repeatedly watching Austen-inspired Hallmark Channel movies and expecting them to be any good.


This rumination was occasioned by my Saturday night viewing of Christmas at Pemberley Manor, which kicked off Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas,” a dizzying series of holiday-themed entertainments scheduled to take us to the brink of the new year. Yes, October 27 seems early to launch – Halloween at Pemberley Manor would have been more like it – but the Christmas-industrial complex brooks no opposition to its saccharine imperium.


Hallmark is a recent convert to the Janeite cause. It’s less than three years since the channel aired Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a truly terrible Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world. Apparently, that offering was enough of a success that earlier this year, Hallmark felt compelled to give us an equally awful sequel, Marrying Mr. Darcy. And Pemberley Manor is only the first of the Austen-themed movies in this year’s “Countdown to Christmas”: the day after Thanksgiving, Hallmark will air Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, a gender-swapped update based on a fanfic of such execrable badness that even I may be unable to bring my usual sunny optimism to the enterprise.


But sufficient unto the day: for now, we are concerned with Pemberley Manor, which chronicles the romance between an event planner named Elizabeth Bennet and a titan of some indeterminate industry named William Darcy. They meet cute-ish over a coffee order and then bond when he agrees to let his palatial family home serve as the backdrop for the Christmas festival she is organizing in a Connecticut town whose Olde New Englande quaintness should make fans of Gilmore Girls feel right at home.


To be fair, the writing and acting on display here are an improvement over Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Alas, however, that’s a very low bar. The leads, TV actors Jessica Lowndes and Michael Rady, are professional, but it’s hard to believe that either of them hoped for roles like these when they dreamed of going into acting. (But hey – work is work. . .)


The story’s Austen connections are so tenuous that they barely deserve to be called perfunctory. Aside from the names of the protagonists, the Darcy homestead, and a few other characters – personal assistant Jane Lucas, overbearing boss Caroline Bingley, un-Wickham-like mayor George – not a shred of Austen’s story remains. (Although I give the writer props for calling the town Lambton – apparently, he did thumb through a dog-eared paperback of P&P.)


In place of Austen’s narrative, we have a bland and reassuring made-for-TV plot: Smart but pliant girl learns to stand up for herself while teaching successful but lonely workaholic guy that Love and Family are the Most Important Things. Phrases like “the magic of the holidays” and “Christmas miracle” are used repeatedly and without irony.


Even the now-classic first-they-hate-each-other-then-they-love-each-other rom-com template, itself lifted from Austen’s original, is barely gestured toward: Although Elizabeth and Darcy meet via an argument, it’s brief and good-natured, and before the movie is half over, they are decorating Christmas cookies and flirting adorably, with nary a hint of pride or prejudice in sight.


Nearly twenty-five years into Austen’s pop-culture renaissance, references to her most famous work now seem to function as a sort of all-purpose Romance Flavoring, a bit like a parsley garnish that can be sprinkled over almost any dish. Why do I keep hoping for more? Feel free to offer a diagnosis.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 25 2018 01:00PM

Can I get half credit?


As blog readers will recall, last week I predicted (correctly, as it turned out) that Pride and Prejudice, despite making it into the top ten finalists in PBS’s Great American Read competition, would not win.


On the other hand, I picked Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to sweep a field dominated by twentieth-century historical and fantasy epics, and by books most readers encounter in childhood. I was wrong: as PBS revealed on Tuesday night, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird led the voting from the start, winning forty-eight of the fifty states. (In retrospect: duh. What was I thinking?)


Ultimately, P&P finished fourth – coming in behind the Outlander and Harry Potter series, but edging out LOTR – a pretty good showing, all things considered.


PBS didn’t collect demographic breakdowns of its voters, but given years of research showing that women read more fiction than men do, it’s likely the pool skewed female. The makeup of the winners’ circle suggests as much: five of the top ten (Mockingbird, P&P, Gone with the Wind, Little Women and Jane Eyre) are female coming-of-age tales written by women, while in two more (the Outlander series and, arguably, Charlotte’s Web) female characters are the key protagonists. Even the fantasy epics that round out the list – LOTR, the Harry Potter series, andThe Chronicles of Narnia – feature important female characters, although male protagonists dominate.


So: girl power. And I’d still rather be reading Jane Austen. But hey – it’s all good, as long as we’re reading books.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 22 2018 01:00PM

In September 1813, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, from their brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park in Kent. As regular blog readers will recall from last month’s post, Austen seemed to be enjoying her momentary peace and quiet: “I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey,” she told Cassandra.


The Godmersham library, both the room and the book collection, were grand enough to suit a prosperous landowner like Edward Austen Knight: At a time when books were true luxury items, he owned more than twelve hundred – non-fiction on a broad range of topics, as well as a good number of novels -- and housed them in a long rectangular room with two fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls.


Edward’s book collection was dispersed and the library itself in ruins by the early decades of the twentieth century. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it’s now possible for Janeites and bibliophiles to hang out there with Jane Austen, at least in imagination: Reading With Austen, a website that reconstructs Godmersham’s library, went live earlier this month.


Like the similar What Jane Saw project, which recreated a famous art exhibition Austen visited in London in 1813, Reading with Austen relies on a combination of old-fashioned scholarly sleuthing and up-to-date digital technology.


Using an 1818 catalogue of the library’s holdings, a team headed by Austen scholar Peter Sabor, a professor of eighteenth-century studies at McGill University in Toronto, has situated a digital rendering of Edward’s holdings inside an artistic rendering of what his library may have looked like. Click on a book spine and you call up bibliographical information about the volume and, when available, an image of its title page, dedication, marginalia, and Knight family bookplate.


“When available”: There’s the rub. Only five hundred of the books listed in the 1818 catalogue, over a third of the total, are on loan to Chawton House, the rare-books library housed in Edward Austen Knight’s second home in Hampshire. Another fifty volumes are owned by libraries or museums; a few others have come on the market recently.


Locating, photographing, and, where possible, acquiring the rest is the job of the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), the brainchild of Sabor; Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; and Deborah Barnum, a rare book specialist who blogs at Jane Austen in Vermont.


The missing books include – oh, tragic irony! – all Edward’s first editions of Jane Austen’s novels. (You can find their locations in the center of the South Wall by browsing the website’s catalog.)


Absent a few miracles, scholarly and financial, it’s going to take a long, long time for all those lost sheep to find their way home. In the meantime, however, we can all spend a few hours at Reading with Austen, daydreaming in bibliophilic splendor alongside Jane Austen.


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