Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, May 9 2016 01:00PM

In the 1940 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played by the great comic actress Edna May Oliver, turns out to be an old softie. Just as in Jane Austen’s novel, her combative confrontation with Elizabeth Bennet ends up bringing the young lovers together, but in the movie version, Lady Catherine planned it that way -- because she’s super-fond of Elizabeth. “People flatter her so much. She enjoys an occasional change,” a smiley Mr. Darcy explains to his lady-love.

When I was a kid, the movie was shown on our local college campus (yes, boys and girls: before God created streaming video, we could only see movies when they were screened in public), and my father, the person who gave me my first copy of P&P, took me along. Afterwards, he commented on Lady Catherine’s personality transplant. “It turns out that that spinster in rural England was a lot less sentimental than all those hard-boiled Hollywood types,” he said.

I was reminded of that moment last month, as I was reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which updates P&P to Cincinnati in 2013, a world of reality TV, Skyline chili and frequent texting. Sittenfeld’s book is the latest installment in the HarperCollins-initiated Austen Project, which assigns a modern update of each Austen novel to a popular yet critically acclaimed contemporary writer.

Regular blog readers will recall that I hated the first three Austen Project outings, so I’m happy to report that Eligible is much, much better. It’s a cheerful, light-hearted reimagining with some laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue, and its playful attitude towards Austen’s original makes it a lot more enjoyable than the slavishly faithful earlier installments.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 11 2016 01:00PM

My next book-related event is scheduled for this Wednesday, April 13, in Princeton, NJ: I’ll be speaking at our lovely independent bookstore -- Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street -- starting at 6 pm.

My talk is sponsored by the Princeton Public Library, which, later this month, will host novelist Curtis Sittenfeld. Her newest book, Eligible, which comes out later this month, is an update of Pride and Prejudice, and the latest entry in the benighted Austen Project. (Blog readers know that I’m not a fan. On the other hand, I’m cautiously optimistic about Eligible, which has some good early buzz.)

Because of the tie-in to the library’s Sittenfeld program, I’m not delivering my usual why-you-should-read-Among-the-Janeites book talk. Instead, I’m giving a talk titled “Rewriting Pride and Prejudice: The Austen Project in the Age of Jane Austen Fanfiction.” But I will be happy – nay, delighted! – to sign copies of my own book for anyone who’s been kind enough to buy one.

The web sites of the bookstore and the library have more details, as does the Events section of my own site. Hope to see you there!

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2015 01:00PM

Halfway to the finish line, the Austen Project is looking increasingly like the Austen Fiasco.

The Austen Project, as you may recall, is publisher HarperCollins’ effort to confer respectability upon the much-maligned genre of Jane Austen fan fiction by assigning a modern-day update of each Austen novel to a commercially successful yet critically acclaimed contemporary writer.

The first three volumes have now been published, and each is, in its own way, pretty bad. No adapter has yet been announced for Mansfield Park and Persuasion (although I’m rather partial to my husband’s suggestion that E.L. James should take on Fanny Price), and the project’s web site shows signs of infrequent updating. Could it be that HarperCollins is having trouble persuading writers with the appropriate track record to jump aboard this listing ship?

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 27 2014 01:00PM

Alexander McCall Smith, I’m told, is a delightful writer. But you wouldn’t know it from his rambling, unfocused and kind of dumb piece about Jane Austen in the UK’s Daily Mail.

It’s another of those “why Jane Austen is relevant even though she wrote centuries ago” pieces. McCall Smith dutifully identifies some of the usual suspects – we crave order! We want meaningful romantic relationships! – and then adds, cringe-inducingly, that Austen offers “a very sobering lesson for males. Men may think that they are in control of their destiny (the fools!) but they are not – women are.”

Umm – what? This sounds a bit like one of the patronizing comments my grandfather used to make, about how, even though men were (rightly!) in charge of money, career and all major life decisions, those little housewives, God bless ‘em, were the true kingpins but sweetly allowed their husbands, the big saps, to think they were in charge. Gag. Me. With. A. Spoon. And then put me in charge of the money and the career, please.

I’d argue that Austen thinks we’re all, regardless of gender, in control of our own destinies – at least insofar as that destiny involves the moral choices we make about what kind of life we want to live and how we treat others. To quote a much-maligned heroine celebrating her bicentennial this year, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

McCall Smith’s obtuseness wouldn’t much matter, except that he’s about to release a new version of Emma, the latest installment in HarperCollins’ “Austen Project.” The Austen Project, as you may recall, is ultimately to consist of six modern reimaginings of Austen’s books, each one undertaken by a different popular yet critically well-regarded contemporary novelist.

So far, the results have not been good. Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, slavishly faithful to the original, proved that Austen’s story doesn’t update well to a post-feminist world. Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey gave us a heroine with a Facebook page and a smartphone who nevertheless really believes her new friends may be vampires. (Seriously. I swear I’m not making it up.)

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice, originally promised for right around now, has been delayed until next summer, and there's still no word on who's undertaking Mansfield Park or Persuasion. But McCall Smith’s Emma comes out in the UK next week and the US in April. Here’s hoping it’s better than its predecessors – but the early signs aren’t good.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 28 2013 01:00PM

Joanna Trollope’s modern-dress adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the first in a planned series of six Austen updates by popular contemporary authors, will be published here on Tuesday. I’ve already preordered for my Kindle, but now comes word that Trollope, whose earlier, non-Austen novels I’ve greatly enjoyed, doesn’t want me to read her latest book.

We American Austen fans – apparently we’re noted for our militancy – will be offended that she’s updated the story by, for example, having Willoughby give Marianne a sports car instead of a horse.

“There’s a Jane Austen Society in America which takes it even more seriously than the Jane Austen Society in this country,” Trollope told the audience at a British literary festival this month. “I’ve been to one of their conventions, which was held in Winchester, and most of the delegates from America — none of whom was exactly anorexic — were all in Jane Austen clothes.”

Translation: we’re fat, silly purists with no sense of humor.

Sigh. These aren’t the smart, funny Janeites I know – many of whom, incidentally, rather enjoy a well-written Austen spinoff, whether a sequel set in the Regency or a modern-dress update, a la Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Indeed, it’s pretty clear that this whole “Austen Project” was inspired by the success of P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, which reportedly sold 300,000 copies in hardback alone. Many Janeites I know read that book – although, admittedly, we tended to be far less enthusiastic about it than were mainstream critics.

Trollope’s rather mean-spirited remarks smack of a pre-emptive strike against Janeite criticism. If we don’t like her book, apparently it won’t be because it’s not a good book; it’ll be because we’re nuts.

I understand that enthusiastic fandom can look kind of silly to outsiders, especially, I'm afraid, when the enthusiasts are middle-aged women. But judging from her earlier books, Trollope is keenly aware of the many ways in which our culture slights, ignores and patronizes middle-aged women. She should know better than to indulge in this cheap ridicule of Austen nuts -- especially since it’s the Austen nuts who’ve made the entire Austen Project possible.

A little more politeness – even of the fake, social-smile kind – might be in order. Where’s Elinor Dashwood when you need her?

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