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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2018 01:00PM

Recently – OK, it was two weeks ago – I found occasion to mention an old journalists’ joke: that three examples of a phenomenon constitute a trend. At the time, I was remarking upon the proliferation of second-order Jane Austen adaptations – adaptations of previous adaptations.*


Today I feel justified in identifying yet another Austen-adaptation trend: the proliferation of jukebox/karaoke shows based on Austen stories. I’m talking about the kind of show that inserts famous pop songs into a newly developed storyline, giving audiences the comfort of the familiar along with the thrill of the new. Think Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, or (on the silver screen) Moulin Rouge.


Lately, Jane Austen has been getting the same treatment. The requisite three examples are as follows:


* In 2015, the lyricist and playwright Eric Price created Emma! A Pop Musical, which updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs by female performers as a score. I’ve never seen it, but apparently it’s beloved by school drama departments.


* Earlier this summer, a Glasgow theater company produced Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), an all-female, slapstick version of the novel featuring interpolations like Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" (sung to Mr. Darcy, of course). Reviews were generally positive, if not rapturous.


* Speaking of Clueless, this fall an off-Broadway company will produce a musical version of the much-loved 1995 movie. The show featues classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics by Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed the original. **


Personally, I think the surface of this trend has barely been scratched.


Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” begs to be included in a Sense and Sensibility jukebox show – sung by Willoughby in the second act, as he writes his fateful brush-off letter, and then tragically reprised by Marianne and Elinor during the climactic illness scene. (Earlier, Elinor will have promised to keep silent about Lucy Steele’s secret engagement by vowing “My Lips Are Sealed” and nursed her broken heart to a rousing chorus of "I Will Survive.")


It goes on and on: “My Boyfriend’s Back” is obviously Anne Elliot’s big Act One number. . . . Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland bop around Bath to the accompaniment of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. . . . Maria Rushworth succumbs to the seductive Henry Crawford while singing “Like a Virgin’. . . the possibilities are endless. Paging Baz Luhrmann!



* And I forgot one – the upcoming TV show based on Curtis Sittenfeld’s P&P update Eligible. So, really, that trend is practically a tsunami.


** Devoted blog readers may recall that I already employed the Clueless musical as one of the confirmatory three points in my recent blog about the second-order-Austen-adaptation trend. Some may feel I am cheating by using it as one of the confirmatory three points in a blog about a different Austen trend. What can I say? Trend reporting is an unscrupulous business.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 12 2018 01:00PM

For the Jane Austen world, it qualifies as blockbuster news: Revered screenwriter Andrew Davies, the man behind the iconic 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice and adaptations of three other Austen novels, has adapted Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, into a miniseries of its own.


Earlier this week, PBS’s Masterpiece series announced that it is collaborating with Britain’s ITV on a version of Sanditon, the story of Charlotte Heywood's adventures in an up-and-coming seaside resort, that will likely begin filming next spring.


“The twists and turns of the plot, which take viewers from the West Indies to the rotting alleys of London, expose the hidden agendas of each character and sees [sic] Charlotte discover herself… and ultimately find love,” the press release promises.


Those of us who have read Sanditon’s tantalizing 24,000 words will not remember any scenes set in the West Indies or in London alleys, whether rotting or otherwise, so it’s pretty clear that this production will be more Davies than Austen.


Indeed, a lot more: Masterpiece is promising us eight hour-long episodes, and even shaving off a few minutes per episode to allow space to advertise Danube cruises, that’s a big chunk of airtime. Davies managed to squeeze all 122,000 words of P&P into a mere six episodes running to five and a half hours. Heck, his version of War and Peace ran less than six and a half.


Davies, famed for allegedly "sexing-up" Jane Austen, is apparently up to his usual tricks this time around: His new version of Sanditon features "quite a bit of nude bathing," he promises, possibly with tongue firmly ensconced in cheek (although, with Davies, you never know).


For Sanditon fans, the big unanswered question is what the new production means for an earlier Sanditon project, Fluidity Films’ long aborning feature-length version, based on the 1975 completion of Austen’s fragment by Australian journalist and novelist Marie Dobbs.


More than two years ago, we were treated to exciting casting news – Charlotte Rampling as Lady Denham! – and confident-sounding predictions of a 2017 release date. Late that year, filming was said to be delayed until 2018. And although Fluidity Films’ website still lists the production, it offers no details about timing.


Could two separate Sanditons – one a conventional two-hour-long period film, the other a sweeping seven-hour wallow in melodrama – find audiences, potentially within mere months of each other? If Janeites ran the world (and wouldn’t everyone be better off if we did? You know it), the answer wouldn’t be in doubt.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 9 2018 01:00PM

In Jane Austen’s time, as we know, women’s lives and opportunities were circumscribed in ways we can scarcely imagine today. Women were excluded from the professions; the sexual double standard was brutal and inexorable; married women couldn’t own their own property; husbands and fathers had power little short of tyrannical.


No doubt we’ve come a long, long way.


On the other hand, it’s salutary to be reminded from time to time of just how recently male authority figures still felt empowered to enact their sexism – and just how hard women had to fight to hold them accountable.


Today’s text is drawn from a fascinating recent article in the alternative weekly DigBoston, which chronicles the nine-year effort by Austen scholar Julia Prewitt Brown to reverse Boston University’s 1981 refusal to grant her tenure, the lifetime job security that is the academic equivalent of the Holy Grail.


At the time, Brown was a young scholar whose first book, the feminist-influenced Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form, had recently been published by Harvard University Press.


Her tenure was refused by high-ranking university administrators after her department and two lower-level committees voted to grant it, and Brown argued that she was the victim of sex discrimination. Eventually, she won a jury verdict giving her tenure, legal fees, and $215,000 in damages; the verdict was upheld on appeal, and Brown is retiring this year after forty-four years in BU’s English department.


The case was relatively high-profile in its time because BU’s then-president, John Silber, was known nationally for his outspoken and uncompromising conservativism. In 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts.


In trial testimony aimed at discrediting Brown’s scholarship, Silber, a philosopher, “implied that Austen was an inherently less complex or worthy subject than Dryden or Kant,” writes Max L. Chapnick, author of the DigBoston article.


Silber wasn’t the only Austen-disser to testify: Brown tells Chapnick that BU’s dean, who had offered her a three-year extension of her contract in lieu of lifetime tenure, testified that although he was not a literary scholar, “he felt comfortable judging a book on Jane Austen because he had lived in England near where Jane Austen lived.” (“Not in those times?” the judge asked. “Not quite, sir,” the dean replied.)


Brown might have been denied tenure even if she hadn’t been a feminist scholar writing about a female novelist whose subject was the domestic lives of women. Nevertheless, Brown’s case resonates with a certain unfortunate historical strain in the response to Austen.


Over the past two centuries, Austen’s fans have been male as often as female, but contemporary Austen fandom – and, to a lesser extent, scholarship – skews female. I’ve long been convinced that sexist denigration of Austen fans (those cute middle-aged women in their bonnets!) borrows from a tradition of sexist denigration of Austen dating back to her nephew’s affectionate but trivializing 1870 Memoir.


In this tradition, Austen is caricatured as either a sweet maiden aunt writing charming little romance novels or, alternatively, as a sour spinster working out her sexual frustration by satirizing other people’s love stories – anything but a morally serious professional artist. And these attitudes still crop up, especially in popular treatments that draw more on movie adaptations of Austen novels than on the novels themselves.


Brown won her case in part because her adversaries were so unsubtle: Silber described BU’s English department, whose faculty ranks comprised six women and more than fourteen men, as “a damn matriarchy.” Today’s adversaries are sometimes less obvious (though, #metoo knows, not always). Still, history tends to repeat itself, if we let it. Remembering stories like Brown’s is one way to make sure it won’t.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 5 2018 01:00PM

Shakespeare’s ardent fans are called Bardolators, not Willcolytes. Dickens admirers are Dickensians, not Chuck-a-holics. Devotees of Joyce celebrate Bloomsday, not Jamesday.


Alone* among literary fan clubs, we Austen addicts derive our moniker from our beloved author’s first name. Dissertation-writers may call her “Austen,” but the common folk tend to think of her as “Jane Austen,” and we Janeites, as often as not, just call her plain “Jane.”


Does it matter? Well, maybe: Research published last week suggests that when prominent people are referred to by last name alone – think Einstein, Cervantes, Mozart – they are judged as more famous, accomplished, and deserving of honors than those referred to by both first and last names. And whatever the field – academia, science, politics, literature -- female practitioners are more likely to be identified by both names. (The work is summarized for popular consumption here and here.)


The researchers, a Cornell University psychology professor and graduate student, speculate about the reason for this peculiar bias – perhaps practitioners in high-status fields are assumed to be male, thereby requiring that non-males be singled out for notice? – and they wonder about its impact on women’s career status. “This gender bias may contribute to the gender gap in perceived eminence as well as in actual recognition and may partially explain the persistent state of women’s underrepresentation in high-status fields,” they write.


What about when the single name by which we refer to a professional is the first, not the last? In other words, what about “Jane”?


On this point, I’m already on record: As readers of Among the Janeites may recall, I am mildly allergic to the practice of referring to Our Author as “Jane.” I realize that many Janeites feel close to the creator of the stories that so enthrall us, almost as if she were a dear friend. Some of us may even nurture a private fantasy that -- had history, geography and fate but cooperated -- we would have been her closest confidante, on a first-name basis as a matter of course.


Coming up as I did amid 1980s-vintage feminist literary scholarship, however, I hear in all these familiar “Janes” a distinct, albeit unintentional, note of trivializing condescension. The male literary greats get respectful last-name treatment; why shouldn’t Austen take her place on the pantheon alongside Geoffrey, Gustave, Leo, and the rest of the boys? It’s not as if we’re at risk of confusing Jane Austen with some other famous writer named Austen, as we might argue in giving first-and-last-name treatment to the Eliots (George and T.S.) or the Brontes (Charlotte, Emily and Anne).


Sometimes, of course, first-name-only usage denotes super-stardom: Even the stodgy New York Times doesn’t refer to Madonna and Cher as “Ms. Ciccone” and “Ms. Bono” (or would that be “Ms. Allman”?) But outside of the pop-music universe, calling a stranger by first name alone is . . . problematic, I would argue. We call children and pets by first names. We speak of professionals more professionally.


When it comes to Jane Austen, however, my squeamishness goes beyond feminist principle. I just can’t believe she would have liked having all these strangers bandy her first name about willy-nilly. In Austen’s novels, it’s disagreeable people like Mrs. Elton and Isabella Thorpe who presume such familiarity on short acquaintance; Darcy doesn’t call Elizabeth by her first name until they’re engaged, for crying out loud.


So until the woman herself gives me permission to call her “Jane” – perhaps in one of those heart-to-heart talks that we would definitely have had if I’d been born in southern England in 1780, as I totally could have been – I’m sticking with “Austen.”



* I have no scientific proof of our singularity in this regard, but I can’t think of a counterexample offhand. Feel free to prove me wrong.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 2 2018 01:00PM

We journalists like to joke that once you have three examples of something – avocado toast! Suburban sex-toy parties! -- you can write a story declaring said phenomenon to be “a trend.” Thus it is that I feel completely justified in declaring that second-order Jane Austen spinoffs -- adaptations of Austen adaptations – officially constitute a trend.


Herewith the crucial three data points:


1. Last month, the Hallmark Channel subjected us to Marrying Mr. Darcy, the limp sequel to Unleashing Mr. Darcy, its execrable 2016 filmed version of a novel setting Pride and Prejudice in the contemporary dog-show world.


2. This fall, an off-Broadway theater plans to premier Clueless: The Musical, featuring classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics written by Amy Heckerling, the auteur behind the beloved 1995 movie that updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills.


3. Perhaps inspired by the success, if such it can be called, of dog-show Darcy, Hallmark has announced plans for a Christmas movie entitled Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, “a Yuletide-themed, gender-swapping update of the classic Jane Austen novel,” according to Entertainment Weekly.


This movie too is based on Austen fanfic – a book of the same title by Melissa de la Cruz, whose Amazon listing reveals her to be the hard-working author of dozens of novels on subjects ranging from bikini-clad au pairs to time-traveling witches to Alexander Hamilton’s love life. I haven’t read any of her stuff, but P&P&M is on my Kindle as of today. (I always prefer to read the book before seeing the movie. And you know I'll see the movie.)


Et voilà – three examples, and thus a trend.


Now that I think about it, I may even be a bit late in my trend-spotting. After all, it’s been nearly four years since the BBC brought us a filmed version of Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’ murder-mystery-themed Pride and Prejudice sequel. Yes, the book was terrible and the movie only marginally better – but that’s not enough to stop a speeding trend in its tracks.


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