Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 19 2020 01:00PM

The past eighteen months have brought us a couple of made-for-the-small-screen Jane Austen spinoffs: the Lifetime movie Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta in June 2019 and the ITV/PBS series Sanditon, which began airing in the United States in January 2020, after premiering a few months earlier in Britain.

Notably, both shows aimed to expand Jane Austen’s mostly all-white world to include important characters of color (or, in the case of P&P: Atlanta, a virtually all-Black cast).

And now comes word of another project that updates Austen’s story to a far more diverse world: a planned HBO adaptation of Ibi Zoboi’s 2018 young-adult novel Pride, which sets P&P in gentrifying, multiracial contemporary Brooklyn. The project seems to be at an early stage, with a writer and producer on board but no word on casting.

Pride, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is by a Haitian-American writer who lives in Brooklyn, just like the novel’s seventeen-year-old protagonist, Zuri Benitez. Zuri is an aspiring writer who hopes to attend her dream college, Howard University, but plans to return to the noisy, close-knit neighborhood where her working-class Dominican-Haitian-American family lives.

When the affluent African-American Darcy family moves into the refurbished home across the street, Janae, the oldest of the five teenage Benitez sister, immediately falls for Ainsley, the oldest Darcy son. But Zuri takes a dislike to Ainsley’s younger brother, Darius, whom she pegs as a stuck-up and inauthentic bougie.

You pretty much know how it goes from here, although – as so often happens in Austen fanfic produced by genuinely accomplished writers – the most interesting bits of the story are those that abandon Austen’s template in favor of something more individual. In the case of Pride, that’s Zoboi’s evocation of the sights, sounds, and social codes of Zuri’s Bushwick, and her depiction of Zuri’s heartbreak over the unstoppable changes overtaking her beloved neighborhood, as gentrifiers like the Darcy family move in and rising real estate prices displace longtime residents.

Not exactly Austenian, but hey -- great fodder for a film. I’m on board!

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 15 2020 01:00PM

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

“Only think of Mrs Holder’s being dead!” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in the letter Austen finished exactly 207 years ago today (#92 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.) “Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her.”

It’s hardly news to any reader of Jane Austen’s letters that the great author could sometimes be a Mean Girl—catty about other people’s looks, brains, personalities, and conversation. And this letter from Godmersham, the stately home in Kent where Austen was staying with her widowed brother Edward’s large family and an array of other houseguests, seems to have brought out her mean streak in spades.

The deceased Mrs. Holder (what was wrong with her? We’ll never know) is the least of it, although it is delicious to hear Austen skewering the “poor woman” in the very act of proclaiming her beyond skewering,

Elsewhere, Austen cuttingly sums up Lady Fagg and her five daughters (“I never saw so plain a family, five sisters so very plain!”), a new acquaintance named Mr. Wigram (“They say his name is Henry. A proof how unequally the gifts of Fortune are bestowed.—I have seen many a John & Thomas much more agreable”), and even her own niece Cassy -- the daughter of the youngest Austen brother, Charles, and his wife, Fanny Palmer Austen -- who was all of four years old (“Poor little Love.—I wish she were not so very Palmery—but it seems stronger than ever.—I never knew a Wife’s family-features have such undue influence”).

Even when Austen claims to be pleased with the company, she puts a sting in the tail of her praise: “I like him very much. I am sure he is clever & a Man of Taste,” she writes of a fellow guest, Stephen Lushington, who at the time was representing Canterbury in Parliament. “He is quite an M.P.—very smiling, with an exceeding good address, & readiness of Language.—I am rather in love with him.--I dare say he is ambitious and Insincere.”

It’s enough to make you agree with one of Austen’s most unsympathetic biographers, John Halperin, that “one does have the feeling, reading Jane Austen’s letters, that the milk of human kindness was often kept in the larder, and the tea served with lemon.”

To be fair -- fairer than Halperin is -- Austen's little digs seem to have been kept between herself and Cassandra; as far as we know, she never taunted the Fagg sisters with their plainness or told Mr. Wigram how unfavorably he compared with the Johns and Thomases she knew. Her letters to Cassandra were safe places for Austen to vent her frustration and fatigue about the weeks she spent as a guest, mandated to gratitude and required to make small talk with dullards instead of investing her time in those she truly valued. Perhaps, like the embattled Jane Fairfax in Emma, Austen found herself longing for "the comfort of being sometimes alone!" (ch. 42)

“The Comfort of the Billiard Table here is very great,” Jane confided to Cassandra, in a throwaway remark that illuminates, and perhaps mitigates, the unkindness on display elsewhere. “It draws all the Gentlemen to it whenever they are within, especially after dinner, so that my Br[other] Fanny & I have the Library to ourselves in delightful quiet.”

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 12 2020 01:00PM

Sanditon, the much-hyped TV adaptation of the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, is probably not getting a second season, but the enthusiasm of its uber-fans, the #SanditonSisterhood, is the gift that keeps on giving.

Last month, as you’ll recall, the Sidney-and-Charlotte brigade commissioned a sand artist to create a huge mural of Sanditon’s young lovers on the beach near Bristol, where the currently canceled show was filmed. The fans hoped to bring IRL attention to their online campaign, which aims at persuading a broadcaster to finance more episodes. (More than 72,000 people have signed a petition deploring the series’ unhappy, cliffhanger ending.)

But here’s the thing about sand art: Much like the affections of TV audiences, it does not long endure. And before artist Simon Beck could finish his work, the tide rolled in and swept it all away – bonneted Charlotte, top-hat-wearing Sidney, and “Who Will #SaveSanditon?” caption.

Beck, however, is a man of his word, and so days later he returned to the beach to finish filling in the outlines of his abortive Sidney Parker. Admittedly, the figure bears only a slight resemblance to the dishy Theo James, who played Sidney in the series, but sand may not lend itself to photorealism.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 8 2020 01:00PM

Even before the coronavirus curtailed recreational travel, the Internet-assisted ogling of Jane Austen-adjacent real estate was one of the cheapest and most satisfying pastimes available to Janeites.

How much the more, then, can we now appreciate the listing of two UK properties with strong Austenian links and price tags that place them solidly in the Lottery Fantasy category of homeownership.

* The Berkshire vicarage where Jane Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh spent the last decades of his life – and where he was living when he wrote his 1870 memoir of his famous aunt -- is on the market for £3.5 million (about $4.5 million).

Berkeleys, in the village of Bray in south-central England, is nominally an eighteenth-century building, but it’s been so thoroughly modernized that few traces of the period remain, at least as far as I can tell from the pictures. Instead, the new owners will have to content themselves with the four thousand square feet of floor space, the six bedrooms, the hardwood floors, the marble kitchen countertops, and the Thames River boat mooring, mere steps from the back door.

Austen-Leigh, who was eighteen when his dear Aunt Jane died, moved to Berkeleys many years later, in the mid-nineteenth century. Still, the house, however altered, is a concrete link to someone who knew her well.

* But if compromise – modernized surroundings, two-steps-removed Austenian links -- are not your thing, you may prefer to consider the Ashe Park estate, the centerpiece of the village whose rectory housed Anne Lefroy, Jane Austen’s older friend and mentor, frequently known as “Madam” Lefroy.

Located just a mile from Austen's home village of Steventon in Hampshire, England, Ashe Park is a place she certainly visited: a letter from January 1801 mentions the discomfort of being "shut up in the drawing-room with Mr. Holder [the Ashe Park tenant] alone for ten minutes" (Letter #33 in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence). Mr. Holder, one surmises, was the handsy type: Austen tells Cassandra that she kept one hand on the door-lock the whole time. (Alas, the more things change. . .)

However uncouth its one-time occupant, the house, parts of which date to the 1600s, is anything but. Years of seesawing fortunes (additions, refurbishments, land sales, land acquisitions, and a nasty fire, not to mention commercial enterprises that included a polo center and a mineral-water business) have delivered it into the Ogleable Real Estate stratosphere.

Now boasting 13,000 square feet of living space located on 232 acres of land, the estate also includes five freestanding cottages and a “party barn” where you can, say, host dinner for 80, prepared in the on-site catering kitchen. Back at the main house, there are seven bedroom suites, palatial reception spaces, and even a temperature-controlled “wine room” with wooden racks fitted on three walls.

The gardens (herb garden, wildflower garden, lime avenue, etc.) are spectacular, and the grounds are extensive enough to provide “great sporting potential for a family shoot,” real estate company Savills assures prospective buyers in the thirty-two-page, full-color booklet advertising the sale.

It will not surprise you to hear that this property is not to be had for a song, or even an entire hymnal. The price is listed as “on application” – in other words, if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it – but a recent piece in Country Life, that bible of the British upper classes, helpfully pegs it at “over £18 million” (about $23.3 million).

Apparently someone with the requisite cash has already stepped forward: the estate is “under offer,” according to the Country Life listing. We can only hope the new owners are appreciative Janeites.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 5 2020 01:00PM

After the year we’ve had, we’re all going to deserve a holiday-season treat. And it looks like the Janeites among us will be getting one.

The U.S. rights to Modern Persuasion, a romantic comedy starring Alicia Witt that updates Austen’s last completed novel to pre-pandemic New York, have just been sold to Samuel Goldwyn Films. While the new movie doesn’t quite have a release date, it does have a release month: December.

No word yet, as far as I can see, on whether the movie will be available via streaming, in theaters, or both. (Hey, who knows if theaters will even be open come December? Sigh.)

Persuasion updates are hard to pull off, and I’ve been skeptical about this project since the get-go, but these days, I’m in no mood to be picky. Hang up your stockings, light those Hanukkah candles, and break out the popcorn!

While we're waiting for December to get here, we can spend our time scrounging for new gossip about the planned adaptation of Persuasion, Jane Austen's actual novel (Original Persuasion, maybe? Not-So-Modern Persuasion?). That project is at a much earlier stage, but with the way the world is going these days, we may need a holiday treat next year, as well.

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