Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 9 2020 02:00PM

I’m afraid I have some very bad news. The pandemic has taken so much from us, and now it seems to have taken something more.


Long ago, in the Before Times -- aka January -- the entertainment press reported that the Hallmark Channel was planning to add yet another Jane Austen-themed movie to this year’s Christmas schedule.


Since 2016, the channel has brought us five deeply mediocre rom-coms claiming Austen associations: Unleashing Mr. Darcy; its sequel, Marrying Mr. Darcy; and three Christmastime offerings – Christmas at Pemberley Manor; Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe; and Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen.


The newest addition, Christmas at Mansfield Park, was to be written by Melissa de la Cruz, a prolific novelist and TV screenwriter whose credits included not only the TV movies PP&M and SS&S but also the (very bad) novel on which the first of these was based.


Alas, however, Hallmark’s Christmas movie broadcasts have been underway for two weeks now, and Christmas at Mansfield Park is nowhere in sight. It’s not listed among the twenty-three new movies in the “Countdown to Christmas.” It’s not one of the seventeen “Miracles of Christmas” offerings. It has no IMDB listing.


This year, according to the announced titles, Hallmark will be bringing us Christmases in Vienna, Nashville, and Colorado, as well as in the (possibly fictional) locales of Evergreen and Glenbrooke, not to mention at a chateau. We will be able to enjoy a Christmas ring, a Christmas bow, a Christmas doctor, a Christmas house, a Christmas waltz, a Christmas carousel, and a little Christmas charm. The hot-chocolate-and-gingerbread train will not, however, be stopping by Mansfield.


Neither Hallmark nor de la Cruz seems to have issued any public explanation for the change, but online speculation assumes that COVID messed with production plans. Will the movie be rescheduled for next year? No word on that, either.


It’s unlikely that the delay in broadcasting Christmas at Mansfield Park represents a terrible loss for the art of cinema. Still, it’s one more small reminder of 2020’s abnormality. If you can’t count on Hallmark to bring you a bad Austen-themed movie at Christmastime, what certainties remain?


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 5 2020 02:00PM

This weekend, time zones are friendly to Janeites with an appetite for online convening. On paper, it looks like you’d have to choose how to spend your Saturday: at either Austen Con, a one-day festival sponsored by a theater company in Melbourne, Australia, or “Pride, Prejudice and Zoom,” a one-day festival sponsored by the public library in Glendale, Arizona.


But that’s the thing about time zones: Saturday in Australia is Friday in Arizona, and so the two events actually don’t overlap. Which is lucky for me, since I’m on the panel that kicks off the Arizona festival, at noon Mountain time on Saturday (aka the small hours of Sunday morning in Australia).


My panel, “Jane, Universally Acknowledged: Austen Fandom in the 21st Century,” should be a lot of fun: I’ll be appearing along with Holly Luetkenhaus and Zoe Weinstein, co-authors of the 2019 book Austentatious: The Evolving World of Jane Austen Fans. Austen scholar Devoney Looser, a professor of English at Arizona State University, will moderate.


The festival includes both live and recorded discussions of fandom, fanfic, and an assortment of other topics at the intersection of Austen and pop culture. Everything is free, but to get links for the live events, you have to preregister.


Once you’ve recovered from jet lag after the Australian event, please drop in!


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 2 2020 02:00PM

A cheerful story with a political angle—and a Jane Austen twist! On the eve of Election Day here in the stressed-out, locked-down, anxiety-ridden United States, it seems like an impossibility.


But I’m happy to report that last month, the family of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, adopted a stray kitten and named him Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy – Darcy, for short. “His name was inspired by the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice,” the Coopers helpfully explain on the First Pets of North Carolina Facebook page.




Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of North Carolina


Adorable little Darcy was found “crying under a nearby church” on the very day the Coopers lost their beloved ten-year-old rescue dog Ben to a debilitating autoimmune disease. “Of course, he will never be ‘in want of a wife’ because here at First Pets, we believe in responsible pet ownership, which includes spaying and neutering,” the Coopers note.


Appended to the post are more than 250 comments from people touting their own Austen-themed pets, pasting in snippets of Colin Firth, quibbling over Darcy’s breed (Siamese? Seal point Ragdoll?), and suggesting that the Coopers name their next cat Mr. Bingley.


As you may already have guessed, based on the existence of a First Pets of North Carolina Facebook page, the Coopers (governor, wife, three grown daughters) are an animal-loving clan. Over the years, they have shared relatable anecdotes about their now-deceased dogs Ben and Chloe; their late cat Alexei; a couple of praying mantises who came and went, as insects do; and their apparently-still-alive pets, including a dog named Charlie and a cat named Adelaide.


Darcy isn’t even the first lost kitten the Coopers have adopted and christened with a literary name: Exactly two years ago, they took in a stray found in the garage of the governor’s mansion and named her Jennyanydots – Jenny for short – after a character in T.S. Eliot’s cat poems and the musical based on them.


Jaded, mistrustful types may choose to find it suspicious that the Coopers keep happening upon adorable orphaned kitties just days before hotly contested elections. But I’m suspending my cynicism. With Election Day right around the corner, I choose to believe.



By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 29 2020 01:00PM

For Janeites, the highlight of this month’s online social calendar was the Jane Austen Society of North America’s first-ever virtual conference, which took place October 9-11. And now comes word that next month will have its own opportunity for online Austen celebration: the one-day Austen Con, sponsored by 24 Carrot Productions, a theatre company in Melbourne, Australia.


Austen Con, which was held in person in 2018 and 2019, features some of the now-becoming-standard offerings of online Austen festivals: talks by scholars and fans about Austen’s work and the times she lived in, hands-on workshops on everything from bonnet-trimming to Regency cookery, and access to an array of merchants hawking Austenesque clothing, jewelry, art, and accessories.


Along with these come some less familiar choices: an “Austen-twisted cabaret and burlesque,” an improv performance based on Austenian characters, and an Austen-themed escape room that you can tackle either alone or with friends.


"There are a lot of similarities between Austen’s life and some of our lockdown/iso experiences at the moment," Sharmini Kumar, 24 Carrot’s artistic director, told the Australian entertainment website Scenestr. "We’re all trying to find ways to entertain ourselves. I love fan conventions, and I love the real mix of things that go into them -- fan art, merchandise, meeting other fans. I wanted to do something for Austen fans that captured that -- the community, the fun, the thoughtfulness."


In Australia’s eastern time zone, Austen Con runs from 9 am to 5 pm on November 7, which means that Americans who want to experience the event live will have to log on sixteen hours earlier: 5 pm on November 6 through 1 am on November 7, for East Coast residents. If that’s inconvenient for you, Austen Con’s offerings will remain available for an additional forty-eight hours after their initial airing.


It all sounds like a lot of fun, and the price is an ultra-reasonable $20 Australian (about $14 for Americans). Time to tie on your bonnet and saddle up the kangaroo. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 26 2020 01:00PM

Pandemic life has made clear, at least to me, that online interactions are no substitute for the in-real-life kind. Still, it’s heartening to see artists and cultural organizations seizing the opportunity to create high-quality virtual experiences for those of us who don’t have better choices right now.


The latest example of this lemonade-out-of-lemons approach is “Jane Austen’s House From Home,” a menu of online experiences designed to introduce visitors to Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


Back in June, the cottage – now a museum of Austen’s life -- staged an ultra-successful crowdfunding appeal, raising more than £97,000 (over $126,000) in a campaign that had initially sought only £75,000. Donations poured in after the museum warned that its long-term viability was at risk after months of pandemic-induced closure.


Chawton is open again, but travel restrictions and social-distancing rules mean that fewer people can visit. Starting last week, however, the museum can come to you, via a nifty 360-degree virtual tour that takes you through every room in the cottage and lets you zoom in on everything from the floorboards to the ceiling rafters, as well as a slew of treasured artifacts – Austen’s writing desk, say, or the topaz cross that was a gift from one of her sailor brothers. If you've been to Chawton, the tour will bring back warm memories of that magical place, and if you're a newbie, it's bound to whet your appetite. Plus, there's a bonus: For once, the cottage is empty! No tourists jostling for elbow room in front of the famous Austen quilt!


The “From Home” site also features a children’s audio tour of the cottage and its grounds, purportedly narrated by the museum’s black and white cat, who quotes liberally from the Juvenilia. (Who knew cats had such great taste in literature?) And you can visit two virtual exhibitions, one on Austen’s letters and one featuring items related to Austen’s teenage years.


No, it’s not the same as being there. But for now, it’s what we’ve got, and it’s quite a bit better than nothing.


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