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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.


“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”


And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”


Welcome to the club, Martha.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2018 01:00PM

Every now and again, along comes a Jane Austen adaptation, spinoff, or fanfic that, in its wishful thinking and reassuring punch-pulling, reminds us by contrast of how fearlessly unsentimental Austen is. Some of these remixes are pretty good (see under: Sittenfeld, Curtis). And some, like the movies with which I spent this past Saturday night, are pretty godawful.


In my continued pursuit of Jane Austen video completism – and in an effort to warn other Janeites before they commit themselves -- I curled up with a bowl of popcorn to watch the Hallmark Channel’s Marrying Mr. Darcy. But I didn’t stop there. Courtesy of Hallmark’s schedulers, I spent the preceding two hours re-watching the 2016 movie to which this one is a sequel: Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world.


You’re welcome.


Blog readers may recall that I was not a fan of either the first movie or the book on which it was based, and I cannot say that the movie improves with age: The acting is still wooden, the writing still execrable, the production values still bargain-basement. If I found it less offensive this time around, it was only because I was prepared.


Unleashing Mr. Darcy tells the story of the romance between perky Elizabeth Scott (Cindy Busby), unjustly fired from her teaching job at a posh D.C. high school, and rich-‘n’-handsome Donovan Darcy (Ryan Paevey), dog-show judge, successful businessman, devoted big brother, and – just for good measure – selfless philanthropist.


After several occasions of inexplicable, unmotivated hostility and rudeness on her part, the two bond over their shared love of Cavalier King Charles spaniels and patch up their differences in one of those climactic public reconciliations, complete with applause from an audience of strangers, that happen so often in the movies and so seldom in real life.


Marrying Mr. Darcy picks up the romance some indeterminate number of months later, the passage of time signified by the altered hairstyles of several of the main characters and the presence of a completely different actress playing Donovan’s younger sister, Zara. After a kissy-face proposal, we quickly find ourselves in the midst of that hoary sitcom plot staple: We Wanted a Small, Simple Wedding, But Everything Seems To Be Spinning Out of Control.


Leading the charge toward a wedding featuring a designer gown, a society church, and a guest list in the hundreds is Donovan’s Aunt Violet, our stand-in for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In the first movie, the veteran actress Frances Fisher tries valiantly to have fun with the role of an icy, manipulative villainess determined to scotch her nephew’s interest in the déclassé Elizabeth, but she is stymied by the egregious writing, which gives her little to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into.


At least, though, Unleashing Mr. Darcy allows her to be a villain. Marrying Mr. Darcy has a position to maintain: It’s the inaugural offering in Hallmark’s feel-good June Weddings series. Thus, it must follow the template of the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice in giving Austen’s arrogant, tyrannical Lady Catherine a heart of gold. Or, to quote Zara, “Aunt Violet, I’ve always known it. You’re just a softie underneath.”


And so Marrying presents us with a Violet who apologizes for trying to sabotage the Elizabeth-Donovan romance, gives her future niece-in-law heirloom family jewelry, and helps bring the young lovers together after a temporary estrangement. She’s sorry for interfering, she explains, but she still remembers Donovan as a heartbroken, newly orphaned nineteen-year-old. (Perhaps Aunt Violet has incipient Alzheimer’s? Those of us who had tuned in for the reprise of Unleashing Mr. Darcy had just been told that Darcy was twenty-one when he lost his parents in a tragic, yet unintentionally hilarious, boating accident.)


The new movie includes flashes of the Aunt Violet we could love to hate. Informed of Elizabeth’s shocking plan to return to her teaching career post-wedding, Violet purrs, in full 1950s Good Housekeeping mode, “That’s who you were. Now you will be Mrs. Donovan Darcy. That’s a very important full-time job.”


Alas, these hints of a more entertaining movie struggling to break out of the saccharine handcuffs go nowhere. Instead, it’s typical romcom fare, Billionaire Boyfriend division (“The Louvre may approve an after-hours visit for your honeymoon!” Darcy’s helpful assistant informs him.)


But Darcy is no Christian Gray: This is a strictly TV-G enterprise, and therefore, although both Donovan and Elizabeth are over thirty and have no discernible religious convictions, they maintain chastely separate residences, and their relationship shows no signs of having progressed below the neck. Like everything else about these movies, the prevailing temperature is tepid.


While the bland safety of these films is, of course, typical of the made-for-TV romance genre, it’s precisely not typical of the ruthlessly realistic Jane Austen. She has no qualms about leaving Lady Catherine as overbearing and snobbish at the end of Pride and Prejudice as she was at the beginning, even if the pragmatic Elizabeth does eventually engineer a reconciliation. It’s too bad that so many of Austen’s adapters don’t understand the very things about her that keep us coming back.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 31 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral, as all good Janeites know, but it’s another prominent medieval English church that will host an academic lecture about her work next week: Westminster Abbey, perhaps the most famous religious site in the British Isles.


For three evenings next month, the abbey and the British non-profit Art + Christanity are sponsoring a free lecture series on nineteenth-century English female novelists who “use fiction to explore questions of faith, morality and personal adherence to the Church of England.”


In addition to Austen, talks will cover Charlotte Bronte, born a year before Austen’s death, and Charlotte Yonge, who, although less well-known today than either Austen or Bronte, had a far longer and more prolific career than either, dying at the start of the twentieth century.


Next Tuesday’s kickoff talk, “Jane Austen’s Afterlife: Art, Culture and Religion,” will be given by the Rev. Alison Grant Milbank, associate professor of literature and theology at England’s University of Nottingham.


Jane Austen’s religious commitments and influences are unfamiliar to many modern-day Janeites, who live in far more secular cultures than the one that shaped her writing. It should be fascinating to hear a theologian talk about her work – wish I could be there. (And if you are, please let us know what you think!)


As a side note, I felt a little thrill at the title of the lecture series: “Excellent Women,” surely a tribute to the wonderful twentieth-century British writer Barbara Pym, whose most famous novel bears the same title. Pym’s books, with their precise Austenian irony and frequent references to Austen’s characters, often center on quiet, overlooked spinsters whose volunteerism underpins church life – excellent women indeed.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 28 2018 01:00PM

Last month, as blog readers will recall, a non-profit executive and Janeite with the extraordinarily appropriate name of Janet Austin was appointed lieutenant governor of the Canadian province of British Columbia.


This month, she confirmed her Janeite credentials in a twenty-question Proust questionnaire with the Toronto Globe and Mail.


For question #3, “Which living person do you most admire?” Austin named her friend Anne Giardini, chancellor of British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. As we learned last month, at the lunch bidding Austin farewell from her old job, Giardini “gave a talk called ‘Jane Austen talks about Janet Austin’ just using Jane Austen quotes.” According to Austin, the two women “sometimes talk to each other in Jane Austen quotes,” as well.


No surprise, then, that when she reached question #20, “If you could be a fictional character for one day, who would you like to be?” Austin replied, “Well, it’s got to be Jane Austen, so I would have to say Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.”


Personally, I’d think that depends on which day we’re talking about: Although I would rather not be Elizabeth Bennet on, say, the day of Mr. Collins’ proposal, I wouldn’t say no to the honeymoon at Pemberley. Still, we can all applaud the sentiment.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Although Jane Austen was, famously, not a big fan of Bath, London was a different story: Her trips to the metropolis to visit her worldly brother Henry seem to have been delightful whirls of shopping, parties, and culture – much like London tourism today.


The letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#85 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) memorializes a London trip during which Austen entertained herself with a whimsical pastime: seeking likenesses of the eldest Bennet sisters -- Pride and Prejudice had been published four months earlier – among the paintings in exhibitions she visited.


At one relatively unheralded exhibit, “I was very well pleased—particularly. . . with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. . . . exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” Austen writes. “She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.”


(Scholars believe Austen was probably referring to this painting, Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin), by the French portraitist Jean-François-Marie Huet-Villiers).




The following Monday, the day her letter was written, Austen attended a far more famous exhibition, the Sir Joshua Reynolds retrospective at the British Institution in Pall Mall, searching in vain for a portrait of “Mrs. D.,” aka Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. “I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye,” Austen writes. “I can imagine he wd have that sort [of] feeling—that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.”


The 1813 Reynolds exhibition is the subject of What Jane Saw, University of Texas English Prof. Janine Barchas’ fascinating online reconstruction of the paintings Austen viewed, displayed as they were two centuries ago. It’s a striking demonstration of the power that comes from marrying literary-historical scholarship to contemporary technology, and it brings to life the afternoon visit that Austen describes to Cassandra.


Scholarship aside, I find it charming to encounter the Austen of this letter -- another fond author, so wrapped up in her imagined people, with their favorite colors and happy marriages, that they seem to go on living once her story ends, becoming as real to her as the real-life sitters in the portraits she viewed. Devouring fanfic Austen sequels or comparing our co-workers to Austen characters, we Janeites can relate


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