Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 19 2019 01:00PM

A few weeks ago, as ITV began airing a much-hyped miniseries based on Sanditon, the seaside novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, a painter commissioned by the broadcaster started work on a giant billboard promoting the series (see under: much-hyped).

Artist David Downes finished the job earlier this month, and from the photo I’ve seen, the completed painting, on a twelve-meter-wide billboard in the British seaside town of Bournemouth, looks rather lovely: a green and rocky coastal seascape dotted with sails, under a sky full of wispy, streaming clouds. Even the rather prominent “ITV” logo in the lower left-hand corner doesn’t detract from the scene’s intriguing combination of tranquility (those peaceful boats) and edgy energy (those scudding clouds).

Sanditon won’t officially make it to US screens until January, although YouTube appears to be replete with opportunities to view the four episodes that have screened so far in the UK. (I will not be availing myself of these opportunities, given their dubious safety and legality; as a producer of intellectual property, I try not to collude in the likely theft of other people’s.)

Judging from the reviews in the British press, however, the show seems long on titillation – male nudity! Outdoor sex! Hints of brother-sister incest! – and short on the wit and subtlety that notably characterize the works of Jane Austen. (No big surprise, since screenwriter Andrew Davies has said he ran out of Austen material halfway through episode 1.) I’m withholding judgment until January, but it’s entirely possible that this billboard may turn out to be the best thing to come out of ITV’s Sanditon.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 16 2019 01:00PM

Is Michelle Obama a Janeite? As far as I’m aware, no documentation exists to settle the question either way. But circumstantial evidence now suggests that the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait may indeed be One of Us.

Amy Sherald, whose strikingly beautiful 2018 painting of the former First Lady hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, has just opened a solo exhibition in New York. And two of the eight portraits on display are named after lines from Jane Austen novels.

A painting of a young black woman in a striped strapless dress (lower left in the photo) is titled “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” a quote from Emma. And a painting of a young black man in a sweater (upper left) is called “A single man in possession of a good fortune,” which is, of course, part of the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.

The single man’s sweater is “decorated with geometric forms of houses, wittily suggesting that his wealth lies in real estate while also insinuating something darker: the tactics that have kept many African-Americans from owning homes,” opines New York Times art critic Roberta Smith.

Austen isn’t the only author alluded to in Sherald’s show – the name of another painting comes from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon – and there’s always a chance the artist picked her titles from a random Google search for famous quotes. (In which case, thank goodness she didn’t end up with “You have bewitched me body and soul” or some comparable atrocity.) Or maybe she's using Jane Austen for the ironic juxtaposition of nineteenth-century author with twenty-first-century subjects, rather than as an homage.

But I prefer to imagine her and Michelle Obama passing the time during portrait sittings by listening together to a really good audio version of Persuasion. Now that’s a lovely picture.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 12 2019 01:00PM

Writing is a solitary job, so it’s always satisfying to discover that someone out there has read – even liked! – your words. So imagine my delight when Kristin and Maggie, hosts of the First Impressions podcast (subtitle: “Why All the Austen Haters Are Wrong”), chose to feature my book Among the Janeites on their most recent episode.

The First Impressions team has been producing sixty- to ninety-minute podcasts roughly once or twice a month since December 2015, discussing Austen’s novels, filmed adaptations of her work, and other Austen-related matters. Their conversation about Among the Janeites and fan culture is thoughtful and thorough, and judging from the “Part 1” in the episode title, they may have even more to say. (So flattering. . .)

Apparently, the two hosts will be attending next month’s Jane Austen Society of North American Annual General Meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I hope to meet – and thank – them in person. Meanwhile, check out their podcast. Because all the Austen haters really are wrong.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 9 2019 01:00PM

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

Jane Austen’s letters, with their unpolished emphasis on the minutiae of daily life, don’t offer the reader as many gems as her novels do. Still, a few sentences here and there have earned deserved immortality among Janeites, and one of those memorable passages comes in the letter Austen began writing exactly 205 years ago today (#107 in Deirdre LeFaye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

Written to her twenty-one-year-old niece Anna, the letter is one of several in which Austen offers kind and helpful critiques of Anna’s novel-in-progress, which we know from other sources bore the working title Which is the Heroine? Poor Anna’s writing career largely fizzled out, so it’s the insight these letters offer into Austen’s own writing process that makes them interesting to us today.

Amid tidbits of advice that writers in any century would do well to follow (avoid overly detailed descriptions; ensure that characters behave consistently from scene to scene) comes Austen’s most famous delineation of her own preferred field of action.

“You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life,” Austen writes to Anna. “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”

In part, of course, we love this famous passage because it immediately conjures up Austen’s novels (three or four families. . . let’s count. . . Bennet, Bingley, Darcy, Lucas. . . ) and the way she finds a universe of meaning in the tiny worlds she creates.

For me, though, what’s loveliest here is that apparently unconscious verbal repetition: delightfully/delight. If she had been revising the sentence for publication, Austen would surely have avoided the echo by substituting a synonym in one place or the other. But speaking spontaneously about the work that gave her life meaning, her first thought -- and her second -- was pure joy.

Because Jane Austen died too young, leaving too many great books unwritten, it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking of her with melancholy. It’s worth remembering that she loved what she did.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 5 2019 01:00PM

Two episodes of the much-hyped TV adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, have aired in Britain over the past eleven days, and reviews so far are. . . mixed. At best. Words like “cringey” and “dull” have been employed (as, to be fair, has “refreshingly loose.”) One scene has been compared to “a school video designed for 10-year-olds.”

We Americans won’t get to decide for ourselves until January 12, when the show launches on PBS’ Masterpiece. But British viewers, at least those of the Janeite persuasion, have already been given an incentive to keep watching: Scavenger hunt!

It seems that production designer Grant Montgomery has sprinkled thirty-five references to Austen and her other novels throughout Sanditon’s eight episodes, perhaps in hopes that the show will become the center of a fan cult dedicated to freezing and parsing every frame of the DVD.

Among the hidden Austen references, apparently, are a copy of Pride and Prejudice stashed on a bookshelf and a Sanditon map featuring streets, gardens and promenades named Bennet, Bertram, Bingley, Brandon, Crawford, Darcy, Dashwood, Elliot, Ferrars, Knightley, Tilney, Wentworth, Wickham, and Willoughby, as well as “Moorland” – presumably, a tribute to the heroine of Northanger Abbey from someone who doesn’t know how to do a text search.

“It’s like Jane Austen’s greatest hits,” Montgomery told the Daily Mail. “The Jane Austen society visited the set and couldn’t help but laugh at all the Austen jokes included on some of the posters in the town.”

It all sounds kind of fun. And judging from those reviews, Sanditon may need all the fun it can get.

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