Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 27 2017 01:00PM

Barely is the metaphorical ink dry on my recent blog post lamenting all the great UK Jane Austen bicentenary events that we American Janeites are likely to miss when I happen across another one.

This time it’s an exhibition of Austen manuscripts, artifacts and film clips, titled “Which Jane Austen?” and on display at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries from June 22 to October 29. Among the items in the exhibition – some from the Bod’s own collections, some on loan from other places – will be the manuscripts of The Watsons and Sanditon, Austen’s two unfinished novels; the logbook that her sailor brother Frank kept on board one of his ships, HMS Canopus; and Austen’s hand-copied music books.

The point of the exhibition, according to curator Kathryn Sutherland, an eminent Austen scholar who teaches at Oxford, is to counter the “popular belief” that Austen was a “retiring country mouse” by showing her intimate engagement, both in her fiction and through the experiences of family members, with the worlds of politics, war and commerce.


Don’t get me wrong: The exhibit sounds great, and I am green with envy of all the British Janeites who will get to see it. But really: Could we let go of the dear-innocent-little-Jane meme that we keep insisting is everybody else’s idea of Austen?

Yes, in the decades following the 1870 publication of her nephew’s hagiographic Memoir of Jane Austen, Kindly Domestic Aunt Jane was the accepted image. But at least since the 1940s, when D.W. Harding published his famous essay on Austen’s “regulated hatred,” an alternative view of a tougher, more politically engaged Austen has been equally prevalent, if not more so.

And by now – after decades of scholarship about the mentions of slavery in Mansfield Park, the Napoleonic Wars context to Persuasion, the guillotining of Austen’s French cousin-by-marriage, the radicalism or conservatism of Austen’s sexual politics, the cutting things she writes about the Prince Regent in her letters, yada yada yada – it’s not clear to me that anyone still believes Austen was a sweet-natured maiden aunt who barely noticed that her country was at war for most of her adult life.

I suppose if Sutherland is talking about the views of your average person on the street, whose acquaintance with Jane Austen mostly consists of a forced high school march through Pride and Prejudice and repeated viewings of Clueless, this could be an accurate account. But does someone like that even know, or care, enough about Jane Austen to think of her as a retiring country mouse? I have my doubts.

Perhaps the exigencies of marketing in our noisy culture require that every new Austen book, movie, or exhibition be portrayed as a fearless effort to push back the forces that insist on inappropriately domesticating a strong and subversive woman writer. From where I sit, though, it looks like this battle was over -- and won -- long ago.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 20 2017 01:00PM

Given the ubiquity of comic books based on Jane Austen’s novels, I suppose it’s not surprising that we’ve now moved on to Version 2.0: comic books based on spinoffs and adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.

And so it is that we will soon have a comic book based on Clueless, the justly beloved 1995 film that updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. In a further meta twist, the comic book will be cowritten by Amber Benson, a one-time actress (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who, as a teenager, auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in the movie.

Rather than retelling the story of the film, the comic book version imagines how the characters from Clueless would cope with senior year at Bronson Alcott High School. It’s not clear from the Boom! Studios press release how many books are planned for the series, but the first one debuts in August.

As I’ve written before, I’m not entirely on board with the Jane Austen comic book thing, but the pop-culture sensibility of Clueless seems like a perfect fit.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 21 2016 01:00PM

The holiday of Purim, which begins on Wednesday night, is the Jewish version of Mardi Gras: to commemorate the Biblical tale of how Queen Esther saved her fellow Jews from annihilation, we dress up in costume, throw carnivals for the kids, bake triangular cookies known as hamentashen, and eat and drink way too much. Especially drink.

You’d think this had nothing to do with Jane Austen, wouldn’t you? But this year, you’d be wrong.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is throwing a Clueless-themed Purim party on Thursday night. Queen Esther will be costumed as Cher, the Emma-like heroine of Amy Heckerling's classic 1995 film, and, SF Weekly reports, “there will be cocktails, a crafting station where you can make your own pink fluffy feather pen, a lip gloss bar, and access to the current exhibit on San Francisco's powerhouse impresario, Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution.”

I’m sure I speak for all us east coast Janeites when I say that it is way harsh that this is happening in California. My synagogue’s Purim celebration this year has a Star Wars theme. Which is fine and, you know, probably more fun for the under-8 set, but still: who among us has not wanted to make our own pink fluffy feather pen for Purim?

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 29 2016 02:00PM

I love Clueless. Doesn’t everyone? Last summer marked the twentieth anniversary of the film’s release, and the milestone inspired a slew of fond reminiscences (for instance, here and here). Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie, which updates Emma to high school in Beverly Hills, is clever, funny and touching. What’s not to like?

So when I drew up the agenda for the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 bridging a few of the gaps in my Janeite knowledge, As If! The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew was a natural addition to the list.

As If! is the brainchild of pop culture journalist Jen Chaney (or, as the back cover has it, “acclaimed pop culture journalist Jen Chaney.”) Loving Clueless as I do, I would like to report that the book matches its subject in wit and heart. Alas -- no. I hate to be way harsh, but the book is, if not quite a full-on Monet, then at the very least a big disappointment.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2015 01:00PM

The year 1995 marked what I’ve called the Big Bang of contemporary Jane Austen fandom: Colin Firth’s wet-shirt scene in the BBC’s famous adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

But that beloved P&P was just one of six Austen adaptations released on UK or US screens between April 1995, when the Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds Persuasion aired on British television, and February 1997, when US TV audiences saw the Kate Beckinsale Emma, three months after its British debut.

Arguably the most beloved of the six adaptations was yet another Emma: Amy Heckerling’s witty and charming Clueless, which hit our movie screens twenty years ago this Sunday. Heckerling’s clever screenplay proved for the first time -- but definitely not the last -- that Austen’s stories of money, romance and status competition make perfect sense in the feral world of adolescence, with its high emotional stakes and rigid, unforgiving social codes.

The movie’s anniversary is being marked by the release of an oral history (As If! by the pop culture journalist Jen Chaney) and a steady stream of online articles about the movie: its stars, its lingo, its fashion choices. And from time to time, its relationship to Jane Austen. (In that last category, I recommend these by Sarah Seltzer and Meghan O’Keefe).

As fresh as when it opened on July 19, 1995, Clueless is one of my very favorite Austen adaptations, truer to Austen’s satirical vision than many a slavishly faithful piece of costume drama. This momentous anniversary may call for a repeat viewing. Cue up “Rollin’ with the Homies” and pass the popcorn.

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