Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2020 01:00PM

Nothing beats hearing a soothing, familiar voice read an engrossing story aloud. I loved the read-aloud experience when I was a child doing the listening, and I loved it again as a parent sharing books, and closeness, with my children.


Perhaps it’s the uncertainty of coronavirus quarantine that makes us yearn for the comforting rituals of childhood: baking bread, doing jigsaw puzzles, playing board games. And, for Janeites, listening to one of our favorite actors read to us from one of our favorite books.


Earlier this spring, the Anglo-American actor Jennifer Ehle, best known to Janeites for playing Elizabeth Bennet in the iconic 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, posted an Instagram video of herself in at-home mode – hair down, comfy-looking zippered fleece top, striped curtains visible in the background – reading aloud the first two chapters of -- you guessed it -- Pride and Prejudice.


Then she kept going – a couple of chapters at a time, sometimes for only six or seven minutes, sometimes for as long as forty-five; sometimes at home, sometimes in her car. Once in a while, she sipped from a mug, or accidentally dropped her phone, or adorably bobbled a long word. Sometimes she thanked her viewers for “sheltering with me” or took a moment to acknowledge those still working in essential jobs.


Eventually, she posted everything on a dedicated YouTube channel – a cumulative total of forty-four episodes, running to about fifteen hours of reading time, or some two or three hours more than most of Audible’s two-dozen-plus renditions of the book. The whole novel is now available: In Ehle's reading, Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters just last weekend.


Ehle reads beautifully, of course, but she isn’t offering a polished-to-a-high-gloss, professional recording; for that, you’re better off choosing an Audible. Instead, she’s giving us something closer to that childhood experience of cocooning at home, wrapped in your blankie, while a parent’s soothing murmur washes over you.


It’s warm and reassuring. Or, as Ehle herself says at the conclusion of Part 44, moments after reading the final lines of Austen’s novel: “That was time well-spent.”


With no end to quarantine in sight, we could use more warmth and reassurance. Luckily, Austen wrote five other books! Hey, Jennifer: May I suggest Persuasion next?


By Deborah Yaffe, May 25 2017 01:00PM

No one reads Pride and Prejudice and dreams of living at Longbourn. The Bennet family estate, much as Mr. Collins may praise it, is so thoroughly eclipsed by the glories of Pemberley that it merits barely a smidgen of real estate lust.


But Luckington Court, the house that played Longbourn in the BBC’s iconic Firth-Ehle P&P, is another story: 9,600 feet of living space -- comprising seven bedrooms, six bathrooms, and assorted cottages, not to mention the stables and outbuildings – situated on 156 acres of gardens and woodland in southern England’s green and pleasant Cotswolds.


And all yours, for a mere £9 million ($11.7 million).


Yes, the Bennet estate is up for sale, after seventy years in the same family – or so says a recent issue of the oh-so-upper-crust Country Life magazine. (When the New York Post called the real estate agents to confirm, however, the firm told the newspaper that its “clients have asked them to cease marketing the property,” leaving it unclear – at least to me – whether the house is off the market, or whether interest is already so great that advertising is superfluous.)


Luckington Court is what the Brits call a “listed” property, meaning one with special historic importance; indeed, it’s listed in Grade II*, reserved for “particularly important buildings of more than special interest.” According to Country Life, it is said to stand on the site of a medieval manor owned by King Harold II, England’s last pre-Norman Conquest ruler.


The core of the present building may date back to the sixteenth century, or even earlier, but it was remodeled starting in the seventeenth century by a Bristol merchant family, the Fitzherberts. (In trade! The Bingley sisters would sneer.) Later residents – renters or owners -- included a Latvian Nazi-sympathizer, a dashing British spy, and the family of the director of the Badminton Horse Trials, which prepare British equestrians for international competition.


And judging from the photos, the rooms are absolutely beautiful – high ceilings, tall windows, wood floors, and oodles of natural light. What else could you wish for? Oh, that. No, Colin Firth is not included.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 15 2016 02:00PM

Just in case yesterday’s festivities didn’t give you enough of that Valentine’s Day spirit, Biltmore House, the palatial Asheville, N.C., estate of the Vanderbilt family, has the perfect solution: “Fashionable Romance,” an exhibit of wedding gowns worn in the movies.


Included in the exhibit, which runs through July 4, are gowns from the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma, and the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. Judging from the web site pictures, the display – which includes a total of forty costumes from nineteen films -- will be a feast for costume-mad Janeites.


I’ve never been to Biltmore, but from here it looks kind of like Pemberley on steroids. If you go sometime this spring or summer, please report back!


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 25 2016 02:00PM

The life of a Jane Austen video completist is not easy. Yes, it’s true that in the service of her mission – to see and, ideally, to own every Austen-related film adaptation – she scales the heights of the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility and the Firth/Ehle Pride and Prejudice.


But she must also plumb the depths. She must wade, at least once, through the tedious and confusing Jane Austen in Manhattan. She must tolerate the saccharine perkiness of Scents and Sensibility. And, I report with sorrow, she must grit her teeth through the deeply annoying Unleashing Mr. Darcy.


I’ll admit that my expectations were low. The TV movie Unleashing Mr. Darcy is based on a mediocre P&P update that mostly abandons Austen’s clever, economical plotting in favor of an incoherent series of relationship reversals (They’re fighting! Oh, now they’re having totally amazing sex! Wait, they’re fighting again!) that set the reader’s head a-spinning.


But as my teenage daughter and I tuned to the Hallmark channel and settled down with our popcorn on Saturday night, I was cautiously optimistic that a good screenwriter and a couple of decent actors could fix the problems. Plus, the story is set in the dog-show world, which guarantees cute-animal overload.


Alas. Let’s just say that, pace Jane Austen, sometimes first impressions are entirely accurate. My daughter’s off-the-cuff review pretty much sums it up: “Wow. I don’t think that had any redeeming features.”


Rich-guy dog-show judge Donovan Darcy is played by Ryan Paevey, a model and soap-opera actor with the bland handsomeness and charisma-free personality you’d expect from such a resume. Spunky dog-owner Elizabeth Scott is played by Cindy Busby, a TV actress with a startling talent for seeming shrill and irritating in every scene, whether she’s enacting tearful, joyful or outraged.


And the writing! Ouch. Apologizing for her (entirely unmotivated) rudeness to Darcy, Elizabeth explains, “I was upset about other reasons.” Who talks like that? The occasional Austen lines land with a thud, completely out of place in their surroundings. Even the actors seem confused. “My good opinion once lost is lost forever,” Darcy tells Elizabeth, pretty much out of the blue, early in their acquaintance. “What does that mean, exactly?” she asks. “Nothing,” he replies.


These two are so charmless that it’s difficult to understand what they see in each other, beyond her generic blondness and his sculpted abs, which we inspect during a gratuitous bathing-suit scene that is probably meant to evoke Firth’s wet shirt. (Note to writers: It’s bad strategy to remind viewers of much, much better Austen adaptations.) Presumably in order to keep its TV-G rating, the movie reworks the (terrible) plot of the original into an (equally terrible) version that omits the hot-and-heavy makeout sessions and full-on sex scene that, in the book, at least offer some clue to what’s driving this relationship.


And don’t expect to divert yourself from the trainwreck by ogling the beautiful grounds of Pemberley: the scene has been moved from England to (a poor facsimile of) New York City, and the production values are strictly bargain-basement. “Come and stay with me in my brownstone,” a friend tells Elizabeth, who soon shows up on the doorstep of. . . a house that, with its wide porch and brick facings, resembles no urban brownstone I’ve ever seen.


Yes, there are canine cameos, mostly by terriers and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. They’re adorable, of course. But even the cute pooches can’t save this dog.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2016 02:00PM

People who were alive in November 1963 like to reminisce about the moment they learned that JFK had been shot. American Janeites who were alive in January 1996 can look back on a far more joyful, although slightly less momentous, milestone: their first viewing of the BBC’s landmark adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which began airing on the A&E network exactly twenty years ago tonight.


That adaptation, which features the famous not-in-Austen shot of Colin Firth, aka Mr. Darcy, in a clingy, translucent wet shirt, is often credited (by me, among other people) with kicking off the pop-culture Austenmania that we still live with today, albeit in the attenuated form of Bustle listicles and zombie mashups.


So where was I when I first saw the famous P&P? Well, I didn’t subscribe to cable back then, so I had to content myself with a VHS recording mailed to me by my parents some time (a week? A month? Can’t remember now) after the original broadcast.


My husband and I invited a Janeite friend over for a two-night viewing party in our tiny apartment. The second night, she and I insisted on starting out by rewatching our favorite scene. No, not that one! In those pre-Internet days, I don’t know if we’d heard about the wet-shirt frenzy spawned by the show’s initial broadcast a few months earlier in England.


Anyway, that scene is in the second half.


We wanted to see Darcy and Elizabeth, played by the great Jennifer Ehle, crossing swords after his insulting proposal -- the six-minute exchange in which she tells him he’s “the last man in the world” she would ever agree to marry. It’s one of Jane Austen’s greatest scenes, and Andrew Davies’ screenplay realizes it beautifully, skillfully turning paraphrase into speech and interweaving the result with a condensed version of Austen’s dialogue. Firth paces, Ehle seethes, and the intensity of feeling between them gives even a P&P virgin a clue that Elizabeth is going to end up eating those words, with a cherry on top.


OK, I just went and watched that scene again. It’s still fabulous. Happy twentieth anniversary, everyone.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter