Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2020 01:00PM

When I read fanfiction that updates Jane Austen’s stories to contemporary settings, I often find myself exasperated by the names. Specifically, by the use of Jane Austen’s character names with no acknowledgment that, here in the twenty-first century, they are bound to ring some bells.


I mean, really: If you were a lawyer named Elizabeth Bennet practicing before a judge named Fitzwilliam Darcy, or an aspiring rock musician named Elizabeth Bennet touring with a guitar god named Fitzwilliam Darcy, or even a magazine writer named Liz Bennet exchanging icy banter with a neurosurgeon named Fitzwilliam Darcy, wouldn’t you expect some giggles from your friends? Some irritating wink-wink-nudge-nudge about how you two must be meant for each other? Some off-hand references to Colin Firth’s wet shirt?


But no—typically, these stories play out in a Bizzaroworld identical to our own in every particular except for the strange, universal amnesia about a book called Pride and Prejudice.


And so I greatly enjoyed a recent first-person account on the British news website Metro.co.uk by a young journalist and consultant named Elizabeth Bennett. With a marked lack of poetic justice, this Lizzy—actually, she goes by Biz--is neither a Janeite herself nor the daughter of Janeites: Born on the cusp of contemporary Austenmania, just five years before the airing of the BBC’s iconic P&P, she was named for relatives, rather than for Our Heroine.


As a fifteen-year-old high school student, she read the novel featuring her namesake for the first and only time. “The jokes from classmates about Mr. Darcy got a little tiresome,” she admits. On the other hand, when she went to a Barcelona police station to process required working papers, the officer in charge turned out to be a Janeite, and Bennett got her forms stamped in record time. Karma, I guess.


The Bennett story is part of a Metro series about living with a celebrity’s name. Be sure to check out the hilarious video entry from April, “Hello, my name is. . . Jane Austin,” featuring a middle-aged woman whose parents considered naming her Beverley or Chantelle but decided to go for something less. . . flashy.


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 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


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 12 2018 02:00PM

Long, long ago – wait, was it only 2009? – a clever young man named Seth Grahame-Smith interpolated zombie references into the text of Pride and Prejudice and sold a gazillion copies of the resulting mashup.


Ever since, the temptation to take Jane Austen’s out-of-copyright masterpieces and dress them up with references to. . . whatever. . . has seemed inescapable. We’ve had Sense and Sensibility with sea monsters, Mansfield Park with mummies, P&P with added Jews, and Emma with previously unsuspected vampires.


This year, just in time for Valentine’s Day, a British TV channel called Drama* has brought us yet another addition to this trend: Pride and Prejudice reimagined for the social media age. No, not another update of the story to our own times: Drama’s version is the 1813 text, except with Facebook, WhatsApp, email and selfies accompanying the carriage rides and formal balls.


“We're seeing if technology would ruin the 'art of romance' in classic love stories,” Drama explains on its website, which offers a free download of this new P&P, along with social-media-enhanced versions of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.


From my skim of the enhanced Austen, the changes seem much as they were in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: sometimes amusing, mostly cosmetic, and likely to become tiresome when stretched to book length. Darcy spends his time at the Meryton Assembly swiping on Tinder instead of dancing with the locals. Elizabeth captures his insult to her beauty in a Snapchat video. Mr. Collins’ letters arrive via email. Lady Catherine threatens to unfollow Elizabeth if she persists in her designs on Darcy. After Wickham leaves Meryton, rumors circulate that he “had created a secret online account under the name ‘The Militia Stallion’ which he used first to entrap, then to ghost certain ladies.” And a ringing cellphone interrupts both of Darcy’s proposals.


The only major plot change I detected was Drama’s decision to correct Jane Austen’s unaccountable error in omitting the now-famous scene of Darcy diving into the Pemberley lake and emerging in a clinging wet shirt. Yes, at last this moment, invented by Andrew Davies for the BBC’s iconic 1995 P&P adaptation, has made it onto the page. And this time, Elizabeth takes a smartphone photo of Darcy in post-lake deshabille, captions it “OMG,” and posts it online, inadvertently setting off “a Twitter storm of epic proportions.”


So what's the answer to Drama's question? Does social media ruin “the art of romance”?


Not really. As soon as Darcy switches off his phone, that second proposal goes about as well as you'd expect.



* As blog readers will recall, it was Drama that -- exactly a year ago, also just in time for Valentine’s Day -- earned a tidy little publicity windfall for its rebroadcast of beloved Austen adaptations by commissioning an artist’s rendering of the “real” Mr. Darcy. The dweeby result, based on the investigations of a historian and an Austen scholar, made clear that the standards of male beauty in Austen’s time differed dramatically from our own Firth-and-Macfadyen-inflected preferences.


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