Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 28 2017 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s name and image have been appropriated for so many ancillary items – fridge magnets, tote bags, coffee mugs, temporary tattoos, air freshener, knitting patterns, scented candles – that’s it’s almost a surprise to find her associated with, of all things, books.

How refreshing, then, to hear of a new bookstore in the small city of Albertville, in northeastern Alabama, named Shades of Pemberley -- as in “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s cri de coeur at Elizabeth Bennet’s presumption.

Pride and Prejudice is one of owner Brandi Atchison’s favorite books, according to a report in the local paper, the Sand Mountain Reporter.

Atchison plans to stock all genres in her store and eventually to add that now-de rigueur bookstore element, the coffee shop, explaining, “I just want it to be a relaxing environment for everyone needing a book.”

Which is – or should be – all of us.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 23 2017 02:00PM

Thanksgiving Day is upon us once again, and once again it’s time to search the works of Jane Austen – who, as an Englishwoman who never left England, had no personal Thanksgiving experience – for mentions of holiday foods.

Blog readers will recall that Austen’s novels refer to turkeys twice and potatoes once. I’m happy to report that the tally for pie, a crucial holiday staple in my house, stands at a chart-topping three!

Well, sort of.

The Brits, it’s worth recalling, define “pie” rather expansively, and Austen is no different. During the Musgroves’ riotous family Christmas in chapter 14 of Persuasion, we happen upon “tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies”; as plans come together for the summer visit to Box Hill, in Emma, “Mrs. Elton was growing impatient to name the day, and settle with Mr. Weston as to pigeon-pies and cold lamb.”

It’s unlikely that these meat-based pies – sometimes served cold (**shudder**) -- are what most Americans will place on their Thanksgiving table today. Even my British husband is content with the traditional pumpkin and pecan and has never asked me to substitute the abomination known as the Cornish pasty.

More apropos, for today’s purposes, is this snippet of dialogue between Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth, who is desperately trying – and failing -- to get her mother to talk about something Not Embarrassing during her visit to the Bingleys at Netherfield.

"Did Charlotte dine with you?" Elizabeth asks in chapter 9 of Pride and Prejudice.

"No, she would go home,” [Mrs. Bennet replies]. “I fancy she was wanted about the mince-pies. For my part, Mr. Bingley, I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up differently. But everybody is to judge for themselves, and the Lucases are very good sort of girls, I assure you. It is a pity they are not handsome! Not that I think Charlotte so very plain -- but then she is our particular friend."

Mince pies, though primarily a Christmas tradition, seem a bit more relevant to today’s holiday than brawn and pigeon. Also on point: Embarrassing relatives. Here’s hoping that your table is long on pie and short on embarrassment today.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 7 2015 01:00PM

For those of you waiting anxiously for the release of reality TV star Lauren Conrad’s latest fashion line – debuting! Wednesday! at New York Fashion Week! – here’s a little tidbit: “For the makeup, she wants her models to be strong yet romantic with Jane Austen-inspired beauty looks,” MTV News reports.

It’s hard not to giggle at this, given that makeup in Jane Austen’s time involved lead-based skin cream to whiten the complexion, artificial eyebrows made out of mouse fur to replace the hair lost to all that lead, and mercury-based lotions to eliminate freckles (remember Sir Walter Elliot’s Gowland’s Lotion?).

Jane Austen-inspired makeup? Those models should demand worker’s comp.

OK, OK I realize that Conrad knows nothing about actual Regency cosmetics. The video accompanying MTV’s story illustrates her yen for Jane Austen looks with a shot of Keira Knightley and Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet in the 2005 screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. “Very strong, female-oriented but romantic – Age of the Innocence, Jane Austen, very fair maiden,” explains Conrad’s makeup assistant.

Yes, we’re back to that Jane Austen, the sweetly unthreatening, hearts-and-flowers version. “Very fair maiden” indeed. Pass the mercury.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2015 01:00PM

Another day, another artificially constructed list of literary favorites on which Jane Austen ranks high. Today’s entry is the “Top 15 of the Nation’s Favourite Classic Literary Heroines” – the nation in question being Great Britain, as you can tell from the spelling.

Seems that 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, the studio’s DVD distribution arm, wanted some free publicity for its upcoming DVD release of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the recent film adaptation of Hardy’s novel. So it commissioned a no doubt rigorous and statistically bulletproof survey of one thousand British adults and asked them who their favorite literary heroines were.

Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Far From the Madding Crowd, clocked in at #13. I love the novel, and she’s a great character, but something about this result seems curious to me. Maybe I have a suspicious mind.

Needless to say, however, I suspend all such skepticism when it comes to Jane Austen’s sterling success as one of only three authors to get two heroines onto the list: Emma Woodhouse, at #15, and Elizabeth Bennet, at #1. (Woo hoo!) The other two authors, in case you’re wondering, are Tolkien (Arwen, #7; Galadriel, #10) and Hardy (Tess, #8, joins Bathsheba).

Silly and unscientific though it probably is, the list nevertheless reminds us of a fundamental truth: readers have a great fondness for ruthless, cruel, manipulative people, at least when they are safely trapped between book covers. Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights), Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby) and Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) may be the protagonists (or co-protagonists) of their respective novels, but heroines? Only if your definition is expansive.

No wonder Jane Austen was wrong in saying that Emma was a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like.” Turns out we adore these vivid, larger-than-life women with their dramatic, outsize flaws.

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