Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 23 2015 01:00PM

I interrupt this week’s blogging to take a short vacation. Luckily, Jane Austen – in the person of Elizabeth Bennet -- had something to say on the subject of anticipated holiday happiness, and the nearly inevitable silliness of travelers:


“Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone -- we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers."

(Pride and Prejudice, ch. 27)


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 20 2015 01:00PM

Fandom need not be monogamous. “It's apparent that there is a fannish personality,” the dance historian Allison Thompson told me when I interviewed her four years ago for Among the Janeites. “There are some people who get really into something, whatever it might be, and may even explore multiple fandoms.”


So perhaps it’s not surprising that a bunch of Janeites should turn out to be Star Wars geeks – or vice versa. Whichever it is, nine members of these overlapping fandoms spent an entertaining ninety minutes on Twitter one night earlier this month riffing on an excellent question, posed via a tweet from @Drunk_Austen (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that we're drunk”): “Are Han and Leia a galactic Darcy and Lizzy?”


The exchange includes many gems, as the participants wonder whether Darth Vader is more like Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins or Mr. Bennet; cast R2D2 as Lydia Bennet and the reviled Jar Jar Binks in the thankless role of Kitty; and posit the gnomic Yoda as the saga’s Austen-like narrator (“SOMEBODY PLEASE MAKE A YODA-AS-JANE-AUSTEN GRAPHIC!!!” implores one tweeter. “WITH THE CAPTION "A universal truth, it is!"). The best of the lot may be the tweet highlighting a hitherto unnoticed resemblance between Chewbacca and the actor Crispin Bonham-Carter, who plays Mr. Bingley in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


My answer to the initial question, by the way: Sure, Han and Leia are Darcy and Lizzy, because Austen created a prototype – the first-she-hates-him-then-she-loves-him plot -- that has been cheerfully ripped off by every romantic-comedy author who came after her, including George Lucas. Infinitely adaptable to all eras, situations and galaxies, it’s a storyline that never goes out of style.


By the way, be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page linked above. You wouldn’t want to miss the picture of Jane Austen with a light saber.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 2 2015 01:00PM

It’s been more than two years since we fans bid a sad farewell to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the delightful web series that recast Pride and Prejudice as the Internet video blog of a struggling communications grad student in California. And now comes LBD: The TED Talk (or, at least, the independently produced talk in a TED-ish format).


In an engaging fifteen-minute lecture called “What Jane Austen Can Teach Us About Our New Internet Selves,” writer and critic Julie Salmon Kelleher argues that new communications technology changes the way we see ourselves – and that old communications technology, like the novel, did too.


The literary technique known as free indirect discourse, pioneered and popularized by Austen and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists, implies the existence of a private self that is both distinct from and more real than our public self, Kelleher argues. By contrast, the self implied by Internet-enabled social media is a collaborative, collective project.


Kelleher illustrates her point with a passage from Pride and Prejudice – Elizabeth’s reaction to Darcy’s letter – and with the equivalent scene from LBD, in which Lizzie, bemused to receive a wax-sealed, handwritten (in cursive!) missive from the rejected William Darcy, decides not to share its super-sensitive contents with her Internet audience.


That decision, which maintains the privacy of Lizzie’s consciousness despite the public nature of her video blogging project, suggests that the new world isn’t quite as far from the old as we sometimes think, Kelleher says.


“Finding our new Internet selves – finding our new selves – doesn’t mean leaving our old selves behind,” she concludes. “Maybe it’s not an either/or between our individual and our collective selves. Maybe we can aim for both.”


I’m too private a person – or perhaps too old a person -- to find social media’s all-sharing-all-the-time ethos anything but off-putting. So it’s a relief to know that, just maybe, there will still be a niche for me in this brave new world. If not, at least I can watch LBD again.


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