Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 28 2019 01:00PM

The upcoming big-screen adaptation of Emma has acquired a complete cast list, and for those of us who delight in fine British character acting, the news is excellent.


It remains to be discovered whether Anya Taylor-Joy, an interesting actor with a slightly off-center vibe, can pull off the misplaced self-confidence of the title role -- I haven't yet seen an Emma I would consider definitive, unless you count Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. But I have no doubt that the always-fun-to-watch Bill Nighy will be a smashing Mr. Woodhouse, or that Miranda Hart, skilled at blending humor and pathos, will do justice to Miss Bates.


And then there’s the casting of Gemma Whelan, the badass Yara Greyjoy of Game of Thrones, as sensible yet pliant Mrs. Weston. I can’t help thinking how much better – or at least differently – Emma Woodhouse would have turned out if only she’d had Yara for a governess. If that woman told you to get to work on your reading list, you’d get it done.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 14 2019 02:00PM

Valentine’s Day, the celebration of lovers, dates back to the Middle Ages. Yet Jane Austen – often described as the mother of the romance novel, albeit by people who haven’t read her very carefully -- never mentions today’s most romantic of all holidays.


Or does she?


At least as far back as R.W. Chapman, the legendary editor who brought out the first scholarly editions of Austen’s work in the 1920s and -30s, Janeites have scoured Austen’s novels for hints to the dates on which events are supposed to be taking place.


Sometimes these are explicitly provided, as when Mr. Bingley reminds Elizabeth Bennet that the Netherfield ball took place on November 26. More often, however, they must be inferred from subtler clues that link a particular novel’s chronology to the almanacs for specific calendar years.


In 1986, the Austen scholar Jo Modert noted that if we take Emma – published at the end of 1815 – to be set in 1813-14, then internal clues indicate that its major events correlate with church holidays. Modert’s sleuthing uncovered fascinating evidence of Austen’s cleverness -- for instance, the fact that it is Shrove Tuesday, traditionally the religious holiday on which Christian believers were supposed to confess their sins, when Frank Churchill nearly tells Emma about his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax.


But the best known, and most delightful, of Modert’s discoveries is Austen’s hidden reference to Valentine’s Day – which, it turns out, marks the arrival of the piano that Frank secretly sends to Jane. And as the crafty Frank tells Emma in chapter 26, “Your reasonings carry my judgment along with them entirely . . . . now I can see [the gift] in no other light than as an offering of love."


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2019 02:00PM

Literary critics turn up in the most unexpected places.


Last November, the Maryland Zoo, in Baltimore, asked the public whether this year’s crop of African penguin chicks should be named for shades of color, types of pasta, or literary characters. Literary characters won, and earlier this month the zoo announced names for the first four of its recent hatchlings.


Three of them – Zorro, Gatsby and Coraline – need not detain us here. No doubt those chicks will grow up into perfectly adequate penguins.


The fourth, however, has been named Knightley.



Knightley the penguin


No doubt you, like me, are wondering why the zookeepers of Baltimore feel that, when you contemplate Austen’s large gallery of characters, the hero of Emma is the one who says Penguin.


Alas, because the zoo has provided no explanation for its literary exegesis, we can only speculate. Perhaps it’s because Mr. Knightley looks good in formalwear. (“His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body's eyes” – ch. 38). Or because, like the monogamous African penguin, he’s a one-woman man. (“There is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell” – ch. 42). Or because, like the members of this species, in which males and females share equally in egg-incubation duties, he’s good with kids. (“He was soon led on to. . . take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity” – ch. 12).


Whatever the reason, I’m sure we Janeites can all agree that this name sets a high bar for its avian owner. He’s not a happy-go-lucky Bingley, a brooding Brandon, or even a kindly Croft. He evokes one of Jane Austen’s most grownup characters: responsible, mature, ethically rigorous, a good neighbor, a careful estate manager.


It’s a lot for one small penguin to live up to.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 7 2019 02:00PM

Over the weekend, I went to see Clueless: The Musical. It made me miss Clueless: The Movie. Which was probably not the intended effect.


The original, immortal Clueless – the 1995 Amy Heckerling movie that updated the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills – is witty, charming, energetic and sweet. The new Off-Broadway show is . . . energetic.


We get duplicates of the characters, costumes and much of the plot of the original, along with ‘90s-vintage pop songs featuring new lyrics by Heckerling, but the result feels strained, as if everyone is trying a bit too hard. The light touch that makes the movie such a pleasure is entirely absent. Remarkably, it turns out that it’s possible to watch (a version of) Clueless without laughing.


The hard-working performers aren’t to blame, though we saw the show sans its semi-big star, Disney Channel actress Dove Cameron, who has been getting lots of social-media hate for missing performances over health concerns. Those on stage were certainly . . . energetic, but they mostly seemed to be imitating their cinematic predecessors, rather than making the roles their own.


Would a fan better versed than I in ‘90s pop have recognized more of the songs and thereby enjoyed their transformation more? Maybe. Instead, I found myself wishing that Heckerling had just hired a decent composer and created some catchy original music, instead of rehashing the sometimes mediocre hits of decades past.


The whole experience left me even more skeptical than I already was about the Clueless movie remake that’s supposedly on Hollywood’s agenda. Tempted to mess with perfection? Yeah – no. Just don’t.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2018 02:00PM

Nineteen is a number much on our collective minds today, as we prepare to usher in 2019, the last year of the second decade of the twenty-first century.


Accordingly, I went looking for nineteens in Jane Austen -- and I found eleven references, in ten different passages spread over four of the completed novels. (Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are nineteen-free zones.) With the exception of one throwaway Mansfield Park reference to “nineteen times out of twenty,” Austen’s nineteens are an interesting bunch – at any rate, significant enough to provide fodder for discussion while awaiting the Times Square ball drop.


For Jane Austen, nineteen is both too young and old enough: her nineteen-year-olds are variously mature and naïve, sensible and foolish. For Austen – and for us? -- nineteen is a transitional age, a waystation between childhood and adulthood.


In Mansfield Park, “eighteen or nineteen” is the age at which Mary Crawford expects girls to retain a certain innocent shyness, even if they are officially “out” in the marriage market. “One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to everything—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before,” Mary tells the Bertram brothers (ch. 5).


Yet some nineteen-year-olds are perfectly competent, it seems: Although Emma Woodhouse, at nearly twenty-one, still has much to learn, “at eighteen or nineteen [Jane Fairfax] was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself” (Emma, ch. 20).


The nineteen-year-olds of Persuasion are old enough to fall in love for keeps -- like Anne Elliot, who is nineteen when she accepts, and then refuses, Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal. But they are also young enough to mistake infatuation for the real thing -- like Louisa Musgrove, who, interestingly, is also nineteen when her charms temporarily turn the same man’s head, perhaps because he is unconsciously trying to recapture his youthful romance. And the novel contains a third naïve nineteen-year-old -- Mrs. Smith, who is nineteen when she meets, and initially likes, the duplicitous Mr. Elliot. “At nineteen, you know, one does not think very seriously,” she tells Anne (ch. 21).


Well, some nineteen-year-olds don’t: At the start of Sense and Sensibility, Austen tells us, Elinor Dashwood already “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother” (ch. 1). Like Persuasion, however, S&S features three significant nineteen-year-olds: in addition to the Elinor of the novel’s opening, there are the Edward Ferrars of four years earlier, whose “youthful infatuation of nineteen” has unhappily bound him to Lucy Steele (ch. 23), and the newlywed Marianne Dashwood of the novel’s end, who “found herself, at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (ch. 50).


Austen’s nineteen-year-olds are old enough to experience deep and sincere emotions, yet young enough to make dreadful errors of judgment. Some of them are ready to give counsel, while others trustingly follow the counsel of others. They stand on a threshold, looking backward to the consequence-free choices of childhood and ahead to the responsibilities of adulthood, with one foot in each place. Rather like us, tonight, as we leave 2018 behind and look ahead to what will come.


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