Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2018 01:00PM

Recently – OK, it was two weeks ago – I found occasion to mention an old journalists’ joke: that three examples of a phenomenon constitute a trend. At the time, I was remarking upon the proliferation of second-order Jane Austen adaptations – adaptations of previous adaptations.*


Today I feel justified in identifying yet another Austen-adaptation trend: the proliferation of jukebox/karaoke shows based on Austen stories. I’m talking about the kind of show that inserts famous pop songs into a newly developed storyline, giving audiences the comfort of the familiar along with the thrill of the new. Think Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, or (on the silver screen) Moulin Rouge.


Lately, Jane Austen has been getting the same treatment. The requisite three examples are as follows:


* In 2015, the lyricist and playwright Eric Price created Emma! A Pop Musical, which updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs by female performers as a score. I’ve never seen it, but apparently it’s beloved by school drama departments.


* Earlier this summer, a Glasgow theater company produced Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), an all-female, slapstick version of the novel featuring interpolations like Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" (sung to Mr. Darcy, of course). Reviews were generally positive, if not rapturous.


* Speaking of Clueless, this fall an off-Broadway company will produce a musical version of the much-loved 1995 movie. The show featues classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics by Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed the original. **


Personally, I think the surface of this trend has barely been scratched.


Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” begs to be included in a Sense and Sensibility jukebox show – sung by Willoughby in the second act, as he writes his fateful brush-off letter, and then tragically reprised by Marianne and Elinor during the climactic illness scene. (Earlier, Elinor will have promised to keep silent about Lucy Steele’s secret engagement by vowing “My Lips Are Sealed” and nursed her broken heart to a rousing chorus of "I Will Survive.")


It goes on and on: “My Boyfriend’s Back” is obviously Anne Elliot’s big Act One number. . . . Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland bop around Bath to the accompaniment of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. . . . Maria Rushworth succumbs to the seductive Henry Crawford while singing “Like a Virgin’. . . the possibilities are endless. Paging Baz Luhrmann!



* And I forgot one – the upcoming TV show based on Curtis Sittenfeld’s P&P update Eligible. So, really, that trend is practically a tsunami.


** Devoted blog readers may recall that I already employed the Clueless musical as one of the confirmatory three points in my recent blog about the second-order-Austen-adaptation trend. Some may feel I am cheating by using it as one of the confirmatory three points in a blog about a different Austen trend. What can I say? Trend reporting is an unscrupulous business.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 3 2018 01:00PM

Apparently, judges just love Jane Austen.


Or so Ohio State University Professor Matthew H. Birkhold claims in a recent article in the online journal Electric Literature. Birkhold argues that, while judicial references to such canonical male authors as Shakespeare, Kafka, Melville, and Dickens predominate, Austen tops the list for female writers.


Sort of, anyway: “The most-cited female authors include Harper Lee, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen,” Birkhold writes. “Only the last, though, is cited not only for one work but across her entire oeuvre.”


Since Harper Lee only wrote one book and Mary Shelley only wrote one that anyone outside of a graduate program has ever heard of, this Austen-as-judge’s-pet trope is starting to look a tad questionable, and we’re only in the second paragraph. Things get even sketchier in the next one, when Birkhold tells us that, since the first judicial reference to Emma in 1978, Austen’s “works have been invoked” twenty-seven times, not to mention the “many” references to Austen that don’t quote any specific text.


Across American courts at all levels and across all jurisdictions, then, we’ve got a single published Austen citation roughly every eighteen months, plus an unspecified number of more general mentions. Offhand, it doesn’t sound like a groundswell, especially when it turns out that half those twenty-seven citations are of the painfully ubiquitous “It is a truth universally acknowledged that [fill in the blank]” variety.


So I’m skeptical of the premise, but – go ahead! Explain why judges mention Jane Austen, however often they do!


Turns out that judges are a lot like pretty much everyone else who goes around mentioning Jane Austen. Either she’s a relationship expert -- “Jane Austen is cited as an authority on the complexity of life, particularly with regard to the intricacies of relationships,” Birkhold writes – or she’s an all-purpose symbol of classiness, refinement, and social distinction: “Judges cite Austen as a shorthand for erudition and sophistication, to demarcate who is a part of high society (often, lawyers) and who is not (often, defendants), reflecting the novelist’s popular reception.”


Can’t argue with the relationship-expert part: obviously, we Janeites think Our Author has profound insight into what makes families and romantic partnerships tick. But I can’t help giggling at the class part.


It’s not just that Austen’s novels often interrogate the very notions of class that too many readers (and, apparently, judges) attribute to her – although, of course, they do.


It’s that, in Austen’s day, many of those who made their living in the law were not considered of the highest social rank. Think of the Bingley sisters, sneering at the Bennet girls’ Uncle Phillips, “an attorney in Meryton.” Getting your hands dirty in the law was just a step above (gasp!) making a living in trade.


Though probably the Bingleys would have thought better of Uncle Phillips if he’d been a judge.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2018 01:00PM

Good news for those of us who can never get enough Jane Austen adaptations: Apparently, theater professionals in London and New York are working on a new musical based on Emma.


London casting for an upcoming workshop production was announced last week, and an invitation-only reading was held in New York last September. The show’s book and lyrics are by playwright Meghan Brown, and the music is by composer Sarah Taylor Ellis.


It’s encouraging to see an all-female writing team behind this show, especially one whose previous collaboration is a feminist musical about slumber-party guests possessed by demons. Perfect preparation for Jane Austen!


You can’t call the whole Emma-as-a-musical-thing a new idea, however: A quick Google search informs me that an Emma musical by Paul Gordon was presented in New York in 2006, as part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals, and an apparently completely different version, by Joel Adlen, showed up the following year as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.


And that’s not even to mention Eric Price’s Emma! A Pop Musical, which seems to be popular with the drama departments of middle schools and high schools. That version updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs as a score, in the jukebox fashion made famous by shows like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.


No word on how close the latest show is to a full-fledged production, but you know I’ll be there if it happens.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 22 2018 01:00PM

For generations of teenagers, including me, reading the young-adult novels of S.E. Hinton – classics like The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now – has been a beloved rite of passage. Hinton published her first book in 1967, while still a teenager herself, and her raw honesty about the intense emotions of adolescence has never lost its freshness.


Didn’t know she was a Janeite, though, until earlier this week, when the coordinator of my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America pointed out a recent Hinton tweet on the subject of Austen-inspired fanfic. (Not a complimentary tweet, either – but more of that in a moment.)


A quick Google search brought me a number of interviews (including this one, from 2005) in which Hinton cops to rereading Austen annually and especially admiring how she uses dialogue to reveal character. Apparently, Emma is Hinton’s favorite.


Hinton has expressed mixed feelings about fanfic based on her own books – she doesn’t read it, usually doesn’t mind it, but can’t help wincing at some of the premises -- but apparently she’s less forgiving about JAFF.


The conversation began on March 4, when Hinton noted, via tweet, that the keepers of Margaret Mitchell’s estate were planning to hire a writer to craft a sequel to Gone with the Wind, in hopes of keeping the copyright alive.


“The concept of public domain is that, after a reasonable period of time to allow a creator to profit from a work, that works [sic] ultimately belongs to everyone,” replied a tweeter called HeatherN. “I think that’s beautiful.”


Hinton begged to differ. “I think it's a crime,” she tweeted back. “The first time (many years ago) I realized people could rip off Jane Austen I was physically ill.”


I’ve read some really, really bad JAFF in my time – don’t get me started! -- so I can sympathize. It’s hard for fans to accept Darcys and Annes and Elizabeths behaving in ways violently at odds with their Austen-created personalities, since these people barely seem fictional to us. It’s like hearing someone insult your sister; you bristle instinctively. Jane Austen's characters seem to belong to each of us alone; it's hard to share.


Still, I’m puzzled by this notion that JAFF writers “rip off” Jane Austen. Hinton doesn’t seem to be talking about a financial ripoff here, although we can all regret that Austen never got to share in the riches her work has helped generate for others.


No, Hinton is talking about a deeper kind of violation. Partly, I think, she sees a violation of Austen's rights of property in her own imaginative creations, and of course I can understand why a living author would find it painful to see the characters she's created and loved appropriated by others. Indeed, we have copyright laws to deal with the profit-making aspect of this situation. But a dead author? She's beyond feeling this pain.


Partly, also, Hinton seems to be suggesting that the existence of JAFF hurts Austen's readers, somehow tainting their experience of her books. And here's where I really don't get it. Austen’s six masterpieces remain forever accessible and unsullied, no matter how many wannabes rewrite, update or sequelize her stories. These books are interpretations, responses, homages – sometimes delightful, sometimes inept – but they can’t touch Austen. She’s still there – and thank goodness for that.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 14 2017 02:00PM

The year marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death is almost over, but one more major Austen anniversary lies ahead of us: 2018 is the two hundredth year since the posthumous joint publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.*


Writer, critic, and blogger Sarah Emsley, who has already curated eclectic and insightful blog series for the bicentenaries of Mansfield Park and Emma, will launch a new one on Saturday, Austen’s 242nd birthday. Running over the next six months, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” will include posts from dozens of Austen readers, some academic and some not, analyzing different aspects of these two very different novels.


My contribution is running at the very end, in June, since I’m writing about Captain Wentworth’s letter, perhaps my single favorite passage in all of Jane Austen. Don’t ask me how I snagged this prize; Sarah didn’t even make me arm-wrestle for it.


Emsley has a star-studded Janeite Rolodex; the contributors to her past series have exposed me to new information and ideas about everything from Austen’s religious beliefs to Regency cooking. I’m looking forward to learning more about the novels that bookended Austen’s writing career.



* “What? I’m confused! I thought those books were published in December of 1817!”

Yes, Virginia, they were, but the title page says 1818, so we’re allowed to keep celebrating all next year.


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