Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2020 01:00PM

By now, it’s no surprise to find Jane Austen’s name surfacing in discussions of Britain’s unsavory imperial history: The debate over the significance of Austen’s glancing references to West Indian slavery has raged for decades.


Nor should it be a surprise to see Austen press-ganged into service, however unfairly, as a symbol of uncritical nostalgia for nineteenth-century country house life. Still, I couldn’t help bristling when her name surfaced in a recent Guardian story about the impact of the worldwide anti-racism protests on the National Trust, the British non-profit that preserves and curates hundreds of stately homes.


Apparently, the National Trust plans a stepped-up effort to highlight its properties’ ties to slavery and colonialism. Although the issue has been on the agenda at least since the 2007 bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, “it would be fair to say we haven’t made the progress that we should have done since then,” John Orna-Ornstein, the trust’s director of culture and engagement, told the newspaper. “The Black Lives Matter movement has made us realize that we need to go much faster,” he added.


The initiative is surely a welcome development that, if done well, should enrich and complicate tourists’ experience of National Trust properties. But how does Jane Austen fit into this picture? Where did she stand on comparable issues in her own time?


It’s a complex question with no definitive answer: Although we know from her letters that Austen admired the abolitionist writer Thomas Clarkson, her references to slavery in Emma and Mansfield Park are oblique enough to leave us guessing about the precise contours of her beliefs.


In our era, marked by a profusion of Jane Austen adaptations filmed in the ornate parlors and manicured gardens of very beautiful National Trust properties, nuance is easily elided, however. And thus it is that the Guardian can quote Katie Donington, a historian of the transatlantic slave trade, speculating about whether the popular perception of the country house will militate against efforts to reckon with its unsavory hidden history.


“Is it scones and tea and a bit of Jane Austen-type fantasy?” she asked the newspaper. “Or does it engage with the hard political and economic realities of where some of that wealth came from?”


It’s possible that Donington is a dedicated follower of the literary critic Edward Said, who argued decades ago that Austen was conveniently blind to the horrific human suffering that underwrote her own society. But more likely her comment is yet another example of the way that Jane Austen screen adaptations, with their beautiful costumes and buildings and actors, have come to stand for all things Jane Austen – no matter how much that overlooks Austen’s own engagement with hard political and economic realities.


When contemporary screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels are the (implied or overt) topic of discussion, the conversation is about us, the twenty-first-century viewers, not her, the nineteenth-century novelist. So could we leave poor Jane Austen out of it?



By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 22 2020 01:00PM

For many of us, coronavirus quarantine has proved to be the perfect moment to reread Jane Austen. (Although, really, is there ever a bad moment to reread Jane Austen?) Just in case the novels themselves haven’t imbued your days with enough of that old-time Regency feeling, however, the internet has recently suggested some ways to bring a Janeite flavor to the activities that have been filling the hours for so many of us. Herewith, a roundup:


* Homeschooling: Students in a business law class at Toronto’s Ryerson University can enhance their studying with a set of online review materials at the Course Hero website. Relevant for our purposes: the sad tale of Carlos, a rare-books dealer who arranges to buy Yasmeen’s first edition of Pride and Prejudice for $20,000, only to have her renege on the deal in hopes of seeing the book’s value increase over time.


Budding lawyers may be most concerned about which multiple-choice answer most accurately calculates the damages Carlos could recover in a breach-of-contract lawsuit. We Janeites will simply congratulate Yasmeen on realizing that these days, a P&P first edition could be worth a lot more than $20,000 – and, in any case, is priceless.


* Movie-viewing: Quarantine brought us an early chance to watch the latest film adaptation of Emma on our home screens. Coming soon, if we’re lucky: another Jane Austen movie!


Two years ago, when word of Modern Persuasion first surfaced, I had my doubts about the viability of this version, which stars Alicia Witt in a “contemporary tale about a New York workaholic whose firm is hired by an old flame.” I still have those doubts, but four months without setting foot in a movie theater have left me ready (well, even readier than usual) to watch anything – including this rom-com, which just acquired a distributor and is screening this week at the Cannes Film Festival’s virtual market. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t arrive on my screen quickly enough.


* Game-playing: Tired of Scrabble, Boggle, Clue and cards? Luckily, the Jane Austen Summer Program – the academic-except-more-fun-than-that sympoisum usually, but not this year, held in mid-June at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – has an alternative: Find Mr. Darcy, or at least a life-size Colin Firth cutout, which is the next best thing.


In essence, the game is a mildly entertaining online Austen trivia quiz that won’t pose much challenge to any knowledgeable Janeite. But it does give you the chance to hopscotch around a map of England while ogling still photos of attractive actors from Austen screen adaptations. Beats another round of Crazy Eights.


* Drinking: In the absence of a coronavirus vaccine, health experts agree that bars remain risky venues. The only solution? Keep drinking at home. In a recent feature pairing cocktail recipes with literary classics, South Sound, a lifestyle magazine covering southwest Washington State, recommends accompanying a reading of Emma with a “flirtatious and fruity" pink cocktail consisting of white wine, pisco, lime juice, and raspberry syrup. I would have thought Donwell Abbey strawberries a more appropriate choice for Emma, but I guess these days we can't afford to be picky.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 11 2020 01:00PM

Better late than never: Although it appeared more than a month ago, I’ve only just stumbled across a cogent and fascinating analysis of the costuming in Autumn de Wilde’s recent feature-film adaptation of Emma, by the fashion and culture writers Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez.


The film has already been widely praised (and occasionally disparaged) for its striking and self-conscious visual style, all pastels and florals and mouthwatering hats. It’s the most eye-candy-laden Jane Austen adaptation since Clueless—and with reason, since costume designer Alexandra Byrne apparently intended some of her choices as an homage to Amy Heckerling’s 1995 masterpiece.


Or so I learned from T Lo’s post at their blog Tom + Lorenzo: Fabulous & Opinionated, in which they unpack the meanings conveyed in the costumes of Harriet Smith, Jane Fairfax, Mrs. Elton, and especially Emma Woodhouse—the class distinctions and character clues encoded in pearl necklaces, lace collars, fur-trimmed cuffs, and yellow gloves.


Their insightful analysis helps explain why the newest Emma was, in my opinion, a delightful and effective adaptation. Plus T Lo supply lots of close-up stills featuring beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes—and that can’t be a bad thing.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 7 2020 01:00PM

For those of us who love our Jane Austen adaptations, the coronavirus quarantine has been the best of times and the worst of times.


The new film of Emma migrated to streaming way ahead of schedule—but the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis canceled its world premiere of Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation, which had been scheduled to open last month.


The online performance of Paul Gordon’s musical version of Pride and Prejudice drew a robust international audience for its free premiere, and his earlier musical adaptation of Emma became available free to Amazon Prime subscribers (and to the rest of us twice last night and once more today at 2 pm, if you sign up). But the London run of Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, a success at Chichester in 2018, was canceled.


You can stream Clueless on any number of platforms whenever you’d like, or just slot your old disc into your DVD player. But the twenty-fifth anniversary theatrical re-release, scheduled for this week, was postponed indefinitely.


It’s all entirely predictable, of course: If you can see it in the privacy of your own TV room, then it’s available. If you can see it only in company with a large group of potentially contagious fellow citizens, then it’s not. We know the drill. It’s just getting old.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 19 2020 01:02PM

There’s an upside to everything, apparently – even a global pandemic that threatens to sicken and perhaps kill millions while tanking the world economy.


Yes, the latest Jane Austen screen adaptation will be available for streaming tomorrow, months before anyone could have expected it.


Arthouse films like Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., which opened in big cities last month and went into wide release on March 6, get clobbered when they don’t have time to build an audience through word of mouth. Indeed, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down movie theaters, the industry predicted “carnage at the box office,” to quote one recent, dubiously tasteful headline.


Instead, Universal Pictures announced Monday that it would send three of its current theatrical releases to home rental screens immediately. In case a light-hearted period romance-cum-social-satire isn’t your cup of tea, you can also opt for a creepy science fiction stalker flick (The Invisible Man) or a politically edgy gorefest (The Hunt).


It’s not clear whether early release to streaming is the wave of the future, which would alarm movie theater chains, or just a response to the current crisis. But we can think about all that tomorrow, or whenever we're again free to leave the house. Meanwhile, I recommend Emma., which is beautiful to look at, features some lovely performances, and offers a thoughtful take on the novel.


While regretting that viewers won’t experience her carefully curated sounds and colors exactly as intended, de Wilde is embracing the chance for her movie to Do Its Part in our current circumstances.


“I do think it’s a good thing, what Universal is doing,” de Wilde told the New York Times. “We need to keep people sane at home and give them a place to escape to. Emma. is a great escape movie.”


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