Deborah Yaffe

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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.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2020 01:00PM

No one in Jane Austen’s novels becomes infected with a coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say on the subject that now occupies all of our minds. At least three important characters* in her novels experience significant bouts of infectious disease:


--Harriet Smith “was very feverish and had a bad sore-throat . . . . ‘a throat very much inflamed, with a great deal of heat about her, a quick low pulse, &c.’ ” (Emma, ch. 13)


In an early example of self-quarantining, poor ailing Harriet has to miss the Westons’ Christmas party.


--Harriet’s illness seems to be a random act of God, but Marianne Dashwood courts disaster with “two delightful twilight walks . . . . not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where . . . the grass was the longest and wettest . . . assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 42)


Eventually “heavy and feverish, with a pain in her limbs, a cough, and a sore throat,” she grows progressively worse, is confined to her bed, and begins calling deliriously for her mother; a week later “the fever was unabated; and Marianne only more quiet -- not more herself -- remained in an heavy stupor.” (chs. 42-43)


Rather than self-quarantining, however, Colonel Brandon sets out for Barton Cottage, risking the transport of a nasty bug across county lines. Arguably, however, bringing a mother to her child’s potential deathbed counts as essential travel.


* If Marianne’s illness stems from imprudence, Tom Bertram’s is born out of downright recklessness, not to mention dissipation: “Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where a neglected fall and a good deal of drinking had brought on a fever.” (Mansfield Park, ch. 44)


By the time Tom is back at Mansfield Park, “some strong hectic symptoms, which seemed to seize the frame on the departure of the fever” leave Edmund and Sir Thomas “apprehensive for [Tom’s] lungs” and forced to nurse the patient through “nerves much affected, spirits much depressed.” (ch. 45)


On the bright side, however, there’s nothing like a scandalous extramarital elopement to encourage a family toward a bit of social distancing.


Let’s take it as a good omen for our perilous times that all Austen’s patients eventually recover their health. Happy hand-washing, everyone!



* I omit the numerous parents and parental figures who expire offstage, often before the narrative commences, and the long convalescence of Louisa Musgrove, who is the victim of an accidental injury, not an infectious disease.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 12 2020 01:00PM

Twenty-five years ago this summer, we Janeites flocked to movie theaters to see a brand-new modernization of Emma, set among affluent Beverly Hills high school students.


Since then, the costumes, music, and slang of the immortal Clueless have become indelible pop-culture touchstones, and just about everyone who loves Cher Horowitz has bought the DVD or, at the very least, subscribed to a streaming service that makes the movie available for right-this-minute viewing.


Nevertheless, there’s something special about the communal experience of seeing a movie, up there on the big screen, amid a crowd of strangers. Or so, apparently, thinks Paramount Pictures, which has teamed up with Fathom Entertainment to celebrate Clueless’ quarter-century with a three-day theatrical release.


More than seven hundred cinemas across the country will show Clueless at four screenings over three days – May 3, 4, and 6 – along with a short feature about the witty, unforgettable teen jargon that writer-director Amy Heckerling created for her characters. (Find a location near you here.)


I’m willing to bet that at least a few of these screenings will turn into Rocky Horror-style cosplay events featuring a whole lot of yellow plaid skirts and knee socks. (Not that this would be a problem! As if!)


Meanwhile, Autumn de Wilde’s lovely new adaptation of Emma – you know, the original novel? – is doing pretty well for an indie costume drama (nearly $21 million in international ticket sales, and counting). If the movie continues to succeed, that opens the delightful possibility of a true Janeite wallow: an Emma double feature, with stops at Hartfield in the afternoon and Bronson Alcott High School in the evening. Like, totally!


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 2 2020 02:00PM

Actor/playwright Kate Hamill has cornered the market on energetic, quirky theatrical adaptations of classic literature – Vanity Fair, Little Women, The Scarlet Letter – but she got her start with Jane Austen. (Even though Austen didn't write Dracula.)


Over the past four years, Hamill's madcap versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice had off-Broadway runs in New York and such vigorous afterlives in regional theaters that they helped turn Hamill into one of America’s twenty most-produced playwrights for three years running. (She’s also written a Mansfield Park that, as far as I know, has only been produced once, near Chicago.)


Now comes welcome news for Janeites: Hamill has written a new adaptation of Emma, which will premiere in April at Minneapolis’ famed Guthrie Theater, just eight weeks after the U.S. opening of a new feature-film version of the novel. (It’s Emma year!) Another production is scheduled for April-May 2021at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.


No word yet on whether Hamill’s Emma – not to mention her Mansfield Park -- will have a New York production, but my fingers are crossed.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 27 2020 02:00PM

Apparently, I’m not the only Jane Austen completist out there.


Last week, as blog readers will recall, the New York auction house Swann Galleries auctioned off first editions of all Austen’s novels – three-volume sets of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, and the combined four-volume edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


The sale result can be summed up in the headline on Swann’s press release: “Jane Austen Rules.” (Well, we knew that already, right?)


“Most any Jane Austen first edition appearance is noteworthy, but to have all six of her major novels, each one complete and in period binding, helped make this a wildly successful and memorable sale,” said John D. Larson, whose Swann title -- “literature specialist” -- pretty much sums up my dream job.


Larson’s claim of wild success was no doubt a reference to the bottom line. Each book sold for far more than its estimated high price, with Pride and Prejudice going for $100,000, more than three times the estimated high of $30,000.* Indeed, the total for all six novels came to a whopping $240,625, more than double the projected high of $106,000.


But what really makes this story thrilling – for me, at least – is the fact that a single buyer managed to snag all six.


Swann’s press release doesn’t identify this lucky, and well-heeled, collector/completist, except to say that they registered bids through “the Swann Galleries app” during “competitive bidding.”


Imagine being the kind of person who a) loads an auction house’s app on your phone; and b) has nearly a quarter of a million dollars to spend on books. Now that’s a completist after my own heart.



* Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, as you might expect, drew the lowest prices. Apparently, even auction-house bidders love them less.


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