Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 24 2020 02:00PM

The new feature-film adaptation of Emma opened this past weekend, but not, alas, in my neck of the woods, where we proles must wait until the March 6 wide release.

Nonetheless, reviews have made clear that the new movie’s visual language is among its most notable elements. At least five internet headlines (here, here, here, here, and here) describe the movie as “stylish,” while the New York Times opines that it could have been made “using Wes Anderson software,” which will sound delightful or appalling in exact proportion to your tolerance for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The look of the latest Emma is, of course, the responsibility of its director, Autumn de Wilde, but perhaps it’s no surprise that her star, Anya Taylor-Joy, seems to have a – what’s the word I want? Adventurous? -- sensibility of her own.

Goodness knows I’m no fashion expert, as the most cursory glance in my closet will confirm, but some of the outfits Taylor-Joy has selected for her Emma publicity duties strike me as way out on a limb.

The vintage Bob Mackie wedding gown she wore to the film’s Los Angeles premiere is quite lovely, I’ll grant you:

But this Zimmermann number she wore to a London photo session seems over the top to me:

And the sequined Moschino duo she chose for a session in Beverly Hills downright repels me:

Though perhaps my least favorite is the Halpern leopard-print-trimmed black puffball she wore to promote the movie on Good Morning America:

So -- yeah. You won't catch me wearing any of these any time soon. But then, as someone once said, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.

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