Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 20 2017 01:00PM

Given the ubiquity of comic books based on Jane Austen’s novels, I suppose it’s not surprising that we’ve now moved on to Version 2.0: comic books based on spinoffs and adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.


And so it is that we will soon have a comic book based on Clueless, the justly beloved 1995 film that updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. In a further meta twist, the comic book will be cowritten by Amber Benson, a one-time actress (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who, as a teenager, auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in the movie.


Rather than retelling the story of the film, the comic book version imagines how the characters from Clueless would cope with senior year at Bronson Alcott High School. It’s not clear from the Boom! Studios press release how many books are planned for the series, but the first one debuts in August.


As I’ve written before, I’m not entirely on board with the Jane Austen comic book thing, but the pop-culture sensibility of Clueless seems like a perfect fit.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 12 2017 02:00PM

These days, the quintessentially English Jane Austen is, as I recently found occasion to note, a citizen of the world. And she seems to have a special affinity for one particular part of that world: the Indian subcontinent, where some of her recurrent themes -- family pressure, gender inequity, and the tension between love and economics -- have especially strong contemporary resonance.


As far as I’m aware, India is the only country outside the Anglo-American sphere whose film industry has adapted three different Austen novels for the screen: Sense and Sensibility (reborn as 2000’s interesting and moving Kandukondain Kandukondain, or I Have Found It); Pride and Prejudice (2004’s slight but fun Bride and Prejudice); and Emma (2010’s execrable Aisha).


A blog called The Ladies Finger recently reported on the growth of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. (And I’m not calling your attention to this post merely because it includes a complimentary shout-out to Among the Janeites. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)


The latest evidence of the southeast Asian Austen affinity is a roundup earlier this month, in the online version of the Indian business newspaper Mint, pegged to this year’s commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death.


The piece strings together an array of short-ish responses to Austen’s work, some clever and some less so, contributed by various literary types: authors, journalists, publishers, the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. My favorite is the account by writer, critic and translator Rakhshanda Jalil of first reading Pride and Prejudice at the urging of her mother and then, years later, giving her daughter the same book.


Along the way, Jalil found Austenian resonances in the Urdu literature she read, despite the differences of language, culture and context.


“That an 18th century English writer should cast such a long shadow and find echoes in such a disparate literary culture,” Jalil writes, “is a reminder that fine writing rises above its time and circumstance and has the enduring ability to merge the small and the personal with the larger and the universal.”


Jalil’s words go a long way toward explaining why Austen has fans across the globe. Indeed, her formulation could serve as a definition of what it means to call a work of literature a classic.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 20 2016 01:00PM

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to Washington, D.C., to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s thirty-eighth Annual General Meeting, known to all as the AGM. As usual, my reaction can be summed up in a single word: squeeee!


This will be my ninth AGM – and, curiously enough, the third I’ve attended that focuses on Emma, which celebrates its publication bicentennial this year. (Thus our theme: “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.”)


JASNA’s weekend-long AGMs are always delightful mixtures of the serious (lectures by distinguished Austen scholars); the not-so-serious (craft workshops, Austen-related retail therapy); and the purely social (reunions with those Janeite friends you only see at conferences). It’s the only place I feel completely unironic wearing my Jane Austen earrings, my Jane Austen pendant, my Jane Austen wristwatch and my Regency feathered headdress, all of them purchased at previous AGMs.


This year I’ve got my eye on a session with the creators of the adorable Cozy Classics board books (Emma in twelve words!), and I’m counting on spending one morning visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library’s much-praised exhibition “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” Plus, I just may engage in a bit of additional retail therapy. Because you can never have too many Jane Austen earrings.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 22 2016 01:00PM

Screenwriter Andrew Davies, who turned 80 this past Tuesday, is a Janeite demigod, the man who brought us not only the beloved 1995 Firth-Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice, but also highly respected TV adaptations of Northanger Abbey, Emma and Sense and Sensibility.


Davies is famous for adding S-E-X to the supposedly sexless classics -- “People say that I could sex up the Tube map,” he told a Radio Times interviewer last weekend.


At least in his Austen adaptations, the supposedly shocking material is strictly PG-13 -- a bare shoulder here, a rumpled bed there, the odd clingy wet shirt. But twenty years ago, that was enough to cause a sensation in the decorous world of period drama. (Not any more, of course: Thanks to Davies himself, we now expect our bonnet dramas to come with bedroom scenes.)

No, what’s really notable about his work is how often he manages to convey the subtle layers of character and meaning that come through on the page but are often flattened out on screen. That’s why Davies’ adaptations repay repeated viewings, while lesser adaptations – ahem! Naming no names here – pall after a time or two.


Davies manages to stay faithful to the spirit of the works he adapts while taking liberties with some of the details – often in the service of a feminist agenda. The ending of his Bleak House improves on Dickens’ creepy original, with its patronizing handling of Esther’s love life; and Davies’ Sense and Sensibility gives Edward and Elinor a satisfyingly romantic proposal scene that Austen denies them – though arguably she had her reasons.


Now there’s a dinner party I’d like to host: Andrew Davies meets Jane Austen, over a couple of glasses of excellent Cabernet. I suspect she’d care a lot less about the sex than people think.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 19 2016 01:00PM

When I was a girl – yes, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth – I was a dab hand at needlepoint. I stitched plastic canvas into keepsake boxes and picture frames and bookmarks. I made my mother a coupon-case to carry while she shopped at the grocery store. I worked samplers for my cousins’ weddings.


I’ve barely picked up a needle in decades – these days I lack the time and, truth be told, the eyesight – but I’m still captivated by beautiful needlework (so elegant! So delicate! So unbelievably time-consuming!) Hence my delight in a five-minute video released last week by Chawton House Library, highlighting its display of modern needlework based on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century patterns.


The needlework display, known as “The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off,” accompanies a library exhibit commemorating the bicentennial of the publication of Emma. The stitch-off got its accidental start last November, when University of Kent English professor Jennie Batchelor acquired a 1796 edition of The Lady’s Magazine, the Good Housekeeping of its day, which happened to include an embroidery pattern.


Enthusiastic embroiderers latched onto Batchelor’s blogs and tweets about her find, volunteering to work the pattern themselves. Eventually, ten Lady’s Magazine patterns were made available online, and an international embroidery bee was launched.


Judging from Batchelor’s blog and Chawton House Library’s video, the results were breathtaking. Some participants recreated the patterns with scrupulous historical accuracy; some stitched modern interpretations. The display includes reticules, shoe uppers and a kissing ball, among a wealth of other items.


(What does any of this have to do with Jane Austen? Well, we know from her nephew’s 1870 memoir that she was a talented needlewoman, and she would certainly have read The Lady’s Magazine. That’s good enough for me.)


Alas, the Stitch Off display, and the Emma exhibit, close on Sunday, so if you happen to be in England, now’s the time to drop by.


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