Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 13 2017 02:00PM

Edward IV, who reigned as king of England for most of the period from 1461-1483, was described by contemporaries as an unusually handsome man. But you wouldn’t guess it from looking at the paintings, which suggest he had an extremely long nose and an extraordinarily small mouth.*




This digression into medieval history, brought to you courtesy of my eighth-grade research paper on the Wars of the Roses, was inspired by last week’s tiny Internet furor over a British TV channel’s allegedly expert historical reconstruction of What Mr. Darcy Really Looked Like. (Unsurprisingly, this expert historical reconstruction was timed to draw attention to the channel’s new Jane Austen Season, featuring the rebroadcast of various beloved Austen adaptations.)


Georgian-historian-cum-TV-personality Amanda Vickery and Austen scholar John Sutherland teamed up to investigate the standards of male beauty that would likely have been in Jane Austen’s mind when she created her handsome hero. Surprise! Over the past two centuries, our idea of male beauty has. . . well, let’s just say changed. “Evolved” might denote condescension toward our ancestors’ misguided ideas of hotness. (See under: Edward IV.)


But on to Mr. Darcy. Tall, dark and handsome? Nah. Instead of muscular, square-jawed, altogether hunky Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen, the real Mr. Darcy would apparently have been pale, pointy-faced and narrow-shouldered. (Strapping chests were for common laborers, not gentlemen of leisure.) And he would have powdered his hair! And he would have stood only 5’11”! Frankly, the artist's rendition commissioned for the occasion makes him look like a bit of a dweeb.


I suppose it is churlish to point out that whatever the fashion when Jane Austen began writing First Impressions, by the time Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, powdered hair was passé. Or that 5’11”, while a few inches below the heights of Messrs. Firth and Macfadyen, is above average (i.e. tall) for white men in both England and the United States even today.


(Surely, however, we are allowed to giggle over the RadioTimes headline: “Science reveals what Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy would really have looked like.” You kind of wonder if the headline writer realized that Darcy is fictional, and therefore not easily accessible to science.)


This whole teapot tempest should remind us, again, that Jane Austen’s genius lies as much in what she leaves out as in what she puts in. Was Darcy a Colin Firth hunk, or a pointy-chinned aristocrat? She doesn’t really say. She leaves it to each of us to envision “his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien,” according to whatever historically inflected, invariably subjective standard we choose to apply. She puts our imaginations in service to her story, engaging us in the project of making her fictional worlds real. What did Mr. Darcy "really" look like? You tell me.



* Honesty compels me to admit that these paintings were created decades after Edward’s death. But my point remains: no one looking at them now would say, “Now, there’s a good-looking guy!”


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 15 2016 02:00PM

Just in case yesterday’s festivities didn’t give you enough of that Valentine’s Day spirit, Biltmore House, the palatial Asheville, N.C., estate of the Vanderbilt family, has the perfect solution: “Fashionable Romance,” an exhibit of wedding gowns worn in the movies.


Included in the exhibit, which runs through July 4, are gowns from the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma, and the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. Judging from the web site pictures, the display – which includes a total of forty costumes from nineteen films -- will be a feast for costume-mad Janeites.


I’ve never been to Biltmore, but from here it looks kind of like Pemberley on steroids. If you go sometime this spring or summer, please report back!


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 25 2016 02:00PM

The life of a Jane Austen video completist is not easy. Yes, it’s true that in the service of her mission – to see and, ideally, to own every Austen-related film adaptation – she scales the heights of the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility and the Firth/Ehle Pride and Prejudice.


But she must also plumb the depths. She must wade, at least once, through the tedious and confusing Jane Austen in Manhattan. She must tolerate the saccharine perkiness of Scents and Sensibility. And, I report with sorrow, she must grit her teeth through the deeply annoying Unleashing Mr. Darcy.


I’ll admit that my expectations were low. The TV movie Unleashing Mr. Darcy is based on a mediocre P&P update that mostly abandons Austen’s clever, economical plotting in favor of an incoherent series of relationship reversals (They’re fighting! Oh, now they’re having totally amazing sex! Wait, they’re fighting again!) that set the reader’s head a-spinning.


But as my teenage daughter and I tuned to the Hallmark channel and settled down with our popcorn on Saturday night, I was cautiously optimistic that a good screenwriter and a couple of decent actors could fix the problems. Plus, the story is set in the dog-show world, which guarantees cute-animal overload.


Alas. Let’s just say that, pace Jane Austen, sometimes first impressions are entirely accurate. My daughter’s off-the-cuff review pretty much sums it up: “Wow. I don’t think that had any redeeming features.”


Rich-guy dog-show judge Donovan Darcy is played by Ryan Paevey, a model and soap-opera actor with the bland handsomeness and charisma-free personality you’d expect from such a resume. Spunky dog-owner Elizabeth Scott is played by Cindy Busby, a TV actress with a startling talent for seeming shrill and irritating in every scene, whether she’s enacting tearful, joyful or outraged.


And the writing! Ouch. Apologizing for her (entirely unmotivated) rudeness to Darcy, Elizabeth explains, “I was upset about other reasons.” Who talks like that? The occasional Austen lines land with a thud, completely out of place in their surroundings. Even the actors seem confused. “My good opinion once lost is lost forever,” Darcy tells Elizabeth, pretty much out of the blue, early in their acquaintance. “What does that mean, exactly?” she asks. “Nothing,” he replies.


These two are so charmless that it’s difficult to understand what they see in each other, beyond her generic blondness and his sculpted abs, which we inspect during a gratuitous bathing-suit scene that is probably meant to evoke Firth’s wet shirt. (Note to writers: It’s bad strategy to remind viewers of much, much better Austen adaptations.) Presumably in order to keep its TV-G rating, the movie reworks the (terrible) plot of the original into an (equally terrible) version that omits the hot-and-heavy makeout sessions and full-on sex scene that, in the book, at least offer some clue to what’s driving this relationship.


And don’t expect to divert yourself from the trainwreck by ogling the beautiful grounds of Pemberley: the scene has been moved from England to (a poor facsimile of) New York City, and the production values are strictly bargain-basement. “Come and stay with me in my brownstone,” a friend tells Elizabeth, who soon shows up on the doorstep of. . . a house that, with its wide porch and brick facings, resembles no urban brownstone I’ve ever seen.


Yes, there are canine cameos, mostly by terriers and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. They’re adorable, of course. But even the cute pooches can’t save this dog.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2016 02:00PM

People who were alive in November 1963 like to reminisce about the moment they learned that JFK had been shot. American Janeites who were alive in January 1996 can look back on a far more joyful, although slightly less momentous, milestone: their first viewing of the BBC’s landmark adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which began airing on the A&E network exactly twenty years ago tonight.


That adaptation, which features the famous not-in-Austen shot of Colin Firth, aka Mr. Darcy, in a clingy, translucent wet shirt, is often credited (by me, among other people) with kicking off the pop-culture Austenmania that we still live with today, albeit in the attenuated form of Bustle listicles and zombie mashups.


So where was I when I first saw the famous P&P? Well, I didn’t subscribe to cable back then, so I had to content myself with a VHS recording mailed to me by my parents some time (a week? A month? Can’t remember now) after the original broadcast.


My husband and I invited a Janeite friend over for a two-night viewing party in our tiny apartment. The second night, she and I insisted on starting out by rewatching our favorite scene. No, not that one! In those pre-Internet days, I don’t know if we’d heard about the wet-shirt frenzy spawned by the show’s initial broadcast a few months earlier in England.


Anyway, that scene is in the second half.


We wanted to see Darcy and Elizabeth, played by the great Jennifer Ehle, crossing swords after his insulting proposal -- the six-minute exchange in which she tells him he’s “the last man in the world” she would ever agree to marry. It’s one of Jane Austen’s greatest scenes, and Andrew Davies’ screenplay realizes it beautifully, skillfully turning paraphrase into speech and interweaving the result with a condensed version of Austen’s dialogue. Firth paces, Ehle seethes, and the intensity of feeling between them gives even a P&P virgin a clue that Elizabeth is going to end up eating those words, with a cherry on top.


OK, I just went and watched that scene again. It’s still fabulous. Happy twentieth anniversary, everyone.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 6 2015 01:00PM

Given the attention lavished on filmed Jane Austen adaptations in the past twenty years, it was probably inevitable that, amid this decade’s celebration of the publication bicentennials of Austen’s novels, we’d begin to see celebrations of the much more recent anniversaries of Austen movies.


And so it is that Toronto Janeites will gather today to mark the twentieth anniversary of the big kahuna of Austen adaptations: the BBC’s famed Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and. . . what’s-his-name. . . the guy in the wet shirt. (Forester? Firbanks? Something like that.)


The gala event will begin bright and early with a viewing of all five-plus hours of the esteemed mini-series, interspersed with “dancing, eating, sewing, drinking tea, socializing, playing historical games, and general Regency fun!” promises the event sponsor, JaneAustenDancing.


“Bring your quill pen, your embroidery, your deck of cards, or just yourself, and prepare to spend the day with fellow Austen nerds!” they add. (I might bristle at the term “Austen nerd,” except that I cannot deny its aptness.)


The celebration “will be an all-day Jane Austen-a-thon,” adds a newspaper report.


In my experience, among Janeites, opinions about Austen adaptations run the gamut, from “Nothing but the books, please” to “Anything with pretty costumes works for me.” But I think we can all agree that a day spent at a “Jane Austen-a-thon” pretty much can’t be improved upon. Enjoy yourself, Toronto -- the rest of us will think of you enviously as we sip lukewarm coffee in our cubicles.


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