Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 8 2014 02:00PM

As I’ve mentioned before, I – like many Janeites – was no fan of P.D. James’ murder-mystery Pride and Prejudice sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley. But I’m always fascinated to hear writers talk about their work, so I enjoyed this three-year-old interview with James, which resurfaced soon after her death late last month at the age of 94.


Jane Austen, James declares in the interview, is “overwhelmingly my favorite writer, and has been for many, many years.” (Now what Janeite could resist an admission like that?) Indeed, James claims to be one of the not-so-rare breed of Janeite who rereads the whole canon annually and knows large chunks by heart.


“I think that’s true of all her admirers,” James says. “She very much lives in our imagination the whole time.”


I still don’t like Death Comes to Pemberley. But I certainly hope James has found a complete set of Austen’s novels on her bedside table in heaven. It wouldn’t be heaven otherwise, now would it?



By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 23 2014 01:00PM

Just because I didn't much like Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James' 2011 murder-mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice -- and, like so many Janeites, I found it unsatisfactory as both detective story and Austen pastiche -- doesn't mean I haven't been eagerly looking forward to the BBC adaptation, which finally arrives on PBS this Sunday.


Basically, I'm a sucker for any Jane Austen-related movie, at least until my innocent hopefulness is cruelly shattered by the tragic reality of dreck like "Austenland". I always imagine that this one will be the film that perfectly captures Austen's spirit, holding comic irony and deep feeling in elegant equipoise.


Since Death has nothing like Austen's genius to live up to -- James' tedious, overlong book places pallid simulacra of P&P characters into a perfunctory and un-mysterious mystery plot -- the movie version should have an easier time of it than, say, another failed attempt at Mansfield Park.


Yes, all things considered, I think Sunday is going to be a good night for popcorn. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 23 2013 02:00PM

I don’t think I’m really an Anglophile – although it’s true that, if money were no object, I would certainly retire to a charming pied-à-terre in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, where I would spend long days reading nineteenth-century British novels and eating Thornton’s chocolates. (In this fantasy, calories are no object, either.)


But the time of year in which I come closest to Anglophilia is Christmas. Not because of Scrooge and Tiny Tim, but because of Christmas TV.

In the UK, Christmas is primo TV time, the season when broadcasters roll out their most tempting, sinfully indulgent programming – the brand new, two-hour episodes of beloved series; the adaptations of popular books, starring legions of fantastic character actors; the first television showings of blockbuster films. It’s the time of year when the family lays in a good supply of sherry trifle and Thornton's chocolates and gathers round the glowing electronic hearth to celebrate the holiday in style.


You may have noticed that this is not what happens here in the US. For us, Christmas is a television wasteland in which viewers wander amid various dispiritingly stale options: football games, colorized versions of ancient Christmas movies, Downton Abbey reruns, that weird show with the burning Yule log. . . . Apparently, our broadcasters expect us to spend our holidays far from the tube, gorging on goodies and fighting with our relatives.


This year, while we are gorging and fighting, our fortunate British friends will be watching both the new adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’ mystery-novel sequel to Pride and Prejudice; and a two-hour Downton Abbey Christmas episode. I don’t have high hopes for Death Comes to Pemberley – the TV trailer looked campy, and not necessarily intentionally so – but I’ll take Mr. Darcy over the Yule log any day of the week.


It may be time to start pricing pieds-à-terre in Chelsea.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 28 2013 01:00PM

Joanna Trollope’s modern-dress adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the first in a planned series of six Austen updates by popular contemporary authors, will be published here on Tuesday. I’ve already preordered for my Kindle, but now comes word that Trollope, whose earlier, non-Austen novels I’ve greatly enjoyed, doesn’t want me to read her latest book.


We American Austen fans – apparently we’re noted for our militancy – will be offended that she’s updated the story by, for example, having Willoughby give Marianne a sports car instead of a horse.


“There’s a Jane Austen Society in America which takes it even more seriously than the Jane Austen Society in this country,” Trollope told the audience at a British literary festival this month. “I’ve been to one of their conventions, which was held in Winchester, and most of the delegates from America — none of whom was exactly anorexic — were all in Jane Austen clothes.”


Translation: we’re fat, silly purists with no sense of humor.


Sigh. These aren’t the smart, funny Janeites I know – many of whom, incidentally, rather enjoy a well-written Austen spinoff, whether a sequel set in the Regency or a modern-dress update, a la Bridget Jones’ Diary.


Indeed, it’s pretty clear that this whole “Austen Project” was inspired by the success of P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, which reportedly sold 300,000 copies in hardback alone. Many Janeites I know read that book – although, admittedly, we tended to be far less enthusiastic about it than were mainstream critics.


Trollope’s rather mean-spirited remarks smack of a pre-emptive strike against Janeite criticism. If we don’t like her book, apparently it won’t be because it’s not a good book; it’ll be because we’re nuts.


I understand that enthusiastic fandom can look kind of silly to outsiders, especially, I'm afraid, when the enthusiasts are middle-aged women. But judging from her earlier books, Trollope is keenly aware of the many ways in which our culture slights, ignores and patronizes middle-aged women. She should know better than to indulge in this cheap ridicule of Austen nuts -- especially since it’s the Austen nuts who’ve made the entire Austen Project possible.


A little more politeness – even of the fake, social-smile kind – might be in order. Where’s Elinor Dashwood when you need her?


By Deborah Yaffe, May 30 2013 01:00PM

I suppose it was inevitable that Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’ 2011 murder-mystery-cum-Pride-and-Prejudice-sequel, was headed for a screen adaptation: reportedly, the book sold three hundred thousand copies even before the paperback was released in January.


Still, it’s hard not to sigh. Despite rapturous reviews from mainstream media outlets (USA Today: “incomparably perfect”; New York Times: “surprisingly gratifying”; NPR: “a glorious plum pudding of a whodunit”), all of whom seemed certain that those madcap Austen fans would eat this stuff up with a spoon, the book disappointed many Janeites, including this one.


As a mystery story, it was dull and unsurprising, and as a Jane Austen homage, it lacked wit, charm or a pleasing facsimile of Austen’s astringent narrative voice. Six years after their wedding, Elizabeth and Darcy, as envisioned by James, seemed to have little to say to one another. It was all most distressing.

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