Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 26 2018 02:00PM

The Winter Olympics are over, but not without a fleeting Jane Austen moment.

Last week, as my daughter and I were sitting glued to the livestream of the ice dancing competition, I perked up when the announcers informed us that the German team of Kavita Lorenz and Joti Polizoakis would be setting their four-minute free skate to – and I quote -- “Pride and Prejudice.”

Since the Germans were probably not going to be skating to an Audible-style reading of Jane Austen’s immortal masterpiece, we were clearly about to hear a short excerpt from the soundtrack to one of the filmed adaptations of the novel. But which adaptation? NBC’s announcement provided no clue.

And then the swoonily romantic opening bars played, and all became clear. Although both Lorenz and Polizoakis were born in 1995, the year the BBC released its iconic Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt P&P, they skated to music from the 2005 film – aka the Keira Knightley version.

Maybe they should have gone with the music from the earlier, better adaptation. As it was, Lorenz and Polizoakis finished in sixteenth place.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 14 2017 01:00PM

Unless you’ve spent the past week entirely absorbed in stocking your fallout shelter with canned goods, you’ve probably heard that a fearless band of TV producers has announced plans for the unthinkable: a television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that doesn’t star Colin Firth.

By now, it is de rigueur for adapters of much-adapted classics to explain how their new versions will uncover Hidden Depths or Heretofore Unsuspected Resonances in some apparently familiar work.

When Andrew Davies wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s now-iconic 1995 P&P, starring Firth and Jennifer Ehle, he wanted an adaptation that was vigorous and outdoorsy. (Jane Austen can be sexy! Who knew?) When Joe Wright made his 2005 feature film, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, he wanted an adaptation that was muddy and earthbound. (Jane Austen can be messy! Who knew?)

This time around, the people involved say they want an adaptation that is edgy and grownup. (Jane Austen can be dark! Who knew?)

"Pride and Prejudice is actually a very adult book, much less bonnet-y than people assume," says the proposed screenwriter, the British playwright Nina Raine, whose most recent theatrical work centers on a murky rape case. "I hope I do justice to Austen’s dark intelligence – sparkling, yes, but sparkling like granite.”

Although AustenBlog’s indispensable Maggie Sullivan is already taking her Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness out of mothballs, in preparation for whacking any idiocy that may appear onscreen – and although I’ll cop to some skepticism over whether a British woman over forty can really never have seen an adaptation of P&P, as Raine claims -- I’m willing to reserve judgment.

Jane Austen can be dark! And also sexy and messy! (As well as the opposite of all of those, since she is a multifaceted writer whose many dimensions are seldom captured perfectly in any screen adaptation, no matter how well-done.) Unlikely as it seems that a new version will be “the definitive adaptation for the twenty-first century,” rather than another forgettable reboot, we can always hope.

No, what really concerns me is the previous work of some members of the team behind this new P&P. Mammoth Screen, the production company, is best-known for making the soapy Victoria and Poldark series – both highly entertaining, but both lacking anything like Austen’s subtlety. And the new adaptation will air on ITV, the British TV channel known for a more populist and commercial sensibility than the historically upper-crust and staid BBC, which made the six previous English-language TV adaptations of the novel.

Nothing wrong with populism and commercialism, except that ITV’s track record for Austen adaptations – it released three in 2007 -- is decidedly mixed. On the plus side, ITV made the well-cast Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones in a competent if imperfect Davies script that some criticized for injecting extra sensuality into the novel.

On the decidedly negative side, however, ITV is also responsible for two of the worst-ever Austen adaptations. How to forget that embarrassing Persuasion, featuring poor Sally Hawkins racing through the streets of Bath in an unforgivable travesty of the book’s sublime ending? Or that execrable Mansfield Park, starring the miscast Billie Piper and her all-too-ubiquitous cleavage -- Fanny Price as St. Pauli Girl?

The mind reels at the prospect of a P&P put through a similar meatgrinder. Thank God the Cluebat stands at the ready.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 8 2016 01:00PM

Although “Jane Austen Detectives” sounds like the title of a beach book I’d want to read, it’s actually the name of a sixteen-month-old web site/research project/promotional effort I stumbled across only recently.

The site seems to be the joint creation of Australian food consultant and TV presenter Ester Davies and British children’s book writer Gwynneth Ashby. Its stated purpose is to “unravel the world of Jane Austen -- her life, food, medicine and her social position in Georgian England.”

Given the wealth of existing resources on those very topics, I’m not sure how much unraveling these matters still need, and, on the whole, it is not a good sign when your Austen research site includes both a quotation from Northanger Abbey incorrectly attributed to Sense and Sensibility and a quotation from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Sense and Sensibility incorrectly attributed to Jane Austen.

But I digress. And to be fair, I rather enjoyed a number of the items I found on the site, including a video clip of Davies baking some delicious-looking cookies from a recipe book owned by the family of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward Knight.

Reading between the lines, it looks like the real purpose of the site is to gin up interest in a TV project or two, including one to be called Food For Thought, in which famous contemporary chefs cook lavish meals inspired by famous dead writers – Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Mitchell and others.

According to the promo clip, Austen will be assigned to British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, whose planned menu for a “Ball Supper for Twenty People” – scrolled amid clips from the Keira Knightley film version of Pride and Prejudice -- includes an appetizer course named “First Impressions,” entrees entitled “Pride of Salmon” and “Prejudice Duck,” and a dessert called “Tarte Lizzie,” described as lemon ice with pine cone.

It’s all a bit corny, and yet – you know I’d watch. And if anyone wants to try her hand at writing The Jane Austen Detectives, I’m there for that, too.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 7 2015 01:00PM

For those of you waiting anxiously for the release of reality TV star Lauren Conrad’s latest fashion line – debuting! Wednesday! at New York Fashion Week! – here’s a little tidbit: “For the makeup, she wants her models to be strong yet romantic with Jane Austen-inspired beauty looks,” MTV News reports.

It’s hard not to giggle at this, given that makeup in Jane Austen’s time involved lead-based skin cream to whiten the complexion, artificial eyebrows made out of mouse fur to replace the hair lost to all that lead, and mercury-based lotions to eliminate freckles (remember Sir Walter Elliot’s Gowland’s Lotion?).

Jane Austen-inspired makeup? Those models should demand worker’s comp.

OK, OK I realize that Conrad knows nothing about actual Regency cosmetics. The video accompanying MTV’s story illustrates her yen for Jane Austen looks with a shot of Keira Knightley and Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet in the 2005 screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. “Very strong, female-oriented but romantic – Age of the Innocence, Jane Austen, very fair maiden,” explains Conrad’s makeup assistant.

Yes, we’re back to that Jane Austen, the sweetly unthreatening, hearts-and-flowers version. “Very fair maiden” indeed. Pass the mercury.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2015 01:00PM

To paraphrase Mr. Darcy, I have been a verbal being all my life – no affinity for music, hopeless at art, allergic to sports. For me, Jane Austen exists on the page, as a tapestry of words.

So I’m continually bemused by efforts to translate Austen into non-verbal media – efforts not to retell her stories or replicate elements of her historical period, but rather to express something ineffably Austen-ish without using words. It’s not that I think these attempts are wrong-headed, necessarily; it’s just that I can’t quite wrap my own head around them.

In Among the Janeites, I wrote about Bingley’s Teas, whose Jane Austen Tea Series features more than a dozen blends meant to evoke Austen characters. On this blog, I’ve puzzled over Jane Austen knitting patterns and Jane Austen toothpaste.

And now comes Pemberley: A Jane Austen Inspired Perfume, from a company whose historically informed scents include perfumes evoking Marie Antoinette and Anne Boleyn. (Dab a drop on your wrists on the day of your own beheading, I guess.)

The Austen perfume is part of the Dead Writers series, which also includes scents tied to Beatrix Potter (“a wonderful green scent”), Jack Kerouac (with notes of opium!) and Edgar Allan Poe (“dried roses, a slowly dying ember of incense, ghostly whispers, and a bittersweet sense of loss”), as well as the eponymous Dead Writers, evoking the smell of old libraries.

As with so many of these Austen-themed projects, the Austen evoked here is more light-hearted and lovely than sharp-tongued and satirical – the plants that supply Pemberley’s ingredients all figure in the gardens of Chatsworth, the palatial English mansion that played Darcy’s estate in the 2005 Keira Knightley film of Pride and Prejudice.

I don’t wear perfume – although I might make an exception on the day of my own beheading – but if you do, let me know if Pemberley: A Jane Austen Inspired Perfume captures the scent of classic literature. Whatever that is.

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