Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 4 2014 02:00PM

As a good (well, semi-good) Jewish girl, I’ve never owned an Advent calendar. The closest I ever came was in childhood, when we’d visit my best friend’s home one Sunday night each December to share a meal, light candles, and watch our hosts marvel at the surprises concealed behind each quaint little window.

So it was a great treat for me to happen across this: a digital Mr. Darcy Advent calendar created by Jane Austen fan fiction writer Jane Odiwe. I will leave it to theologians to parse the potentially blasphemous implications of Odiwe's effort -- does this project equate Mr. Darcy with God? And would that be a bad thing? – since, as a semi-good Jewish girl, I’m unqualified to weigh in.

Instead, I will note that clicking on the window for December 1 yields a clip of the ur-text of Darcy-worship – the wet-shirt scene, natch. December 2 contains the rain-soaked, almost-kissing first proposal from the Keira Knightley film of Pride and Prejudice: not my favorite, I must admit, but to each her own. December 3, however, yields the sublime Colin Firth version of that first proposal ("Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?" Ouch!)

I can’t tell you more, since Odiwe, or perhaps the online template she used, has cleverly (diabolically?) blocked users from cheating by looking ahead. Not that I would ever do such a thing. But I’m eagerly anticipating the treats in store the rest of the month.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 30 2014 01:00PM

Are Janeites just Trekkies in bonnets?

We Austen fans are used to the Trekkie comparison, which often serves as a shorthand way to disparage any enthusiastic fandom. Sometimes we embrace the analogy, sometimes we disdain it – I guess it all depends on how you feel about Trekkies.

Once again, our two fandoms have been yoked, this time in a cute item (subscription required) from the heart of Indiana: the student orchestra of Indiana Wesleyan University, an evangelical Christian school in the town of Marion, will present a concert of music from the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” movies and from “Pride and Prejudice” (presumably the 2005 Keira Knightley version).

Beethoven, despite his total lack of sci-fi credentials, has also been smuggled onto the program, perhaps because he and Austen shared a birthday (Ludwig was five years older than Jane), perhaps because she owned the sheet music for some compositions he arranged, or perhaps just because the IWU piano professor wanted to play the extraordinary “Emperor” concerto. Whatever the reason, it’s all good.

Although the concert is scheduled for a week after Halloween, attendees are encouraged to come in any costume relevant to the occasion. The pointy ears of Mr. Spock, the cinnamon-bun hairstyle of Princess Leia, the Empire waist of Elizabeth Bennet – they’re all welcome, apparently.

Freshman violinist Lauren McDowell is quoted as saying that working on the concert has made her “interested in learning more about Jane Austen, though she said she was ‘raised on Star Wars.’ ”

Lauren, college is all about learning new things. Your next homework assignment: Pride and Prejudice before Christmas vacation.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 28 2014 01:00PM

Like so many of us, I retain fond, rose-colored memories of my college years, when I had nothing to do but read great books and discuss The Meaning of Life over bad coffee. (It may have been more complicated than that – I have dim memories of stressful exam periods and heartbreaking romantic disappointments – but I’ll stick to the rosy glow.)

In any case, imagine my glee at discovering that two enterprising juniors at my alma mater have founded Yale’s first Undergraduate Jane Austen Society. Google reveals that, last October, the group screened a film of Pride and Prejudice – no word on which one, although my money is on the 2005 Keira Knightley version – but I can’t find evidence of other events so far.

No matter: we all have to start small. No doubt if the founders pour themselves some bad coffee and sit down to talk, the ideas will soon materialize. Perhaps they’d like to invite me back for a speaking gig amid the rose-colored, ivy-encrusted halls. Yes, that was a hint.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 3 2013 01:00PM

Why is everyone so convinced that Elizabeth Bennet isn’t beautiful?

This past weekend, Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter for the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, told an audience that she’d initially been “appalled” when Keira Knightley was cast as Elizabeth, because Knightley’s beauty detracted from the story’s empowering message. “Elizabeth inspires women because her wit and intelligence is what captures Britain’s most eligible bachelor,” Moggach said. “Women love that because it means you don’t have to be beautiful. If you are clever and funny enough you can get Mr Darcy.”

Moggach isn’t the first to promulgate the Elizabeth-isn’t-beautiful meme: back when the Knightley movie opened, the New York Times’ critic opined (under the headline "Marrying Off Those Bennet Sisters Again, but This Time Elizabeth Is a Looker") that its heroine was “not exactly the creature described in the 1813 novel,” who “prevails. . . through her wit and honesty, not through stunning physical beauty.”

Apparently, we want to believe that Jane Austen’s heroines are smart, plain girls who win their men solely through character and intellect. But let us turn to the text:

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