Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 4 2019 02:00PM

It’s not every day that Jane Austen turns up in a teen sex comedy. So imagine my pleased surprise last week as I was watching the final episode of the new Netflix series Sex Education.

For the uninitiated: Sex Education chronicles the sexual, romantic and parent-related problems of teenagers attending a British high school that resembles nothing so much as an American high school, à la John Hughes. It is funny, clever and touching, as well as a bit raunchy. (Let's just say that after seeing Episode 5, you'll never think of Spartacus the same way again.) I highly recommend it, and not just for the Jane Austen reference.

But back to business. In the relevant scene from Episode 8, our teen heroine Maeve – a brilliant but troubled girl from the wrong side of the tracks who we already know reads everyone from Langston Hughes to Virginia Woolf -- has taken the rap for something she didn’t do. Now she faces an expulsion panel convened by her loathsome principal, Mr. Groff:

Mr. Groff: Please tell us why you should stay at this school.

(Long pause.)

Mr. Groff: Nothing? Very well, then—

Maeve: I’m really smart, sir. I’d read all of Jane Austen by the time I was twelve, including her lesser-known work Lady Susan, which is a severely underrated piece of feminist literature.

As she continues her defense, Maeve goes on to mention existentialism, transcendentalism, Sartre, the school music teacher, and her family problems, but I’m sure my fellow Janeites will agree: She had us at hello.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2018 02:00PM

Tomorrow is Christmas, the day on which a larger-than-life personage employing semi-equine transport suddenly appears in our homes, bringing good things for the good and not-so-good things for the naughty.

You may think Jane Austen didn’t have this covered. But you would be wrong.

Yes, it’s true that Christmas comes up only once in a while in Austen’s work, and seldom as an occasion of joy and revelry.

Of the three novels that refer to the holiday, only Persuasion gives us a cheerful family scene. The Christmas section of Mansfield Park highlights Mary Crawford’s inability to enjoy tranquil home pleasures, and as for the fiasco of Emma’s Christmas Eve party. . .

Austen’s proliferation of unhappy, or entirely absent, Yuletides isn’t all that surprising: As Austen scholar Devoney Looser recently explained, for Regency folk, the holiday was a relatively low-key affair, lacking the stockings-trees-and-adorable-children froufrou that was popularized by the Victorians and that still informs our modern conception of the season.

But there is at least one Austen work in which the Christmas season is indeed heralded by the arrival of a larger-than-life personage employing equine transport and, arguably, calling down appropriate rewards and punishments upon the good and the not-so-good. My text is drawn from Lady Susan, Letter 3, as Catherine Vernon writes to her mother, Lady De Courcy:

“My dear Mother

I am very sorry to tell you that it will not be in our power to keep our promise of spending our Christmas with you; and we are prevented that happiness by a circumstance which is not likely to make us any amends. Lady Susan . . . has declared her intention of visiting us almost immediately.”

True, as far as we can tell from Austen's text, the carriage that takes Lady Susan to Churchill, the Vernons’ home, is drawn by horses, not reindeer, and arrives at the front door, not on the roof. And honesty compels me to admit that, apart from one further passing reference, Christmas is never mentioned again in the course of the novella. But aside from all that. . .

Oh, fine: I’ll concede that casting the poisonous Lady Susan as Santa Claus may be something of a stretch. But think about it: an estranged relative turns up unexpectedly in a small town, disrupting family holiday plans and sparking romantic entanglements? Obviously, Lady Susan is the latest Jane-Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie -- and written by Jane Austen herself, no less. Just add hot chocolate and stir.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 8 2018 02:00PM

Back in middle and high school, I took French. In college, I took Italian. I enjoyed them both – beautiful languages, fascinating cultures and histories, great national literatures.

Alas, however, it seems I should have been studying Portuguese.

This belated realization came to me last week, when I learned that Brazilian TV had just concluded the six-month, hundred-hour run of a racy new early-evening soap opera, Orgulho e Paixão (Pride and Passion), that gleefully mingles characters and plot elements from four Jane Austen novels and the novella Lady Susan.

The adapters seem to have taken a few liberties with their source material, and not just in the title pairing. Although the story still concerns a family with five daughters to marry off, it’s set among early twentieth-century coffee barons in rural southern Brazil – “more Downton Abbey than Jane Austen,” writer Marcos Bernstein told the BBC.

In this version, two of the Benedito family’s girls hail from Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and free-spirited Elisabeta has not only a love interest named Darcy but also a close friend named Ema.

Oh, and the proceedings also involve a pregnant Lydia-clone who abandons her groom at the altar, an Elisabeta who attends a party in male costume, a Bingley-equivalent who joins a fight club, and a Darcy who ventures down a mine -- not to mention a gay kiss and a scene in which a couple bathe together under a waterfall. All of it was shocking enough that Brazilian regulators deemed the program unsuitable for children.

OK, so it’s not a strictly faithful adaptation.

But come on – does this not sound wildly entertaining? It’s probably too late for me to learn Portuguese, but according to the BBC, the Jane Austen Society of Brazil (blog here, website here) now boasts four thousand members, making it among the largest Austen societies in the world. Surely someone in this group has a little free time on her hands and would like to spend it creating English subtitles for Orgulho e Paixão? Can you say "Janeite service project"?

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 22 2016 01:00PM

Discussing Jane Austen with fellow fans is one of the delights of Janeite life. If I lived closer to Philly, I would definitely have joined a program that concludes this Wednesday: weekly Austen discussions at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, known for its rare book collection.

The first three meetings focused on Emma, while the upcoming session – held from 6-7:45 pm – covers Lady Susan and other early works. Sign-up for the entire four-week session began in May and cost $250, so I’m not clear on whether it’s possible to drop in just for the last meeting.

In any event, if re-reading Lady Susan whets your appetite for further discussion, the Rosenbach is also hosting an August 26 conversation and book-signing with Whit Stillman, who directed Love and Friendship, the recent film adaptation of Austen’s novella.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 2 2016 01:00PM

So I’ve finally seen Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, the much-heralded film adaptation of Lady Susan. (I enjoyed it, if perhaps not quite as rapturously as other critics.) But I was mildly annoyed, in my pedantic, can’t-we-get-things-right way, by the promotional email from Amazon Video that arrived in my in-box on the very day of my cinematic expedition.

“Delight in the comic mastery of Love & Friendship, an Amazon Original movie based on an unpublished Jane Austen novella,” the email proclaimed.

Unpublished? The uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking they were about to see a movie adaptation of some work known only as a dusty manuscript stashed on the shelves of a distant library. Rather than, say, a movie adaptation of something that’s available in dozens of hardback, paperback and e-book editions. (I have a soft spot for this particular version, with its Lady Susan Goes Hollywood cover. Who knew they had mascara that good in the eighteenth century?)

To be fair, the movie’s official web site offers an entirely accurate publication history – possible 1790s composition, 1805 fair copy, 1871 publication in the second edition of J.E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir. But I guess no one bothered to tell the sales team that “unpublished in the author’s lifetime” isn’t quite the same as “unpublished.”

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