Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 8 2019 01:00PM

The success of the screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels has been attributed to many factors: romantic plots, attractive stars, witty dialogue, stately mansions. And, of course, great-looking clothes.


No surprise, then, that Austen tourist venues frequently display costumes from the movies, even though, as modern reproductions worn by contemporary actors playing fictional characters, these outfits fall at least three degrees of separation short of historical reality.


Now Janeite costume fans can look forward to another opportunity to wallow in Regency fashion: The Exhibits Development Group, a Minnesota-based company that assembles traveling shows on art, science, history, and pop culture, has put together “Jane Austen: Fashion and Sensibility.” Thus far, no venues have been announced for the exhibition, although EDG’s projected schedule seems to imagine a tour of eighteen sites over six years, starting in the fall of 2020.


The show features forty-nine costumes from eight different filmed adaptations of four Austen novels, but the lion’s share of the items – thirty-five of the forty-nine – come from just two of those adaptations: the iconic 1995 BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, written by Andrew Davies and starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; and the 1995 Ang Lee movie of Sense and Sensibility, written by Emma Thompson and starring Thompson and Kate Winslet.


While more than two-thirds of the featured costumes were worn by women – because let’s face it: who usually gets the more interesting clothes in these movies? – the exhibitors clearly have a savvy eye on their market: Among the smaller number of male garments on display will be the so fetchingly moistened white shirt that Firth wore in the BBC P&P, and the long gray coat and halfway-unbuttoned shirt in which a super-hot Matthew Macfadyen met Keira Knightley at the end of Joe Wright’s 2005 movie of P&P.


Cue swooning.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 25 2019 02:00PM

Among Janeites, the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice is . . . controversial.


Purists, especially those old enough to have seen an earlier adaptation of P&P in their youth, dislike its Brontesque romanticism and its exaggeration of the Bennet family’s comparative poverty: pigs in the backyard, Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy striding across the dawn fields half-dressed to tell Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth that she has bewitched him body and soul – that kind of thing.


Others, especially those young enough to have discovered P&P for the first time through the swoony vision of director Joe Wright, have no problem with being swept off their feet by a timeless love story. For them: Matthew Macfadyen, half-dressed. What’s not to like?


I’m not here to adjudicate this dispute, which became so heated back when the movie was first released that the Republic of Pemberley eventually barred further discussion of the matter from its online message boards.


I'm merely here to point out that, whatever the state of play among Janeites, the pro-P&P 2005 faction has pretty clearly won the day out there in the larger world. Or so I conclude from a chart I stumbled across earlier this month that purports to list the twenty top-selling romantic comedy DVDs of all time.


Right there at #11: Pride and Prejudice 2005. No other Austen movie – indeed, no other movie with a non-contemporary setting – cracks the top twenty, unless you count the Bridget Jones movies, which are loose Austen updates. P&P 2005: controversial among Janeites, beloved by everyone else.


According to a website called OfficialCharts.com – yes, that’s really what it’s called, so I guess this Chart must indeed be Official – P&P has sold 1.34 million copies, less than half the 2.9 million copies of the top seller, Love Actually, but a pretty robust number any way you look at it.


As a devoted fan of the romcom, I am delighted to say that I have seen nineteen of the twenty movies on this list, nearly all of them during their first theatrical run. I even own some of the DVDs! (I’m looking at you, Notting Hill. And Love Actually. And the Bridget Jones movies. And P&P, of course.)


Why did I miss Coyote Ugly (#14)? IMDB provides the clue: apparently, it was released on August 4, 2000, when I was the exhausted mother of a toddler and a three-week-old infant. It may be the greatest movie of all time, but I wouldn’t have been able to stay awake past the credit sequence. Luckily, however, I can still buy the DVD.


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, May 7 2015 01:00PM

The British actor Matthew Macfadyen – whom many Janeites remember fondly as Darcy in the 2005 feature-film version of Pride and Prejudice – has posed a daunting philosophical conundrum for those of us who enjoy ogling a guy in a wet shirt, or in no shirt at all.


Is there such a thing as a hunk who’s too hunky?


In a recent interview with the UK’s Radio Times magazine (apparently not available online, but reported here and here), Macfadyen describes the diet-and-fitness regimen required for actors appearing in period drama.


“You do the deal and then the personal trainer gets in touch,” he said. “When I see it on screen, it immediately smacks of vanity because I know what’s happened. They’ve been doing crunches, 50,000 press-ups before breakfast, and a character in a period drama wouldn’t have done that. Darcy would have been quite fit, because he rode horses and all that stuff, but if I ripped off my shirt to show a six-pack. . . well, that’s a gym thing.”


Personally, I’d suspect that the farm laborers on Darcy’s estate were pretty ripped, given all the plowing and hay-baling they had to do without benefit of electricity. And in addition to all that riding, Regency gentlemen kept in shape with dancing, boxing and fencing – or so I gather from my extensive research in the Regency romance genre.


But did those activities yield the sculpted torsos that define today’s masculine ideal? I invite comment from readers whose expertise on physical fitness derives from sources other than Regency romances.


I fear, though, that Macfadyen may well be correct in his analysis of exercise through the ages, and this suggests a terrible dilemma for those of us who want our costume drama flavored with a dollop of historical accuracy. Must we trade the lusty delights of the six-pack for more rational pleasures? Do we have a Lydia-vs.-Lizzy situation here?


I fear I know exactly what Jane Austen would say.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter