Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 9 2020 01:00PM

At this point, roughly three weeks into All-American Shelter at Home, you -- the average Janeite -- have probably watched, or re-watched, your entire collection of filmed Jane Austen adaptations.


The first week, you gorged on the really good stuff – the cinematic comfort food: the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice, the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, Clueless.


The second week, you turned to the mediocre, unnourishing, but acceptable choices -- the filmic equivalents of Cheetos: the Mormon Pride and Prejudice, the 1983 British mini-series of Mansfield Park, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma.


By last week, down to nothing but stale crumbs, you were scraping the bottom of a very deep barrel: Billie Piper as Fanny Price, Sally Hawkins chasing Captain Wentworth through the streets of Bath, even – God forbid – Scents and Sensibility.


And now it’s Week Four, and the cupboard is bare. Soon, you’ll be gnawing on your own leg.


Luckily, however, some intrepid artists have stepped forward to keep self-cannibalism at bay just a little while longer:


* Tomorrow night, a new musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon will stream for free at 6:30 and 10 pm (Eastern). P&P is the latest offering of Streaming Musicals, a hybrid of live and recorded theater that launched eighteen months ago with a production of Gordon’s Emma.


To watch the free premiere of P&P, you’ll need to register ahead of time; if you can’t make it tomorrow night, the show will be available to buy (for $19.99) or rent ($4.99) later on.


* Through next Wednesday, the small Washington D.C. theater company We Happy Few is streaming a video recording of its fall 2019 production of Lovers’ Vows, by Elizabeth Inchbald. As Janeites will recall, it’s this hit play of 1798 that the wayward Bertram and Crawford siblings choose for their ill-fated home theatricals in Mansfield Park.


You can watch any time you like, in return for a donation of whatever you can afford. The company recommends at least $5, which seems a small price to pay to understand why Sir Thomas was scandalized. And also to save your leg.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 2 2020 01:00PM

Trendy fashion accessories come and go. One year, it’s thigh-high red boots and black berets; the next it’s purple shoes and tiny handbags. Right now, it seems to be Jane Austen novels.


Months ago, blog readers will recall, first one and then a second Kardashian sister took to social media to publicize photos suggesting her previously unsuspected love of Jane Austen. And now the trend has gone royal.


Last Sunday saw the release via Instagram of what the British celebrity magazine Hello! assures us is a “rare” picture of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge (click the right arrow), working from home – although accounts differ as to whether that means Kensington Palace in London or her family’s quarantine digs at “10-bed country mansion” Anmer Hall in the eastern English county of Norfolk. (Quarantine weighs more heavily on some of us than on others.)


The pictures of Kate and her husband, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, were intended to promote mental health in the time of coronavirus; supposedly, they depict the Cambridges conferring by telephone with the directors of mental health charities.


For us Janeites, however, the real story is in the accessories: Arrayed atop Kate’s antique-y desk is a set of twelve books that the British media have helpfully identified as items from the Penguin “Clothbound Classics” series, with covers (quite lovely ones, actually) by designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. Over the weekend, via painstaking research requiring a magnifying glass and repeated cross-checking of images obtained through Google searches – the kind of research only possible when you’re procrastinating another, less congenial task – I succeeded in identifying all twelve titles.


I’m happy to report that Kate’s taste is impeccable: Three of the books on her desk are by Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park are third, fourth and fifth from the left).


I know that the cynical among you – the same people who insist that Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian associated themselves with Austen titles solely as self-branding exercises – will claim that Kate’s book collection was curated purely to boost her smart-but-not-too-smart, royal-girl-next-door image. You may even claim, as my anti-monarchist British husband did, that the main selection criterion was how well the colors of the covers fit into the shot. (Is it suspicious that the pink of Middlemarch picks up the pink of Kate’s pantsuit?)


As you know, however, I am a simple, trusting, Jane Bennet type. (Well, at least today I am.) Therefore, I am going to assume that Kate is actually a fan of Austen and the other classic writers on her desk, from Homer and Shakespeare to Dickens, Hardy, and Oscar Wilde.


Her Austen collection, however, seems woefully incomplete – and in this time of plague, we all need as much literary comfort food as possible. Can I interest anyone in a GoFundMe campaign to buy Kate matching copies of her missing three Austen novels?


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2020 01:00PM

No one in Jane Austen’s novels becomes infected with a coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say on the subject that now occupies all of our minds. At least three important characters* in her novels experience significant bouts of infectious disease:


--Harriet Smith “was very feverish and had a bad sore-throat . . . . ‘a throat very much inflamed, with a great deal of heat about her, a quick low pulse, &c.’ ” (Emma, ch. 13)


In an early example of self-quarantining, poor ailing Harriet has to miss the Westons’ Christmas party.


--Harriet’s illness seems to be a random act of God, but Marianne Dashwood courts disaster with “two delightful twilight walks . . . . not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where . . . the grass was the longest and wettest . . . assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 42)


Eventually “heavy and feverish, with a pain in her limbs, a cough, and a sore throat,” she grows progressively worse, is confined to her bed, and begins calling deliriously for her mother; a week later “the fever was unabated; and Marianne only more quiet -- not more herself -- remained in an heavy stupor.” (chs. 42-43)


Rather than self-quarantining, however, Colonel Brandon sets out for Barton Cottage, risking the transport of a nasty bug across county lines. Arguably, however, bringing a mother to her child’s potential deathbed counts as essential travel.


* If Marianne’s illness stems from imprudence, Tom Bertram’s is born out of downright recklessness, not to mention dissipation: “Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where a neglected fall and a good deal of drinking had brought on a fever.” (Mansfield Park, ch. 44)


By the time Tom is back at Mansfield Park, “some strong hectic symptoms, which seemed to seize the frame on the departure of the fever” leave Edmund and Sir Thomas “apprehensive for [Tom’s] lungs” and forced to nurse the patient through “nerves much affected, spirits much depressed.” (ch. 45)


On the bright side, however, there’s nothing like a scandalous extramarital elopement to encourage a family toward a bit of social distancing.


Let’s take it as a good omen for our perilous times that all Austen’s patients eventually recover their health. Happy hand-washing, everyone!



* I omit the numerous parents and parental figures who expire offstage, often before the narrative commences, and the long convalescence of Louisa Musgrove, who is the victim of an accidental injury, not an infectious disease.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 27 2020 02:00PM

Apparently, I’m not the only Jane Austen completist out there.


Last week, as blog readers will recall, the New York auction house Swann Galleries auctioned off first editions of all Austen’s novels – three-volume sets of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, and the combined four-volume edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


The sale result can be summed up in the headline on Swann’s press release: “Jane Austen Rules.” (Well, we knew that already, right?)


“Most any Jane Austen first edition appearance is noteworthy, but to have all six of her major novels, each one complete and in period binding, helped make this a wildly successful and memorable sale,” said John D. Larson, whose Swann title -- “literature specialist” -- pretty much sums up my dream job.


Larson’s claim of wild success was no doubt a reference to the bottom line. Each book sold for far more than its estimated high price, with Pride and Prejudice going for $100,000, more than three times the estimated high of $30,000.* Indeed, the total for all six novels came to a whopping $240,625, more than double the projected high of $106,000.


But what really makes this story thrilling – for me, at least – is the fact that a single buyer managed to snag all six.


Swann’s press release doesn’t identify this lucky, and well-heeled, collector/completist, except to say that they registered bids through “the Swann Galleries app” during “competitive bidding.”


Imagine being the kind of person who a) loads an auction house’s app on your phone; and b) has nearly a quarter of a million dollars to spend on books. Now that’s a completist after my own heart.



* Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, as you might expect, drew the lowest prices. Apparently, even auction-house bidders love them less.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 16 2020 02:00PM

Just when you thought it was safe to put some cookies in the oven, toss a few snowballs, and top your hot chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream . . .


. . . it looks like another Jane Austen-themed Christmas movie will be coming to the Hallmark Channel later this year.


Yes, the folks who brought us the remarkably mediocre Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe in 2018 and the equally tedious Sense, Sensibility and Snowmen less than two months ago have noticed that Jane Austen wrote other books. (I don’t think there was any way we could have kept that a secret, but perhaps we should have tried harder.)


And thus it is that Deadline reported earlier this week that Melissa de la Cruz, who was involved with both previous films, will be writing and producing Christmas at Mansfield Park, slated to air in 2020.


The details are barebones, but those of us who have already seen two of Austen’s masterworks transformed into identical – dare I say cookie-cutter? – Hallmark Christmas cliché-fests bearing little relationship to their supposed prototypes know more or less what to expect.


Probably Christmas at Mansfield Park will be about a free-spirited young woman named Frances with a do-gooder job (social worker? Pediatrician?) who has grown up with rich relatives – mom and stepfather, maybe? -- but returns to her quaint New England hometown at Christmastime to care for her ailing father.


There she meets a hunky local minister named Ed who needs help throwing a holiday party for cute but underprivileged children, not to mention extricating himself from a problematic relationship with a materialistic fiancée named Mary who wants him to get a job with a more prestigious church in The Big City.


Ed will walk in on Mary’s brother Henry kissing Frances under the mistletoe but will turn away right before Frances pushes Henry away and slaps his face. Snowballs will be thrown. A tree will be decorated. Small children will sing “Silent Night” while doting adults sip hot chocolate. And I will watch, because I am a Jane Austen completist with a masochistic streak.


It’s too bad, actually, because Mansfield Park fanfic is in short supply, and were the project in better hands, we might hope for something clever and witty. Alas, I think the odds are poor.


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