Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 11 2021 02:00PM

It’s cold outside, and the pandemic still rages. You may not feel like singing a happy tune. But if you’re a Janeite, someone else is currently doing it for you:


--Back when live performances were a thing, the opera company in the city of Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, hosted a weekend-long JaneCon whose centerpiece was an orchestrated production of British composer Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park opera.


Exactly a year later, the opera company is making that performance available for online viewing, as the first offering in an eight-month series of pre-recorded concerts and operas. For the price of a ticket -- $35 is suggested, but there’s a pay-what-you-can option – you can watch the video any time for the rest of this month.


--If you can’t spare the time for a full-length opera, perhaps you’d prefer “Jane Austen’s Mamma Mia,” a minute-long TikTok video (watch here or here) that is the brainchild of Madelaine Turner, a twenty-six-year-old screenwriter and “content creator” from Southern California.


The breezy mashup, following in the great tradition of “Jane Austen’s Fight Club,” features Turner, in Regency costume, as Sophie, a bride-to-be seeking the identity of her unknown father. As an appropriately orchestral version of ABBA’s hit plays in the background and Sophie stamps fresh sealing wax onto a folded paper, her voiceover reads the enclosed letter to her cousin. . . and if you saw the stage show or the movie, you know the premise: reticent mom, revealing diary, dueling wedding invitations.


We even glimpse a framed portrait of the mother (Meryl Streep, natch) and images of the three candidates for paternal honors -- all familiar faces to fans of the Mamma Mia! movie: Colin Firth, in the Darcy portrait from the Pemberley section of the BBC’s iconic Pride and Prejudice adaptation; a bearded Pierce Brosnan, here with Regency cravat; and Stellan Skarsgard, under a headline reading, “Fitzwilliam Anderson, Traveller Extraordinaire.”*


Is it silly? Exceedingly so. But it sure beats reality.



* Intriguingly, Fitzwilliam Anderson appears to be the for-real name of a Los Angeles-area PR officer who is roughly Turner’s age. Coincidence? Boyfriend? Inside joke? Named by Janeite parents? Enquiring minds want to know.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 19 2020 02:00PM

Some years ago – six? Ten? – I stumbled across a mention of an intriguing campaign to raise money for a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, to be erected in the north London neighborhood where she established a girls’ school and launched her writing career.


Wollstonecraft, who died in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, is the mother of all of us who call ourselves feminists. She believed that women were rational beings, just as capable as men of self-determination and self-improvement. But, she argued, conventional modes of female education all too often transformed girls into ignorant, trivial adults, good for little more than ornamenting the drawing-room.


She wrote all that down, and she published it, and she tried to live by her beliefs. She embraced revolutionary modes of thought at a time when such views terrified the English state. She traveled alone, fell in love, had sex outside of marriage. She had her heart broken, and she tried unsuccessfully to kill herself. She died from complications of childbirth. Wollstonecraft was radical, brave, uncompromising in her integrity, and ahead of her time. Because of that, she was often unhappy. We are in her debt.


Wollstonecraft’s name appears nowhere in Jane Austen’s novels or surviving letters, but from time to time an echo of her ideas rises from Austen’s pages: when Mrs. Croft, in Persuasion, chides her brother for talking “as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures”; or when Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, refuses to be cowed by rank, insisting that she plans “to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness”; or when Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park, reminds Henry Crawford, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”


Naturally, I gave some money to the statue campaign. Then I forgot all about it.


Last week, the statue finally went up. And. . . oh, dear.



A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, by Maggi Hambling
A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, by Maggi Hambling

The finished product is a silvery corkscrew of female forms out of which rises a naked woman with a remarkably long neck, perky breasts, and prominent pubic hair. According to the artist, Maggi Hambling, the nude is not intended to represent Wollstonecraft – the statue is “for” her, not “of” her – but rather an Everywoman born out of the feminist struggle for emancipation.


Public reaction has been swift and largely negative. (See accounts of the controversy here, here, and here.) On Twitter, feminist writers and artists wondered why a woman famed for her ideas should be represented by a naked body – and a conventionally attractive naked body, at that. (“Who knew Wollstonecraft was a gym rat with six-pack abs?” tweeted the novelist Natalie Danford.)


“What a colossal waste. so so disappointing,” added Caroline Criado-Perez, the writer and journalist whose campaign to get a woman on the UK’s currency helped bring us the Jane Austen banknote. “This feels disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself.”


Others suggested the statue campaign should have opted for the runner-up design, a more traditional portrait of Wollstonecraft (with her clothes on) holding a quill pen, her hand resting on a stack of books.



Alternate statue design, by Martin Jennings
Alternate statue design, by Martin Jennings


I’m no art critic, but neither design seems quite right to me: the new statue says nothing specific about Wollstonecraft and makes for an uneasy fit with her major concerns, but the runner-up is too bland and conventional to convey her radicalism.


There’s an ironic Janeite footnote to this story: The losing design was by sculptor Martin Jennings, whose proposal for an Austen sculpture, to be placed in the Inner Close of Winchester Cathedral, was rejected last year after a public outcry.


Apparently, it’s not easy to make great women into public art, and there’s a reason for that: We lack models for how to do it, because we don’t have much public art about great women, a deficit that the campaign for a Wollstonecraft statue was partly designed to address. Nudity, abstraction, artistic unconventionality – every vexed question becomes more so when the representation of the less-often-represented is at stake. The sad saga of the Wollstonecraft statue seems destined to become a cautionary tale.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2020 02:00PM

Less than a year ago, a rich person with excellent taste snapped up a complete set of Jane Austen first editions at a New York auction. If you want to take a shot at acquiring the same coveted Janeite prize, you have until 7 pm (Eastern) tonight.


That’s when Skinner Auctioneers will close the bidding in its online auction of rare books, maps, and manuscripts. Among the items for sale is a set of first editions of all Austen’s novels – sixteen handsomely bound volumes once owned by Mary Orne Bowditch (1883-1971), a sculptor from a prominent Massachusetts family.


Skinner estimates that the set – three-volume editions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, plus four volumes containing the posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion -- will bring in $20,000 to $30,000; earlier this week, the bidding had reached only $16,000.


To me, those numbers seem oddly low, considering that the editions sold in February went for more than $240,000, with Pride and Prejudice alone bringing in more than $100,000. Still, I’m no bibliographer: Perhaps a reader with greater expertise can explain why the new set is apparently less valuable.


Less valuable in monetary terms, that is. I’m sure we Austen fans can agree that any first edition – let alone all of them – is priceless.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2020 01:00PM

By now, it’s no surprise to find Jane Austen’s name surfacing in discussions of Britain’s unsavory imperial history: The debate over the significance of Austen’s glancing references to West Indian slavery has raged for decades.


Nor should it be a surprise to see Austen press-ganged into service, however unfairly, as a symbol of uncritical nostalgia for nineteenth-century country house life. Still, I couldn’t help bristling when her name surfaced in a recent Guardian story about the impact of the worldwide anti-racism protests on the National Trust, the British non-profit that preserves and curates hundreds of stately homes.


Apparently, the National Trust plans a stepped-up effort to highlight its properties’ ties to slavery and colonialism. Although the issue has been on the agenda at least since the 2007 bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, “it would be fair to say we haven’t made the progress that we should have done since then,” John Orna-Ornstein, the trust’s director of culture and engagement, told the newspaper. “The Black Lives Matter movement has made us realize that we need to go much faster,” he added.


The initiative is surely a welcome development that, if done well, should enrich and complicate tourists’ experience of National Trust properties. But how does Jane Austen fit into this picture? Where did she stand on comparable issues in her own time?


It’s a complex question with no definitive answer: Although we know from her letters that Austen admired the abolitionist writer Thomas Clarkson, her references to slavery in Emma and Mansfield Park are oblique enough to leave us guessing about the precise contours of her beliefs.


In our era, marked by a profusion of Jane Austen adaptations filmed in the ornate parlors and manicured gardens of very beautiful National Trust properties, nuance is easily elided, however. And thus it is that the Guardian can quote Katie Donington, a historian of the transatlantic slave trade, speculating about whether the popular perception of the country house will militate against efforts to reckon with its unsavory hidden history.


“Is it scones and tea and a bit of Jane Austen-type fantasy?” she asked the newspaper. “Or does it engage with the hard political and economic realities of where some of that wealth came from?”


It’s possible that Donington is a dedicated follower of the literary critic Edward Said, who argued decades ago that Austen was conveniently blind to the horrific human suffering that underwrote her own society. But more likely her comment is yet another example of the way that Jane Austen screen adaptations, with their beautiful costumes and buildings and actors, have come to stand for all things Jane Austen – no matter how much that overlooks Austen’s own engagement with hard political and economic realities.


When contemporary screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels are the (implied or overt) topic of discussion, the conversation is about us, the twenty-first-century viewers, not her, the nineteenth-century novelist. So could we leave poor Jane Austen out of it?



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.


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