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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 30 2019 02:00PM

Now this is a community event I can get behind.


Over the weekend of January 10-12, the city of Modesto in California’s Central Valley is hosting an all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time event called, naturally, JaneCon.


The centerpiece of the weekend is the local opera company’s two performances of Mansfield Park, British composer Jonathan Dove’s operatic adaptation of the novel. Blog readers will recall that this 2011 piece, originally written for two pianists performing on a single instrument, had its American professional premiere in Indiana in 2016; the Modesto version is being billed as the first U.S. production of an orchestrated version.


But the opera is only one element of the weekend, which will also include a couple of costume parades, a showing of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, country dance lessons, a Regency arcade with vendors and booths, and a series of talks on everything from Regency clothing to the great Firth v. Macfadyen Darcy debate.


Plans call for JaneCon to be the first in a series of annual opera-and-literature tie-ins, via a program called Story Into Song. Sounds like yet another reason to visit California in January.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 12 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen, her brother Henry would have us believe, didn’t care about making money. “She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination,” Henry Austen wrote in 1817, in the biographical note appended to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. “Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.”


Austen herself was franker about her financial ambitions. “People are more ready to borrow & praise than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight four months after the publication of Mansfield Park. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” (Letter #114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


Conventional wisdom holds that poor Jane Austen earned barely a pittance from her work (Egad! She sold the copyright of perennial bestseller Pride and Prejudice for a mere £110!), and sometimes it does seem as if everyone has made money off her work except Austen herself. What Janeite – after perusing the groaning shelves of Austen paperbacks, streaming yet another filmed Austen adaptation, or buying the latest Austen-themed tote bag, fridge magnet, or coloring book -- hasn’t sighed over the unfairness of it all?


New research using Bank of England archives shows that the picture is a bit more complicated, however. In a piece published online earlier this month, independent scholar John Avery Jones, a retired judge, concluded that Austen earned a lifetime total of £631 pounds before tax, or £575 after tax, which he calculates is the equivalent of £45,000 (about $54,600) in today’s money.


Jones’ ingenious research draws on indexes of stock sales and prices, as well as contemporary income tax rates. Unlike earlier scholars, who based their calculations of Austen’s earnings on estimates of her proceeds from book sales, Jones looks at how much she was able to invest in “the Navy Fives” -- government securities sold to the Regency public at a discount, rather like today’s savings bonds.


Jane Austen’s career as a published writer lasted only six years, from the 1811 appearance of Sense and Sensibility until her death in 1817, and Jones’ calculations seem to cover the income only from the four books published during that span. Pro-rated across six years, Jones’ number works out to a yearly income of $9,100. It’s not a lot, certainly – and, as Jones notes, some of her contemporaries earned more from their writing.


But it’s enough to be proud of – and we know that Austen was. “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold,” she wrote to her brother Frank in September 1813 (Letter #86). “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 1 2019 01:00PM

The dog days of summer are approaching, and perhaps that’s why the amount of Stupid Jane Austen Stuff coming my way seems to have ramped up recently. The hot weather softens the brain, I guess, rendering journalists incapable of CHECKING THE ACCURACY of anything they post online about one of the world’s most famous authors.


Or so I conclude from the following:


1. Bad Quoting: For once, it’s not a movie quote masquerading as a book quote. It’s a book quote understood in a sense diametrically opposed to Austen’s intentions.


“Where would we be without our best friends?” the parenting website Romper asked last month. “It's hard to encapsulate all that your bestie means to you in a speedily written message, but worry not, these sentimental things to text your BFF on National Best Friends' Day will do just that.”


Topping the following thirteen-item list is a one-hundred-percent genuine quote from Northanger Abbey: “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”


Why this quote? Romper explains: “Jane just had a way with words, and if your friends are big bookworms like mine are, they'll likely know the quote.”


Better hope not, since these words come from the mouth of Isabella Thorpe, whose recipe for friendship is two parts cynical manipulation to one part insincere flattery. (Although, come to think of it, Isabella is exactly the kind of person who would text Hallmark-worthy sentiments to her #BFF #reallyyouare #loveyousomuchgirl for a fake holiday like this one.)


2. Bad History: A strikingly unusual four-bedroom house is for sale in Warwickshire, in south-central England. It’s an octagonal building located on the palatial grounds of a medieval abbey. It’s selling for £870,000 (about $1.1 million). The pictures make it look lovely. So far, so good.


Alas, however, the estate in question is Stoneleigh Abbey, which has a peripheral relationship to Jane Austen’s life and work. Thus giving us the following headline on a report about the sale of the octagonal house: “Inside the eight-sided home in Warwickshire that inspired one of Jane Austen’s novels.”


Sigh. Yes, it has often been theorized that Austen based Sotherton Court, the Rushworths’ grand home in Mansfield Park, and especially the family chapel where one crucial scene occurs, on Stoneleigh Abbey and its chapel. The eight-sided house, however, forms no part in this discussion. I’d call it an exaggeration to say that even Stoneleigh itself “inspired” the entire novel, but I’ll cut the headline writers a break . . .


. . . because at least they didn’t write the following, from a different publication’s report on the sale of the octagonal house: “Jane moved to the estate in 1806, before she became a successful novelist, when it was inherited by her mother’s cousin, Reverend Thomas Leigh. He brought Cassandra Austen, Jane’s mother, to live with him at the site as well as Jane and her sister, also called Cassandra. At the time the gardener on the estate was Humphry Repton, who later featured as a minor character in Austen’s third novel Mansfield Park.”


Extraordinary how much misinformation can be packed into a few short sentences. To wit:


--Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister visited Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 while staying for a short time with Reverend Leigh in the nearby village of Adlestrop. They “moved to” Stoneleigh only in the sense that I “moved to” Rhode Island during my four-day vacation there last summer.


--Humphry Repton was not a gardener. He was one of the most famous landscape designers of his era. He did, indeed, undertake improvements at Stoneleigh, but not until a year or two after the Austens’ visit.


--Repton is not a character, even a minor one, in Mansfield Park. He is mentioned briefly during a discussion in chapter 6 of possible improvements to Sotherton.


And to think! All of this is easily verifiable through a few quick Google searches!


3. Bad Biography: Although you have to be careful about what you Google, since you might end up getting your question answered on a site like Study.com, a purveyor of online courses, where I found the following answer to the question “Who was Jane Austen married to?”


“Jane Austen never married. She fell in love with her former neighbor, Tom Lefroy. They spent much time in each other's company, and it briefly looked as if they would marry. However, Tom Lefroy never proposed to Jane Austen, and their relationship eventually ended. For the rest of her life, Jane Austen set Tom up as the standard by which she judged all other suitors. None of them compared to him, so she refused to marry.”


**headdesk**


It’s not even that Tom Lefroy was a visitor to the neighborhood, not a neighbor; or that they actually spent only a handful of hours in each other’s company, not “much time”; or that the depth of Austen’s feelings for him and the reason(s) she never married are unknown, and unknowable. No, it’s the sentimental and purely speculative twaddle about Tom as “the standard by which she judged all other suitors” that really irks me. Repeat after me, children: Becoming Jane was fictionalized. Just because Anne Hathaway says it, that doesn’t make it true.


Suggestion for Study.com: Offer a course in finding accurate information on the Internet.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 21 2019 01:00PM

Today is Purim, the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, on which we eat a big meal, dress in silly costumes, read the Biblical book of Esther, bake triangular cookies, drink too much, and distribute charity to the poor – not necessarily in that order.


Living as she did in a far from multicultural corner of Christian England, Jane Austen never mentions Purim. Probably she’d never even heard of it. But the time is ripe for an Austenian Purim spiel, the comic speech or playlet that forms the centerpiece of many Purim celebrations.


A wealthy landowner with a taste for excessive drinking – a Mr. Grant type, clearly -- is married to either a sulky bitch (Julia Bertram) or a feminist truth-teller (Mary Crawford? Maria Rushworth?), depending upon your interpretation of the original. When she elopes with her dancing-master, he divorces her by act of Parliament and throws a lavish ball to pick a successor. Sweet, pliant Fanny Price piques his fancy, and they marry. When her well-intentioned but overbearing uncle (Sir Thomas) warns her that the village supply of cream cheese is on the point of exhaustion because of the depredations of a ravening villain (Mrs. Norris, natch), Fanny discovers her backbone. She persuades her husband to banish the villain to a distant house with no guest bedroom, and everyone lives happily ever after.


Perfect! Help yourself to an apricot Hamentashen. It's a Moor Park.


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