Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 2 2020 02:00PM

A cheerful story with a political angle—and a Jane Austen twist! On the eve of Election Day here in the stressed-out, locked-down, anxiety-ridden United States, it seems like an impossibility.

But I’m happy to report that last month, the family of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, adopted a stray kitten and named him Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy – Darcy, for short. “His name was inspired by the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice,” the Coopers helpfully explain on the First Pets of North Carolina Facebook page.

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of North Carolina

Adorable little Darcy was found “crying under a nearby church” on the very day the Coopers lost their beloved ten-year-old rescue dog Ben to a debilitating autoimmune disease. “Of course, he will never be ‘in want of a wife’ because here at First Pets, we believe in responsible pet ownership, which includes spaying and neutering,” the Coopers note.

Appended to the post are more than 250 comments from people touting their own Austen-themed pets, pasting in snippets of Colin Firth, quibbling over Darcy’s breed (Siamese? Seal point Ragdoll?), and suggesting that the Coopers name their next cat Mr. Bingley.

As you may already have guessed, based on the existence of a First Pets of North Carolina Facebook page, the Coopers (governor, wife, three grown daughters) are an animal-loving clan. Over the years, they have shared relatable anecdotes about their now-deceased dogs Ben and Chloe; their late cat Alexei; a couple of praying mantises who came and went, as insects do; and their apparently-still-alive pets, including a dog named Charlie and a cat named Adelaide.

Darcy isn’t even the first lost kitten the Coopers have adopted and christened with a literary name: Exactly two years ago, they took in a stray found in the garage of the governor’s mansion and named her Jennyanydots – Jenny for short – after a character in T.S. Eliot’s cat poems and the musical based on them.

Jaded, mistrustful types may choose to find it suspicious that the Coopers keep happening upon adorable orphaned kitties just days before hotly contested elections. But I’m suspending my cynicism. With Election Day right around the corner, I choose to believe.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2020 01:00PM

Twenty-five years ago today, the BBC’s beloved adaptation of Pride and Prejudice began airing on UK TV. By the time the show made its way to American airwaves a few months later, it was already a phenomenon.

And now it’s dessert.

Earlier this month, the British TV channel Drama launched its latest “Jane Austen Season” – i.e., three Sunday-night screenings of popular Austen adaptations -- by commissioning a six-foot-high sponge-cake likeness of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy and parking it on the lawn at Lyme Park, the stately home that played Pemberley in the adaptation.

Created by cake designer Michelle Wibowo, the confection exhibits remarkable attention to detail (those sideburns! That draped linen!), even if it portrays its Darcy/Firth in a fully dressed state, rather than the more famous damp and disheveled.

The Drama channel seems to make a habit of hosting these Jane Austen seasons and planning elaborate publicity stunts to launch them: The 2017 version was an expert historical reconstruction of What Mr. Darcy Would Really Have Looked Like (spoiler: not as hunky as Colin Firth).

Yes, it’s all a bit silly. But it’s also an amazing testimony to the pop-culture staying-power of this particular mini-series. Most TV, even the expensive, beautifully costumed, high-production-values kind, is forgotten long before we get around to vacuuming the stray popcorn kernels out of the couch cushions. But not this one. Twenty-five years later, we’re still ready to dig in. Pass me a fork.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 17 2020 01:00PM

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. Even though it bears no relation to anything else going on in Jane Austen World, you must allow me to tell you about the rooster.

See, a couple of months ago, I happened across a delightful post on the Facebook page of Columbia State Historic Park, a preserved Gold Rush town in Northern California. As you can see, the photo shows a handsome barred rooster with an impressive red comb and wattle, and the caption reads, “Columbia’s unofficial mascot, Mr. Darcy. The only rooster among the many hens.”

The photo drew some admiring comments, a factual demurral – apparently, two other roosters do frequent the park – and one Colin Firth GIF (“I have not that talent which some possess of conversing easily with strangers.”)

For weeks now, I’ve been wracking my brains to think of a clever way to link this picture to--well, just about any tidbit of Austen news. Last year, blog readers will recall, a Baltimore zoo named a penguin after Mr. Knightley, but as I’ve noted before, journalists require three instances of a phenomenon in order to label it a trend. A mere two avian Austen namesakes just won’t cut it.

But now I’m officially giving up on sense and succumbing instead to sensibility: Really, I have no excuse for writing about a rooster that just happens to be named Mr. Darcy. But at times like these, it’s somehow heartening to think instead about . . . chickens.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 27 2020 01:00PM

By now, we would all be happy to consign 2020 to the trash bin of history. Let’s reboot! Remake! Recycle and replace!

Alas, another four months must pass before we can turn in this awful year for an upgrade. But the same spirit of renovation is afoot in Greater Austenland, as we await several Austen-themed projects that represent not so much a break with Janeite history as a refurbishment thereof:

* Has your DVD of the iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, wet shirt – become a tad battered after decades of (over) use? Then you’re in luck: The BritBox streaming service is marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beloved BBC adaptation by offering a remastered edition of the series “in stunning 4K,” the ultra-high-definition TV standard.

Imagine: an even crisper version of Colin Firth’s . . . eyes! The remastered P&P will begin streaming on September 25.

* Last year, rumor had it that we might get a new TV show based on Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s immortal 1995 movie, which updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. And now it seems the project is moving along: The showbiz bible Variety reports that NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service has signed on to carry the as-yet-untitled series.

Luckily for those of us who consider Clueless a perfect creation that should be messed with around the time hell needs a Zamboni, this new version is projected as a significant departure: Instead of focusing on Cher, the well-meaning but officious Emma Woodhouse avatar, it will center on Dionne, Cher’s wisecracking, fashion-forward best friend. I’m still skeptical, but hey: at this point, anything new, or even new-ish, sounds good to me.

* The best-Mr.-Darcy debates typically boil down to Colin Firth (1995) v. Matthew Macfadyen (2005), with small but enthusiastic voting blocs supporting dark-horse candidates like Laurence Olivier (1940), David Rintoul (1980), or Elliot Cowan (2008).

And then there’s Soccer the Dog.

Soccer, a Jack Russell Terrier, is better known as Wishbone, the Walter Mitty-ish protagonist of a much-loved 1995-97 PBS children’s series. In each of the show’s fifty half-hour episodes, Wishbone imagines himself as the hero of a classic work of literature whose themes resonate with the travails of his teenaged owner.

The show dramatized works by dozens of famous writers, from Homer to H.G. Wells; Austen was represented twice, with Wishbone playing Mr. Darcy in the 1995 episode “Furst Impressions” (start watching here) and Henry Tilney in the 1997 episode “Pup Fiction” (start watching here).

So Janeites were among the fans who celebrated the news earlier this summer that a Wishbone feature film is in the works, spearheaded by Peter Farrelly, the writer/director who won Oscars in 2018 for Green Book. (Alas, the new movie won’t star Soccer, who moved on to the big kennel in the sky back in 2001.) No word yet on whether the script is likely to riff on another Austen novel, but – surely they wouldn’t disappoint us?

Just to make sure, let’s help them out with some brainstorming. “Mansfield Bark,” anyone? Wishbone, playing the role of Henry Crawford, woos Fanny and ruins Maria. But in the end, his own heart is won when he meets Pug, Lady Bertram’s gender-fluid pet, and, in a risqué departure for a kids’ show, fathers a litter of puppies. As Wishbone leaves his true love behind in the literary past and heads wistfully back to his own time—shades of Outlander here--Fanny Price is seen cuddling the runt, her wedding present from her indolent aunt.

Yes, I think it has potential. Let’s take a meeting in 2021.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen has been used and abused in so many different ways by now, pressed into service to sell everything from perfume to romance novels to white supremacy, that you’d think nothing could surprise us Janeites.

And yet I did find it a bit of a shock to learn about a recent Australian sexual harassment suit in which Austen was invoked – to defend the harasser.

Back in 2015-16, a solicitor named Owen Hughes, the principal of a small law firm in the Australian state of New South Wales, subjected a paralegal named Catherine Hill to an onslaught of unwanted advances.

He sent her frequent emails – some of them in “poor French,” according to a legal ruling -- professing his love and suggesting romance. In the office, he stood in her doorway, refusing to move until she supplied him with hugs. And on a business trip, he twice entered her bedroom – once surprising her as she returned from a shower wrapped only in a towel, and once waiting on her mattress, clad in an undershirt and boxer shorts. (On that occasion, he declined to leave until she gave him – yes – a hug.) To top it all off, he threatened to undermine her professional training if she reported his bad behavior.

Eventually, the poor woman quit and sued, winning $170,000 in damages last year. Her sleazeball boss appealed, losing his case late last month in a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel.

His defense? His behavior couldn’t be sexual harassment because it wasn’t sexual; it consisted merely of honorable requests for love and affection, just like Mr. Darcy’s advances to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. (Yes, the harasser literally compared himself to Mr. Darcy.)

The judges in the case were, understandably, incredulous at this argument. “I reject the submission of Senior Counsel for the Appellant that these were the actions of a Mr. Darcy,” appeals court Justice Nye Perram wrote in rejecting Hughes’ appeal. “The facts of this case are about as far from a Jane Austen novel as it is possible to be.”

Although I’m delighted to see a wronged woman winning her day in court, I have to quibble slightly with Justice Perram’s formulation, which betrays a narrow understanding of the works of Our Author.

It’s certainly true that Hughes is no Mr. Darcy, but what about Mr. Collins, who initially refuses to accept that Elizabeth’s no means no? Or Mr. Elton with Emma: “her hand seized -- her attention demanded”? Or Henry Crawford, intent on making “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart,” regardless of Fanny's preferences in the matter?

Jane Austen knew this type of man. The facts of Hughes’ creepy coerciveness aren’t actually all that far from an Austen novel. Hughes' mistake came in identifying himself with the hero.

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