Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 12 2018 02:00PM

Long, long ago – wait, was it only 2009? – a clever young man named Seth Grahame-Smith interpolated zombie references into the text of Pride and Prejudice and sold a gazillion copies of the resulting mashup.

Ever since, the temptation to take Jane Austen’s out-of-copyright masterpieces and dress them up with references to. . . whatever. . . has seemed inescapable. We’ve had Sense and Sensibility with sea monsters, Mansfield Park with mummies, P&P with added Jews, and Emma with previously unsuspected vampires.

This year, just in time for Valentine’s Day, a British TV channel called Drama* has brought us yet another addition to this trend: Pride and Prejudice reimagined for the social media age. No, not another update of the story to our own times: Drama’s version is the 1813 text, except with Facebook, WhatsApp, email and selfies accompanying the carriage rides and formal balls.

“We're seeing if technology would ruin the 'art of romance' in classic love stories,” Drama explains on its website, which offers a free download of this new P&P, along with social-media-enhanced versions of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

From my skim of the enhanced Austen, the changes seem much as they were in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: sometimes amusing, mostly cosmetic, and likely to become tiresome when stretched to book length. Darcy spends his time at the Meryton Assembly swiping on Tinder instead of dancing with the locals. Elizabeth captures his insult to her beauty in a Snapchat video. Mr. Collins’ letters arrive via email. Lady Catherine threatens to unfollow Elizabeth if she persists in her designs on Darcy. After Wickham leaves Meryton, rumors circulate that he “had created a secret online account under the name ‘The Militia Stallion’ which he used first to entrap, then to ghost certain ladies.” And a ringing cellphone interrupts both of Darcy’s proposals.

The only major plot change I detected was Drama’s decision to correct Jane Austen’s unaccountable error in omitting the now-famous scene of Darcy diving into the Pemberley lake and emerging in a clinging wet shirt. Yes, at last this moment, invented by Andrew Davies for the BBC’s iconic 1995 P&P adaptation, has made it onto the page. And this time, Elizabeth takes a smartphone photo of Darcy in post-lake deshabille, captions it “OMG,” and posts it online, inadvertently setting off “a Twitter storm of epic proportions.”

So what's the answer to Drama's question? Does social media ruin “the art of romance”?

Not really. As soon as Darcy switches off his phone, that second proposal goes about as well as you'd expect.

* As blog readers will recall, it was Drama that -- exactly a year ago, also just in time for Valentine’s Day -- earned a tidy little publicity windfall for its rebroadcast of beloved Austen adaptations by commissioning an artist’s rendering of the “real” Mr. Darcy. The dweeby result, based on the investigations of a historian and an Austen scholar, made clear that the standards of male beauty in Austen’s time differed dramatically from our own Firth-and-Macfadyen-inflected preferences.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 25 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s relationship to the romance novel is a vexed topic. For every article calling her the founding mother of the genre (or perhaps the grandmother, with a line of descent through Georgette Heyer), you’ll find just as many insisting that she is a social satirist who just happens to write about heterosexual romance.

My own romance-novel addiction is moderate-to-severe, and, appropriately enough, I developed it while researching Among the Janeites, which required me to read a boatload of Austen fanfic. Before long, I was branching out into non-Austen-inspired Regency romance, and then non-Regency historical romance, and then contemporary romance, and . . . now I have more than two hundred titles on my Kindle, not even counting the Austen spinoffs. (But really! I can stop anytime I want!)

Personally, I would not call Austen a romance novelist: Her stories never have the laser-like focus on the central relationship that is the hallmark of much modern-day romance writing, and she is more interested in recording her heroines’ moral development than in cataloguing the butterflies they feel when they accidentally brush fingertips with their heroes. It’s the Austen movies, with their dashing lead actors and swoony proposal scenes, that have convinced a generation of readers that Austen is a romance writer.

Still, I cannot deny that by making the question of who a young woman should marry into a central preoccupation of fiction, Austen planted a seed that has now flowered into arguably the most vibrant sector of American publishing. And so I was rather charmed by the latest news about The Ripped Bodice, an all-romance indie bookstore in Culver City, California, run by a pair of sisters.

One corner of the shop, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek, houses Fitz’s General Store, “devoted to merchandise—tote bags, calendars, candles—featuring their Chihuahua, Fitzwilliam Waffles (after Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).” (The dog has his own Instagram account, too.)

It’s hard to object to people who: a) like romance novels, b) observe the Janeite tradition of naming pets after Austen characters, and c) have managed to channel the devotion to quasi-Janeite merchandise into a method of supporting independent bookselling. Plus, the dog is pretty cute.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 11 2017 01:32PM

We all have our own idea of Pemberley, the quintessential Jane Austen estate. On film, it’s been played by gorgeous Lyme Park, in Cheshire (15-acre garden, 1,400-acre deer park), and even more fabulous Chatsworth, in Derbyshire (126 rooms, 105-acre garden), although it’s likely that Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year would not have sufficed to maintain such palatial properties.

Still, even if Darcy contented himself with a more modest stately home, it seems likely he never had to make do with the 460 square feet of the Pemberley, a portable house-on-wheels recently built for a family of five by Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses.*

Tiny Houses are intended to be more affordable and environmentally sustainable than the sprawling McMansions of suburbia, but this particular model is hardly austere: The kitchen features cherry cabinets and granite countertops, the electronic hookup allows for a giant TV, and the appliances are high-end.

Personally, I can’t imagine raising small children in a space this, um, tiny -- not to mention that our books alone would take up all the available surfaces. But check out those beautiful poplar-wood walls! It’s enough to make a girl change her mind about a marriage proposal.

* Thanks to AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan for bringing this item to my attention via Twitter.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 21 2017 01:00PM

The Jane Austen bicentenary is already a month in the rearview mirror, but cute little tie-in pieces are still turning up online – sometimes new, sometimes overlooked in the mad July 18 rush.

Here are three that have caught my attention recently:

-- “If Jane Austen characters used dating apps”: The BBC imagines how Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham would behave in the Age of Tinder. Not surprisingly, Darcy’s profile is sparse – frankly, I don’t think he’d ever stoop to online dating in the first place, but I’ll suspend my disbelief – and yet Elizabeth swipes right anyway. (Hey, the profile photo is of Colin Firth, so who can blame her?) Funniest touch: Wickham texting an unsolicited pic of his, um, sword. Though I suspect Wickham would be smoother than that. Sword pics seem like more of a John Thorpe move.

--“History of Jane Austen (in One Take)”: History Bombs, which produces fast, hip educational videos and supporting materials for classroom use, offers a five-minute rap summarizing the basics of Jane Austen’s life. It’s funny and entertaining, and of course it’s better that kids should meet Jane Austen than not. But surely if you’re teaching history, you shouldn’t make factual errors about even relatively minor matters like Jane Austen’s age at death or the terms on which she published Emma. *

--“Jane Austen’s facts and figures – in charts”: The Guardian offers an intriguing graphic tour through such matters as the ages of Austen’s heroines, the relative incomes of her characters, and the proportion of unhappy marriages portrayed in her novels (42 percent, they claim). I would quibble over some details – Persuasion’s spontaneous after-dinner dance for three or four couples doesn’t qualify as a ball in my book – and it’s a shame that the Google doc laying out the data in more detail seems to have vanished. Still, this feature should be good for starting a few conversations.

* Thanks to Marian Wilson Kimber for bringing this one to my attention.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 19 2017 01:00PM

“The new Darcy Hotel. . . is named for that taciturn hero of Jane Austen’s,” the Washington Times wrote earlier this month, at the outset of an enthusiastic review of the hotel’s seafood restaurant. Disappointingly, the restaurant is called Siren, a name with no P&P associations whatsoever. Instead of, say, Bennet. Or Lady Catherine’s Place. Or Lydia’s Petticoat.

Alas, this dearth of Austen associations is no anomaly, at least as far as I can glean from the website of the hotel, located in Washington D.C.’s upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood. Nary a mention of Austen appears anywhere on the site; without the Times tip-off, there'd be no way of knowing the hotel was named for the literary hero, rather than the character in Thor or the Smashing Pumpkins bassist.* The metal-and-glass décor is described as “updated mid-century modern” – presumably that’s not the mid-nineteenth century – and the his-and-hers silhouettes hanging above the bed in one room photo are rainbowed in neon.

Only the hotel’s amenities evoke that understated-elegance, waited-on-hand-and-foot Pemberley vibe: You can borrow cufflinks from the Haberdashery, order a bespoke suit custom-made during your stay, sip free cocktails every evening, or have a libation created for you in your own room by the “cocktail butler.”

For those of us who might be willing to overlook the thinness of the Austen veneer just so we can say we stayed at The Darcy, prices don’t seem to be excessive, as these things go: Although a mid-week stay begins perilously close to $400 a night and goes up from there, a summer weekend night starts at a more reasonable $179. And with luck, the company will be better than at Lady Catherine’s Place.

* All right, all right. I admit I would never have thought of either of these alternatives without an assist from Google.

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