Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 21 2020 02:00PM

The opening credits of Modern Persuasion, which began streaming Friday on a small screen near you, scroll through a litany of actors, producers, screenwriters, directors. . . and yet one name is strangely absent. That would be the name of Jane Austen, on whose last completed novel this pallid, charm-free update is based.

And yet Modern Persuasion actually hews closer to Austen’s plot and characters than do many other alleged Austen spinoffs. (I’m looking at you, Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe.) Wren is a fortyish singleton who, years earlier, took her aunt’s advice and dumped her college boyfriend, Owen. Now he’s the CEO who hires her struggling PR company to launch his new social networking site – meanwhile flirting energetically with her hot young colleague, while Wren bonds with his melancholy, age-appropriate deputy.

Along the way to the foregone conclusion, there are Jane Austen Easter eggs aplenty. Wren works for a struggling family business called Keller Keller Lynch, whose straitened finances have forced a relocation from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Owen runs a flourishing Silicon Valley-based enterprise called Laconia. Her glum cat is named Wentworth. His glum colleague is named Benson. There’s a vain, profligate older man and a smarmy, insinuating younger one, a scheming sycophant and a worrisome head injury.

Alas, our heroine, Wren (Alicia Witt), is a mildly annoying cliché, the workaholic spinster whose life revolves around her cat. Our hero, Owen (Shane McRae), is a bland cipher with zero charisma. Together, the two give off fewer sparks than a string of faulty Christmas lights. Meanwhile, the script’s idea of witty banter is to have a character remark that Brooklyn’s air “smells like hipster.” OK, I’ll admit that I did giggle when Wren and the heartbroken Benson discover a shared love of Joy Division and the Smiths, in place of their prototypes’ bonding over the saddest bits of Byron and Scott. But for the most part, this is a romcom lacking both rom and com.

Although Modern Persuasion was apparently intended for theatrical release until COVID came along and bid goodbye to all that, the production values are not much better than standard-issue Hallmark Channel. A fancy gala in the Hamptons looks about as chic as a middle-school dance, and Wren, the successful New York PR professional, seems to wear only baby-girl ruffled shirt-fronts and garish old-lady flower prints. Even a newborn infant is represented by an unconvincing swaddle of blankets. Apparently, the budget didn’t stretch to an actual baby.

But the most serious shortcoming is the one that bedevils so many Persuasion updates: As I’ve noted before, it’s difficult to make sense of Austen’s central conflict – love vs. duty, passion vs. prudence, all that jazz – in a modern world with such different social, economic, and gender expectations.

This time around, we’re asked to believe that Wren’s aunt discouraged her from giving up a post-college internship and moving to San Francisco with Owen because “no man should ask you to put his career ahead of yours.” Fair enough, but – no one floated a compromise? A West Coast internship? A long-distance relationship? A move in six months? Keeping in touch over email? None of it makes much sense, and Wren’s palpable unhappiness undermines the supposedly feminist message. You think you can have it all, girlfriend? Ha! It’s work or love, baby, not both! Nor is it clear why, after those long years of separation, the still-lovelorn Owen decides to get closer to his ex by flying across the country and hiring her company. Why doesn’t he just stalk her on social media, like a normal person?

At least one mystery gets cleared up by the end: Stick around for the final credits, in which cartoon Instagram posts fill in the cozy aftermath of Wren and Owen’s reconciliation, and you’ll glimpse one that reads, “Based on Jane Austen’s #Persuasion.” Given what’s on screen here, however, maybe Austen was better off as a silent partner.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 14 2020 02:00PM

How radical was Jane Austen? It's a topic of continuing debate: She’s been embraced as an icon of both traditional family values and subversive feminism, and it’s anyone’s guess what she would have called herself if she’d had access to our political vocabulary.

Apparently, however, she’s radical enough for the Radical Tea Towel company.

Until a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the existence of the Radical Tea Towel company, a family-owned business launched nearly a decade ago in Wales. As you’d expect, they sell tea towels – that’s dish towels, to us Americans – printed with snippets of left-wing history: a facsimile of a women’s suffrage poster, say, or a picture of Maya Angelou or Charlotte Bronte or George Orwell, paired with an appropriate quotation from the author’s works.

The available-for-shipment-to-the-U.S. collection leans to American thinkers and activists – John Brown, Benjamin Franklin, Frances Perkins – whereas the British version is heavier on Clement Attlee, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and the Chartists. But there’s plenty of overlap, and luckily for the Anglophone Jane-o-sphere, Austen can be found on both sites.

The radical Austen tea towel features a wonderful line spoken by Anne Elliot during her conversation with Captain Harville at the White Hart, in chapter 23 of Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.”

There are several things I find refreshing about this particular piece of merchandise. First of all, it features a Jane Austen quote that was actually written by Jane Austen. Second, it’s a quote that hasn’t been ripped out of its ironizing context to mean something quite other than Jane Austen intended. And third, it’s not a swoonily romantic line that seems designed to be written in pink gel pen with a little purple heart dotting the i.

I have nothing against love and romance, not even love and romance in the works of Jane Austen. Indeed, that same chapter of Persuasion includes one of the most beautiful love letters in all of English literature. But Austen’s works are not primarily romances, and most of her best lines – including this one -- have little to do with love.

Not that you’d know it from the available merchandise. The line on the radical tea towel, for example, is hard to find inscribed on other portable property: My Google search turned up only a single example, a lowly fridge magnet. By contrast, search Etsy or Red Bubble for “You have bewitched me body and soul,” a not-in-Austen line from the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and you’ll have dozens of choices: T-shirts, jewelry, mugs, tote bags, wall decorations, decals, pillows, baby clothes, face masks – even a pocket knife.

Was Jane Austen a radical? Views differ. But everyone can use a tea towel.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 10 2020 02:00PM

Many Janeites lack an intimate familiarity with the geography of class in Regency England; we – by which I mean I – can’t tell our Edward Streets from our Portman Squares. Luckily, however, Jane Austen makes such distinctions instantly legible to even her least-informed reader: If the wealthy Mrs. Jennings lives near Portman Square, while Georgiana Darcy’s disreputable ex-governess lets lodgings in Edward Street, it’s not hard to deduce which is the more upscale location.

That logic allows readers of Persuasion to instantly understand the cachet of the Bath address inhabited by the Elliot family’s most socially desirable relations – the Dowager-Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter, the Honorable Miss Carteret.

“Lady Dalrymple had taken a house, for three months, in Laura Place, and would be living in style,” Austen informs us in chapter 16. Once the sycophantic Sir Walter Elliot and his daughter Elizabeth are received there, “ ‘Our cousins in Laura Place’ – ‘Our cousins, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret,’ were talked of to every body.”

Apparently, Laura Place hasn’t lost its prestige: A trio of adjoining buildings there, near the center of the beloved and well-preserved Georgian city, will be auctioned online next Tuesday, and the guide price – the seller’s guess as to what the property might be worth – is £4 million (about $5.3 million).

The three 18th-century buildings comprise nearly 17,000 square feet of combined office and residential space, currently renting for more than £226,000 a year (about $303,000). Although Lady Dalrymple’s household presumably took up an entire building, modern-day demands appear to be more modest: These three Laura Place buildings have been divided into nine apartments and ten offices.

“These properties are genuinely unique and occupy a prominent position in a beautiful part of Bath,” Peter Mayo, investment director of Acuitus, the real estate auction house handling the sale, told a local newspaper. “We expect there to be interest not least because of the location’s associations with Austen and the opportunity to own a landmark in the city.”

So heads up, Janeites: If you’ve always longed to be the kind of person Sir Walter Elliot might brag about knowing – and if you have a few millions lying around – now’s your chance.

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.

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