Deborah Yaffe


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, Dec 24 2020 02:00PM

On March 2, I reported the happy news that a theatrical adaptation of Emma – written by Kate Hamill, the actor/playwright whose madcap versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have been widely produced – would premiere in April at Minneapolis’ venerable Guthrie Theater.

Well, you can guess how that turned out.

But all is not lost for fans of Hamill’s Austen: A costumed reading of this new Emma – online, of course -- will take place over the next two weekends. The show is sponsored by Shakespeare & Company, which usually produces summer theater in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts.

Emma will be performed – live, apparently – at 7 pm (Eastern time) on December 26-27 and January 2-3. Although all four performances are free, you have to register ahead of time to get the link; it’s not clear to me whether the performances will be available for time-shifted viewing or must be watched as they occur, although I assume the latter.

Either way, an early peek at Hamill’s latest literary adaptation is an unexpected and tasty New Year’s treat.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 17 2020 02:00PM

Despite the strangeness of this year, some eternal verities remain. Snowflakes. Evergreens. Misquoting of Jane Austen.

A few highlights of the season:

* “Here’s 15 percent off to celebrate our new friendship,” the bookstore chain Books-A-Million exulted in the subject line -- punctuated with a party-popper emoji! – of an email it sent me following a recent order.

“Chapter 1: A Brand New Friendship,” the message continued. (Get it? Bookstore chain? Chapter 1?) And then the kicker: “ ‘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.’ – Jane Austen.”

As I’ve noted before, this oft-quoted line from Northanger Abbey – while genuinely the work of the author Jane Austen and thus not, in one sense, a misquote -- is, in context, hardly the full-throated tribute to friendship that Books-A-Million clearly intends it to be. Instead, it is the insincere self-representation of manipulative Isabella Thorpe, who sees all relationships in purely transactional terms.

Come to think of it, then, maybe it’s not a misquote at all; perhaps it’s actually the perfect quote for a retail promotion. Isabella Thorpe is just the kind of person who would consider a fifteen percent discount to be a true mark of friendship.

* Getting married over Zoom doesn’t permit you to dispense with every wedding chore, notes Elite Daily, an online news platform for millennial women.

“Even if everyone's not together dancing at a reception venue, you'll still need some Instagram captions for virtual wedding pics you take,” writer Rachel Chapman reminded her readers last month, in a listicle offering “40 Instagram Captions For Virtual Wedding Pics & Celebrating The Love At Home.”

Thirty-nine of the forty captions -- alternately saccharine (“True love couldn’t wait to say ‘I do’ ”) and would-be-witty (“A wedding that even my cat could attend”) -- appear to be Chapman’s own work. Number fourteen, however, is this: “My heart is, and will always be, yours. – Jane Austen.”

I suppose it is pointless to note that Jane Austen never wrote these words, which come from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I suppose it is even less pointful to note that this rendition slightly garbles Thompson’s original --“My heart is, and always will be, yours” -- thereby ruining the rhythm of the line.

You might wonder why Chapman, content to leave thirty-nine of her forty Instagrammable sentiments unsigned, felt compelled to attribute the last one to someone who didn’t even write it. The answer, as usual, is AustenBranding: sprinkle a bit of Jane on top, and voilà -- Classy Romance. Perfect for the Instagram version of your life.

* “You bewitch me body and soul,” proclaims the “Jane Austen drawstring bag” retailing on Red Bubble for $30.30. “I love, I love, I love you.”

To her credit, bag designer Rachel Vass is not entirely guilty of false advertising, since the bag itself – unlike the online listing for it – attributes the line to “Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice.” Strictly speaking, this is an accurate attribution, if we are talking about the Mr. Darcy in the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and not, as the listing asserts, “Pride and prejudice novel book quote.”

On the other hand, devotees of the movie will surely notice that Vass has garbled her quote, which should read, “You have bewitched me body and soul.” (Suitable for Instagram, maybe?)

If you’re still in the market for a drawstring bag but prefer your Austen quotes to be from Austen, Vass has another possibility for you, however: a bag reading, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. – Jane Austen.”

“One of my favourite quotes by Mr Darcy in pride and prejudice by Jane Austen,” Vass explains. Except, of course, that the line is spoken by Mr. Knightley, in Emma.

Before you ask: Yes, I do realize that, this year especially, we have more important things than online Austen sloppiness to worry about. But isn't it nice to worry about some of the less important things for awhile?

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, 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.

Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter