Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 10 2019 01:00PM

“Can a book change the course of your life?” asks the cover headline on the latest issue of my college alumni magazine. Inside, seventeen professors supply an answer – yes, of course – and name the books that shaped them (more or less: a couple of people cheat and just name books they happen to like a lot).

Some of the choices are charming — apparently The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles set the curator of Yale’s natural history museum on his career path — but one in particular caught my eye.

“The book that had more impact on me than any other is Pride and Prejudice, which I read when I was sixteen because my English teacher told me to,” writes Traugott Lawler, a retired Yale English professor whose academic specialty is the Middle Ages. “It blew me away! I had never imagined a novel could be so intelligent, so witty, so compelling. It made me a reader of nineteenth-century English fiction, as I still am, and it set me on a path to my career teaching English.”

Lawler is 82, so his epiphany occurred c. 1953, an era -- pre-Colin Firth, pre-Keira Knightley, pre-Jane Austen Action Figure -- when Austen’s popular profile was far lower.

In that more innocent time, without so many swoony movie versions to compete with the books’ more astringent reality, Austen appreciation was far less often gendered female. A sixteen-year-old boy could come to her novels without encountering the regrettable “those-are-girl-books” baggage that seems to weigh them down today. These days, I would guess, it’s harder for a sixteen-year-old boy to tune out the noise and get blown away by P&P. Which is yet another sad commentary on our times.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 6 2019 01:00PM

The family-friendly Christmas show is a staple of local arts companies. Every December, the main stage in the regional theater near me is given over to performances of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perfectly calculated to sell a boatload of tickets to nostalgic grandparents and fresh-faced young ‘uns. At about the same time, every ballet company in the land is hauling out its version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, with much the same goal.

And now, it seems, Jane Austen has joined this august company.

Three years ago, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon authored Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a Pride and Prejudice sequel that gives the neglected Mary Bennet a Yuletide romance. The play has now been produced everywhere from Northern California to Washington D.C., and at least one company—the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis—will be back for seconds next Christmas.

Miss Bennet’s popularity helped the prolific Gunderson earn the title of America’s “most-produced playwright” in 2017-18. (Further down the list was another Austen-inspired playwright, Kate Hamill.) And last year, Gunderson and Melcon followed up their Austenesque hit with The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, which takes place downstairs in the servants’ hall during the events of the earlier play.

Much to my chagrin, no company near me has yet staged either play—presumably, my local regional theater is too busy with the aforementioned A Christmas Carol—so I can’t comment on their quality or their fidelity to Austen’s characters.

Giving Austen the Certified Holiday Fun treatment, however, is a little odd. The "traditional" Christmas season, with its decorated trees, well-stuffed stockings, and gifts for the kiddies, is a Victorian invention, and Austen’s books, set in an earlier era, feature only three Christmas scenes, two of which are far from featuring unambivalent festive cheer. (See my discussion of the Christmas scenes in Persuasion, Emma, and Mansfield Park.) We love Our Jane, and we love Our Christmas, but, really, it’s only the Gunderson-Melcon imagination, plus the financial exigencies of cultural programming, that unites the two.

Still, far be it from me to object to any injection of Austen into our national cultural life. I’ll be first in line for tickets if Miss Bennet and The Wickhams join the holiday rotation anywhere near me.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 3 2019 01:00PM

By now, contemporary updates of Pride and Prejudice are legion. On the page, we’ve had P&Ps set in the worlds of lawyers, rock stars, evangelical Christians, and Midwestern doctors, to name but a few. On screen, we’ve seen the story peopled with matchmaking families in India, confused singletons in England, committed Mormons in Utah, and dog-show aficionados in New York.

Nevertheless, Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta, which aired Saturday night on Lifetime, stands out from its predecessors in one important respect – and I don’t mean its all-African-American cast. No, what sets this version apart is that it’s the first P&P I’ve seen in which Mrs. Bennet is the heroine of the story.

Partly, this is by design: Tracy McMillan’s script casts Mrs. Bennet in the narrator role, assigning her a version of the famous first line of P&P and allowing her, via voiceover, to comment on the action and critique Elizabeth’s choices. As a result, Mrs. Bennet inherits the wisdom and omniscience that, on the page, belong to Jane Austen herself.

And partly, Mrs. Bennet’s centrality is the result of a happy accident: Jackée Harry -- whose matchmaking matriarch is, in this account, the author of a self-help marriage manual -- is by far the most engaging actor on screen, delivering lines and reaction shots with a gusto and humor that provide a much-needed jolt of energy to the often-perfunctory proceedings.

Fundamentally, however, Mrs. Bennet gains gravitas because McMillan considerably softens and sentimentalizes Austen’s original. Instead of P&P’s gallery of foolish, irresponsible, or despotic adults, McMillan gives us an older generation who, despite their foibles, can be counted on to offer bracing platitudes of the “don’t-be-afraid-to-love” variety when the moment of crisis arrives.

In this version, Wickham is not a callous seducer but a wayward youth who just needs some help to get onto the right path. Darcy breaks up Bingley’s romance not out of snobbishness, but because he fears his friend isn’t ready for the committed relationship Jane deserves. Charlotte marries Mr. Collins out of genuine affection, not spinsterish desperation. Even overbearing Aunt Catherine reconciles herself to the unfortunate Darcy-Elizabeth alliance before the end of the wedding, jovially linking arms with Mrs. Bennet on the way out of church.

Although elements of Jane Austen’s plot remain – Jane’s heartbreak, Lydia’s indiscretion, Darcy’s assistance – the broader storyline, involving something about real estate development, historic preservation, and Darcy’s campaign for a seat in Congress, barely gets going before it rushes to a confused resolution with nary a nod to context, plausibility, or character development. *

Missed opportunities abound. Mrs. Bennet’s marriage manual, a rich comic vein, is barely touched. Reginae Carter’s Lydia (piercings, tattoos, Tinder dates) has almost nothing to do.

And the marriage plot that forms the ostensible heart of the story is pretty anodyne: Tiffany Hines’ Lizzie Bennet, a community activist with plenty of moxie but apparently zero political savvy, is abrasive rather than witty, and Juan Antonio’s Darcy is stiff and unappealing. Together, they ignite fewer sparks than an eighth-grade science experiment.

By contrast, Harry’s scenes with her husband, Reverend Bennet (Reginald VelJohnson), who heads a black Baptist church, plausibly convey the affectionate familiarity of a long and happy marriage. When they spar over Mr. Collins (She: “A man like that doesn’t stay single for long.” He: “He’s been single for 40 years.”), they offer a glimpse of what a better movie might have looked like. Anyone up for a sequel starring these two?

* The problem may come down to time: By my estimate, something like a third of Lifetime’s two-hour broadcast slot was consumed by commercials. The final four-minute commercial break followed a six-minute slice of movie. It’s hard for even the best actors and most compelling script to develop any momentum under those conditions.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 30 2019 01:00PM

Sometimes, the Jane Austen mentions you find on the internet are seriously stupid. Other times, they’re just seriously weird.

This month, I happened across two examples of the latter:

* Tariffs and Tantrums: China’s state-controlled media has responded with defiance and ridicule to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to raise tariffs on Chinese products, reported the Associated Press.

"Pride makes it impossible for other people to love me, while prejudice makes it impossible for me to love others,” wrote the People’s Daily, the official publication of China’s Communist Party. “Today, a few American politicians are just like the characters that Austen assailed.”

Take that, all you critics who think Austen has nothing to say about politics and war!

* Extortion and Embarrassment: You may have gotten one: a scam email claiming that the sender has hacked into your computer and will disseminate webcam photos that show you masturbating to porn websites, unless you fork over a chunk of bitcoinage.

At first blush, the email can seem plausible, because the sender often mentions an email password that you may once have used. But it’s all a bluff: your password was probably compromised in a recent large-scale data breach, rather than obtained by a hacker with personal knowledge of your computer usage.

And why does this bit of malicious spam make it through your spam filter? Because scammers have come up with a nefarious method of evasion. “One tactic they use to avoid detection is to paste lines from Shakespeare or Jane Austen in invisible text in the email—a signal to the filters that there is mostly ‘good language’ in the email, helping it land in recipients’ in-boxes, rather than being blocked,” Fortune reports.

Which raises the question: why invisible text? Note to spammers and scammers: Nothing would cheer me up more than an email containing actual lines from Jane Austen. I might even pay a few bitcoins for that.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 23 2019 01:00PM

To a reader, books are an essential feature of any home. A concept taken rather literally by Dutch artists Jan Is De Man and Deef Feed, whose amazing trompe l’oeil mural has transformed the side a three-level apartment building in the Dutch city of Utrecht into. . . a bookcase.

De Man and Feed, who co-own a tattoo and piercing shop in the city, asked people in the neighborhood to nominate favorite books for the painted shelves, with only religious and political choices off-limits.

Since no book collection is complete without its Jane Austen, I’m happy to report that Pride and Prejudice made the cut. (It’s the pale blue book with gold accents on the bottom shelf, third from the right.)

The other English-language titles I could make out form an eclectic bunch: the novels The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and The World According to Garp, by John Irving; the autobiography of Keith Richards; historian Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind; and blogger Mark Manson’s self-help book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck. (Closeups of the books can be found here and here.)

De Man says the project has brought residents of the multicultural neighborhood and selfie-seeking visitors together through a shared love of books. Which is a beautiful idea, even if, these days, it sometimes seems like an optical illusion, too.

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