Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 13 2020 01:00PM

In case you were wondering how high the bar for Janeite gift-giving could be set, wonder no longer: Josh Jordan, a twenty-nine-year-old graphic designer from the UK, has bested the competition so thoroughly that everyone else might as well go home.

Jordan’s girlfriend of two years, Sophie Jackson, is such a rabid Janeite that a few years ago, she and a friend hosted a podcast, The Bennet Edit, that featured discussion of virtually every screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

What do you give someone like that for a second-anniversary gift? Jordan created a Jane Austen Monopoly set, featuring locations from the novels (Pemberley claims the Boardwalk spot, natch), stables subbing for railroads, 3-D-printed cottages and mansions in place of houses and hotels, and a host of other charming details. The whole set fits inside an old wooden writing box restored by Jordan’s father.

Jordan himself is not a Janeite – indeed, he hasn’t read any of the novels, he told a local reporter – so he relied on online research to figure out which locations to include and how to price them. He even managed to maintain the surprise while quarantining with Jackson in a single room at his grandparents’ home.

Needless to say, Jane Austen Twitter was overcome with admiration, not to mention covetousness, the moment Jackson posted pictures of her gift. In between urging her to marry the guy already, many commenters suggested that he patent his game and mass-produce it for sale.

Sadly, those pesky intellectual property laws likely make this impossible, since Hasbro owns and licenses Monopoly’s trademarks, and I suspect that Janeites, passionate though we are, don’t constitute a large enough market to make this project worth Hasbro’s while. But I can’t wait to see what Jordan comes up with for a third-anniversary gift.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 22 2020 01:00PM

For many of us, coronavirus quarantine has proved to be the perfect moment to reread Jane Austen. (Although, really, is there ever a bad moment to reread Jane Austen?) Just in case the novels themselves haven’t imbued your days with enough of that old-time Regency feeling, however, the internet has recently suggested some ways to bring a Janeite flavor to the activities that have been filling the hours for so many of us. Herewith, a roundup:

* Homeschooling: Students in a business law class at Toronto’s Ryerson University can enhance their studying with a set of online review materials at the Course Hero website. Relevant for our purposes: the sad tale of Carlos, a rare-books dealer who arranges to buy Yasmeen’s first edition of Pride and Prejudice for $20,000, only to have her renege on the deal in hopes of seeing the book’s value increase over time.

Budding lawyers may be most concerned about which multiple-choice answer most accurately calculates the damages Carlos could recover in a breach-of-contract lawsuit. We Janeites will simply congratulate Yasmeen on realizing that these days, a P&P first edition could be worth a lot more than $20,000 – and, in any case, is priceless.

* Movie-viewing: Quarantine brought us an early chance to watch the latest film adaptation of Emma on our home screens. Coming soon, if we’re lucky: another Jane Austen movie!

Two years ago, when word of Modern Persuasion first surfaced, I had my doubts about the viability of this version, which stars Alicia Witt in a “contemporary tale about a New York workaholic whose firm is hired by an old flame.” I still have those doubts, but four months without setting foot in a movie theater have left me ready (well, even readier than usual) to watch anything – including this rom-com, which just acquired a distributor and is screening this week at the Cannes Film Festival’s virtual market. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t arrive on my screen quickly enough.

* Game-playing: Tired of Scrabble, Boggle, Clue and cards? Luckily, the Jane Austen Summer Program – the academic-except-more-fun-than-that sympoisum usually, but not this year, held in mid-June at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – has an alternative: Find Mr. Darcy, or at least a life-size Colin Firth cutout, which is the next best thing.

In essence, the game is a mildly entertaining online Austen trivia quiz that won’t pose much challenge to any knowledgeable Janeite. But it does give you the chance to hopscotch around a map of England while ogling still photos of attractive actors from Austen screen adaptations. Beats another round of Crazy Eights.

* Drinking: In the absence of a coronavirus vaccine, health experts agree that bars remain risky venues. The only solution? Keep drinking at home. In a recent feature pairing cocktail recipes with literary classics, South Sound, a lifestyle magazine covering southwest Washington State, recommends accompanying a reading of Emma with a “flirtatious and fruity" pink cocktail consisting of white wine, pisco, lime juice, and raspberry syrup. I would have thought Donwell Abbey strawberries a more appropriate choice for Emma, but I guess these days we can't afford to be picky.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2020 01:00PM

When I read fanfiction that updates Jane Austen’s stories to contemporary settings, I often find myself exasperated by the names. Specifically, by the use of Jane Austen’s character names with no acknowledgment that, here in the twenty-first century, they are bound to ring some bells.

I mean, really: If you were a lawyer named Elizabeth Bennet practicing before a judge named Fitzwilliam Darcy, or an aspiring rock musician named Elizabeth Bennet touring with a guitar god named Fitzwilliam Darcy, or even a magazine writer named Liz Bennet exchanging icy banter with a neurosurgeon named Fitzwilliam Darcy, wouldn’t you expect some giggles from your friends? Some irritating wink-wink-nudge-nudge about how you two must be meant for each other? Some off-hand references to Colin Firth’s wet shirt?

But no—typically, these stories play out in a Bizzaroworld identical to our own in every particular except for the strange, universal amnesia about a book called Pride and Prejudice.

And so I greatly enjoyed a recent first-person account on the British news website by a young journalist and consultant named Elizabeth Bennett. With a marked lack of poetic justice, this Lizzy—actually, she goes by Biz--is neither a Janeite herself nor the daughter of Janeites: Born on the cusp of contemporary Austenmania, just five years before the airing of the BBC’s iconic P&P, she was named for relatives, rather than for Our Heroine.

As a fifteen-year-old high school student, she read the novel featuring her namesake for the first and only time. “The jokes from classmates about Mr. Darcy got a little tiresome,” she admits. On the other hand, when she went to a Barcelona police station to process required working papers, the officer in charge turned out to be a Janeite, and Bennett got her forms stamped in record time. Karma, I guess.

The Bennett story is part of a Metro series about living with a celebrity’s name. Be sure to check out the hilarious video entry from April, “Hello, my name is. . . Jane Austin,” featuring a middle-aged woman whose parents considered naming her Beverley or Chantelle but decided to go for something less. . . flashy.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s power to console during times of trauma is an established trope by now: cue mention of how British authorities prescribed her to shellshocked soldiers during World War I.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Medicinal Austen should have a role to play in our current traumatic times, as something of an inspiration for a technologically updated version of that shellshock prescription.

According to the British news website, the three adult sons of coronavirus patient Geoff Woolf, a seventy-three-year-old lawyer, knew their father would need plenty of reading material to sustain him during a long, grueling hospital stay that has included two months on a ventilator, with no visitors allowed.

His sons bought Woolf a Kindle e-reader to keep him going and, as his condition worsened last month and they were finally allowed to see him, played the audiobook they knew would mean the most to him: Pride and Prejudice.

"This was the book Dad always read when he was ill and wanted to feel some comfort," twenty-eight-year-old Sam Woolf, an actor who has performed audiobooks, told the news site. "We hope he can hear it. There's evidence to suggest words can sometimes get through to unconscious patients. He had a little movement and has looked like he may have been reacting to it."

The staff at their father’s London hospital thought other virus-isolated patients would benefit from the same stimulation, and so the Woolf brothers have launched an effort to supply more recovering virus patients with audiobook-equipped Kindles. Partnering with the audiobook company Audible, they’ve obtained one hundred and fifty appropriately sanitized devices for four hospitals, along with single-use earphones donated by British Airways.

Now two of the Woolf sons hope to expand the effort to other British cities, with the help of a GoFundMe appeal that has already raised almost all of its £5,000 goal (about $6,200). They’re calling the project Books for Dad, in tribute to the man who read to them when they were children and taught them to love words.

Sadly, Geoff Woolf is unlikely to survive, but if Books for Dad succeeds in helping other patients, his children think, the loss of this Janeite won’t be in vain. "We wanted something positive to come from what's happened to Dad, a kind of legacy," Sam Woolf says.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2020 01:00PM

Nothing beats hearing a soothing, familiar voice read an engrossing story aloud. I loved the read-aloud experience when I was a child doing the listening, and I loved it again as a parent sharing books, and closeness, with my children.

Perhaps it’s the uncertainty of coronavirus quarantine that makes us yearn for the comforting rituals of childhood: baking bread, doing jigsaw puzzles, playing board games. And, for Janeites, listening to one of our favorite actors read to us from one of our favorite books.

Earlier this spring, the Anglo-American actor Jennifer Ehle, best known to Janeites for playing Elizabeth Bennet in the iconic 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, posted an Instagram video of herself in at-home mode – hair down, comfy-looking zippered fleece top, striped curtains visible in the background – reading aloud the first two chapters of -- you guessed it -- Pride and Prejudice.

Then she kept going – a couple of chapters at a time, sometimes for only six or seven minutes, sometimes for as long as forty-five; sometimes at home, sometimes in her car. Once in a while, she sipped from a mug, or accidentally dropped her phone, or adorably bobbled a long word. Sometimes she thanked her viewers for “sheltering with me” or took a moment to acknowledge those still working in essential jobs.

Eventually, she posted everything on a dedicated YouTube channel – a cumulative total of forty-four episodes, running to about fifteen hours of reading time, or some two or three hours more than most of Audible’s two-dozen-plus renditions of the book. The whole novel is now available: In Ehle's reading, Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters just last weekend.

Ehle reads beautifully, of course, but she isn’t offering a polished-to-a-high-gloss, professional recording; for that, you’re better off choosing an Audible. Instead, she’s giving us something closer to that childhood experience of cocooning at home, wrapped in your blankie, while a parent’s soothing murmur washes over you.

It’s warm and reassuring. Or, as Ehle herself says at the conclusion of Part 44, moments after reading the final lines of Austen’s novel: “That was time well-spent.”

With no end to quarantine in sight, we could use more warmth and reassurance. Luckily, Austen wrote five other books! Hey, Jennifer: May I suggest Persuasion next?

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