Deborah Yaffe



By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 24 2020 01:00PM

Twenty-five years ago today, the BBC’s beloved adaptation of Pride and Prejudice began airing on UK TV. By the time the show made its way to American airwaves a few months later, it was already a phenomenon.

And now it’s dessert.

Earlier this month, the British TV channel Drama launched its latest “Jane Austen Season” – i.e., three Sunday-night screenings of popular Austen adaptations -- by commissioning a six-foot-high sponge-cake likeness of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy and parking it on the lawn at Lyme Park, the stately home that played Pemberley in the adaptation.

Created by cake designer Michelle Wibowo, the confection exhibits remarkable attention to detail (those sideburns! That draped linen!), even if it portrays its Darcy/Firth in a fully dressed state, rather than the more famous damp and disheveled.

The Drama channel seems to make a habit of hosting these Jane Austen seasons and planning elaborate publicity stunts to launch them: The 2017 version was an expert historical reconstruction of What Mr. Darcy Would Really Have Looked Like (spoiler: not as hunky as Colin Firth).

Yes, it’s all a bit silly. But it’s also an amazing testimony to the pop-culture staying-power of this particular mini-series. Most TV, even the expensive, beautifully costumed, high-production-values kind, is forgotten long before we get around to vacuuming the stray popcorn kernels out of the couch cushions. But not this one. Twenty-five years later, we’re still ready to dig in. Pass me a fork.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 3 2020 01:00PM

Dispiriting as the last six months have been, Janeites have encountered some notable silver linings in the gloomy cloud cover. We’ve been treated to several virtual Jane Austen festivals, an online production of Laura Wade’s acclaimed adaptation of The Watsons, even a Zoom-enabled pub quiz.

Next up is “Pride and Prejudice: A Virtual Play,” produced by Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre, a thirty-eight-year old company that specializes in theatrical adaptations of literary works. Lifeline has done P&P three times before, most recently in its 2011-12 season, but this version appears to be a special pandemic edition adapted to the constraints of Zoom and social distancing.

Beginning on September 10, the show will be available for viewing over four weekends in September and October; ticket buyers can watch as often as they like from Thursday through Sunday of the chosen weekend. Although the suggested ticket price is $20 per household, viewers are invited to pay whatever they wish.

The forty-five-second trailer available online gives few clues to the nature of the adaptation, although the actors’ contemporary clothes and ubiquitous cell phones suggest a modern-day update rather than a period drama. No complaints here—I love a good modern-day Jane Austen update! Bring on the silver linings!

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 27 2020 01:00PM

By now, we would all be happy to consign 2020 to the trash bin of history. Let’s reboot! Remake! Recycle and replace!

Alas, another four months must pass before we can turn in this awful year for an upgrade. But the same spirit of renovation is afoot in Greater Austenland, as we await several Austen-themed projects that represent not so much a break with Janeite history as a refurbishment thereof:

* Has your DVD of the iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, wet shirt – become a tad battered after decades of (over) use? Then you’re in luck: The BritBox streaming service is marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beloved BBC adaptation by offering a remastered edition of the series “in stunning 4K,” the ultra-high-definition TV standard.

Imagine: an even crisper version of Colin Firth’s . . . eyes! The remastered P&P will begin streaming on September 25.

* Last year, rumor had it that we might get a new TV show based on Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s immortal 1995 movie, which updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. And now it seems the project is moving along: The showbiz bible Variety reports that NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service has signed on to carry the as-yet-untitled series.

Luckily for those of us who consider Clueless a perfect creation that should be messed with around the time hell needs a Zamboni, this new version is projected as a significant departure: Instead of focusing on Cher, the well-meaning but officious Emma Woodhouse avatar, it will center on Dionne, Cher’s wisecracking, fashion-forward best friend. I’m still skeptical, but hey: at this point, anything new, or even new-ish, sounds good to me.

* The best-Mr.-Darcy debates typically boil down to Colin Firth (1995) v. Matthew Macfadyen (2005), with small but enthusiastic voting blocs supporting dark-horse candidates like Laurence Olivier (1940), David Rintoul (1980), or Elliot Cowan (2008).

And then there’s Soccer the Dog.

Soccer, a Jack Russell Terrier, is better known as Wishbone, the Walter Mitty-ish protagonist of a much-loved 1995-97 PBS children’s series. In each of the show’s fifty half-hour episodes, Wishbone imagines himself as the hero of a classic work of literature whose themes resonate with the travails of his teenaged owner.

The show dramatized works by dozens of famous writers, from Homer to H.G. Wells; Austen was represented twice, with Wishbone playing Mr. Darcy in the 1995 episode “Furst Impressions” (start watching here) and Henry Tilney in the 1997 episode “Pup Fiction” (start watching here).

So Janeites were among the fans who celebrated the news earlier this summer that a Wishbone feature film is in the works, spearheaded by Peter Farrelly, the writer/director who won Oscars in 2018 for Green Book. (Alas, the new movie won’t star Soccer, who moved on to the big kennel in the sky back in 2001.) No word yet on whether the script is likely to riff on another Austen novel, but – surely they wouldn’t disappoint us?

Just to make sure, let’s help them out with some brainstorming. “Mansfield Bark,” anyone? Wishbone, playing the role of Henry Crawford, woos Fanny and ruins Maria. But in the end, his own heart is won when he meets Pug, Lady Bertram’s gender-fluid pet, and, in a risqué departure for a kids’ show, fathers a litter of puppies. As Wishbone leaves his true love behind in the literary past and heads wistfully back to his own time—shades of Outlander here--Fanny Price is seen cuddling the runt, her wedding present from her indolent aunt.

Yes, I think it has potential. Let’s take a meeting in 2021.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 17 2020 01:00PM

Earlier this summer, it looked like COVID would take the life of a seventy-three-year-old British lawyer named Geoff Woolf. During his long, lonely hospital stay, which included months on a ventilator, his adult sons had tried to keep him stimulated with audiobooks, especially one longtime favorite: Pride and Prejudice.

But along the way, Woolf suffered a massive virus-induced stroke, and his prospects seemed dim; he remained in a coma even after coming off the ventilator, and doctors told his children that it was time to say goodbye. His sons had begun imagining a legacy that would include Books for Dad, a venture dedicated to providing other recovering COVID patients with audiobooks.

To the astonishment of his medical team, however, Woolf eventually woke up, and earlier this month he was released from the hospital after a 127-day stay. For a lot of that time, Jane Austen was on hand to assist his recovery.

“After he started to wake up, he was obviously quite confused. Pride and Prejudice was playing on repeat, and he wouldn’t accept being switched onto anything else,” his son Nicky Woolf, a journalist, told a BBC radio show (story begins at 36:36). “He’s now able to basically recite the whole thing from memory.”

Geoff can’t remember his coma, so it’s unclear how much Austen he absorbed while he was unconscious.

“I like the idea that that was the world that his mind could go to—certainly, rather than the reality of what was happening,” said another Woolf son, Sam, an actor. “Better to be in a fiction, for sure.”

Books for Dad is moving ahead, with the brothers hoping to hand out five thousand audiobook-equipped Kindle e-readers and expand into one new hospital a week for the next twenty-five to thirty weeks.

Meanwhile, Geoff’s audiobook diet has diversified: As he tackles the hard work of recovering from his stroke, he’s now listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen has been used and abused in so many different ways by now, pressed into service to sell everything from perfume to romance novels to white supremacy, that you’d think nothing could surprise us Janeites.

And yet I did find it a bit of a shock to learn about a recent Australian sexual harassment suit in which Austen was invoked – to defend the harasser.

Back in 2015-16, a solicitor named Owen Hughes, the principal of a small law firm in the Australian state of New South Wales, subjected a paralegal named Catherine Hill to an onslaught of unwanted advances.

He sent her frequent emails – some of them in “poor French,” according to a legal ruling -- professing his love and suggesting romance. In the office, he stood in her doorway, refusing to move until she supplied him with hugs. And on a business trip, he twice entered her bedroom – once surprising her as she returned from a shower wrapped only in a towel, and once waiting on her mattress, clad in an undershirt and boxer shorts. (On that occasion, he declined to leave until she gave him – yes – a hug.) To top it all off, he threatened to undermine her professional training if she reported his bad behavior.

Eventually, the poor woman quit and sued, winning $170,000 in damages last year. Her sleazeball boss appealed, losing his case late last month in a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel.

His defense? His behavior couldn’t be sexual harassment because it wasn’t sexual; it consisted merely of honorable requests for love and affection, just like Mr. Darcy’s advances to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. (Yes, the harasser literally compared himself to Mr. Darcy.)

The judges in the case were, understandably, incredulous at this argument. “I reject the submission of Senior Counsel for the Appellant that these were the actions of a Mr. Darcy,” appeals court Justice Nye Perram wrote in rejecting Hughes’ appeal. “The facts of this case are about as far from a Jane Austen novel as it is possible to be.”

Although I’m delighted to see a wronged woman winning her day in court, I have to quibble slightly with Justice Perram’s formulation, which betrays a narrow understanding of the works of Our Author.

It’s certainly true that Hughes is no Mr. Darcy, but what about Mr. Collins, who initially refuses to accept that Elizabeth’s no means no? Or Mr. Elton with Emma: “her hand seized -- her attention demanded”? Or Henry Crawford, intent on making “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart,” regardless of Fanny's preferences in the matter?

Jane Austen knew this type of man. The facts of Hughes’ creepy coerciveness aren’t actually all that far from an Austen novel. Hughes' mistake came in identifying himself with the hero.

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