Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 9 2019 02:00PM

As the holidays approach, you may be bracing for the arrival of that winter perennial, the fruitcake -- baked months earlier, soaked in alcohol, and stashed in a cupboard until gift-giving time.


Here in my little corner of the Janeite universe, I’ve got a few well-preserved morsels of my own: incidental Austen mentions that I’ve been saving up all fall, waiting for the right moment to unwrap the cheesecloth and present them to you. Feel free to sip from a snifter of aromatic brandy as you read.


* Back in September, a Bangladeshi soap opera based on Pride and Prejudice aired its two hundredth (!) episode. The show, Man Obhiman, tells the story of two sisters whose “quest for love creates a series of complications in their lives.” (Doesn’t it always?)


The show airs six nights a week and has been running since January, so for all I know, it may well have passed its three hundredth episode by now. Meanwhile, Google’s Bengali translator isn’t up to the job of figuring out what the title means, so I welcome reader input.


* A young Missouri woman with a Pride and Prejudice obsession and an Austen tattoo – “most ardently,” inked on her right arm – hopes to earn a doctorate and teach literature in college. It’s news because the woman, Abigail Morrall, has a genetic illness called spinal muscular atrophy that seemed likely to kill her in childhood.


Recently, however, a new drug gave her renewed hope for the future, and now she looks forward to a full life. “My favorite place to be in this entire world is in a literature classroom at a university,” she told the University of Missouri’s crack PR team, which fed the story to a local TV station. Here’s hoping -- most ardently! -- that she gets to have the life she wants.


* From time to time, an obituary makes you bitterly regret the passing of a fabulous character you never had the chance to meet. Such was my reaction to the death earlier this year, at age 91, of Elizabeth Burchfield (née Elizabeth Austen Knight), a retired publicist for Oxford University Press and a descendant of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward.


Burchfield, a New Zealander who spent most of her long life in England, was a green-eyed, auburn-haired book-lover who married, in middle age, Robert Burchfield, described in the London Times’ obituary as a “renowned lexicographer and the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.”


“At a home in Oxfordshire filled with thousands of books, including their fine collection of works from New Zealand. . . . Bob and Elizabeth jousted with guests over words, their provenance and their pronunciation,” the article goes on to say.


Elizabeth gave her eight step-grandchildren books as gifts, employing a careful record-keeping system to ensure no one ever got a duplicate. Included with each gift was a Post-It note describing the book’s virtues.


And in old age “she wrote crisp letters to the press, invariably involving the usage of English,” the obituary notes. “In The Spectator in 2013, for instance, Elizabeth observed: ‘Sir: Dot Wordsworth writes about blazers and jackets. I was always led to believe that gentlemen wore coats; potatoes had jackets.’ ”


OK, they had me at “home filled with thousands of books,” but really – doesn’t she sound irresistible?



By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 11 2019 02:00PM

By now, Jane Austen has made so many top-novel lists that it’s hard to come up with anything new to say when she makes yet another one. (Indeed, you’ll note from the links that half the time I can’t even come up with an original headline.)


But it’s always entertaining when Our Jane strays into unexpected company, as she does on the BBC’s latest Book List Designed To Court Controversy And Thus Pump Up Viewership. Oh, sorry – I meant the BBC’s list of “100 Novels That Shaped Our World.”


Apparently, the network decided to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, arguably the first English novel, by putting together a panel of writers and critics and inviting them “to choose 100 genre-busting novels that have had an impact on their lives,” divided among ten categories with titles such as “Adventure” and “Identity.”


Pride and Prejudice has been placed in the “Love, Sex & Romance” category, even though it could surely have qualified for “Coming of Age,” “Class & Society,” “Family & Friendship,” or even “Rule Breakers.” But I will not cavil, because by putting P&P here, the listmakers have created a delicious juxtaposition.


Yes, Austen’s novel of manners, more or less synonymous in the popular mind with buttoned-up propriety, is right next to Riders, Jilly Cooper’s steamy 1985 bestseller set in the world of competitive show-jumping.


I have not read Riders, although I hear it’s pretty good, at least as voluminous, sex-filled, guilty-pleasure romance novels go. I have, however, seen its cover. It is a classic of the snarky-yet-sexy genre, deserving of an entire category all to itself. It shows a male hand resting on a shapely, jodhpurs-clad female posterior. Oh, and there’s a riding crop. It is not a cover that will likely ever make you think of Jane Austen.


Really, this whole list is worth it just for reminding me of that cover. Sometimes I miss the '80s.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 10 2019 01:00PM

In David Lodge’s classic 1975 academic novel Changing Places, the English-professor characters discuss a game of intellectual chicken called Humiliation. The rules are simple: Name a book you’ve never read, and earn a point for every person in the group who has. The more glaringly unusual the gap in your reading, the higher your likely score – but the greater your helping of the titular state of mortification. *


Judging from a recent poll conducted by the British TV channel Sky Arts, many Brits could rack up serious Humiliation points, if only they were willing to tell the truth. Among the two thousand people surveyed, more than half admitted to having lied about their reading, falsely claiming to have finished books they had barely cracked open.


Fifth on the list of twenty most-fibbed-about classics: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, lied about by eight percent of those surveyed. Austen is in good company, outranked by only the Bible (twelve percent), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (ten percent), Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (ten percent), and George Orwell’s 1984 (nine percent).


"We say we are a nation of readers,” Sky Arts director Phil Edgar-Jones told the Independent newspaper, “but it turns out we're also a nation of fibbers when it comes to getting stuck into a book."


The reasons for lying were predictable: The fibbers wanted to look smarter or to join a literary conversation. In pursuit of these goals, they placed unread classics on their bookshelves, created social media photos of themselves with highbrow tomes in hand, or even memorized famous quotations. To conceal their ignorance of important details, they relied on screen adaptations or claimed to have finished books so long ago that their memories were fuzzy.


For many of the books on the list, it’s not hard to see why would-be readers preferred to lie rather than buckle down and turn those pages. Some of the books are very long and/or very difficult: Joyce’s Ulysses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.


Other books on the list, while not so long and hard, are the kind of trendy non-fiction bestsellers that come up often at cocktail parties: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Read a couple of reviews, and it’s probably not hard to discuss these books as if you’ve read them.


But a few items on the list leave me truly mystified. Why lie about reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island? It’s short, thrilling, and so easy to read that it’s a classic of children’s literature. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea each run to less than two hundred pages. Far from being highbrow esoterica, To Kill a Mockingbird is (allegedly) America’s favorite book.


And what to make of P&P’s presence on this list? It’s not all that long or, in my humble opinion, all that hard. I’d say the same about Nabokov’s Lolita and Dickens’ Great Expectations, two other favorite books of mine that made the most-lied-about list. I realize that many readers struggle with older prose styles, but really – give these a try!


Rather than feeling aggrieved on my favorite authors’ behalf, however, I will strive to feel smug instead. Obviously, if people seem compelled to lie about reading these books, mastery of their contents must constitute some kind of cultural touchstone, a Good Housekeeping seal of intellectual approval. And – nyah, nyah! -- I’ve read these books! I don’t have to lie!


OK, fine. Short as it is, I haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea. Ditto for Gladwell, Hawking, Hariri, and Rand. Not gonna lie. Could we just talk about Jane Austen instead?



* Lodge’s relevant passages are excerpted by retired English professor Robin Bates here, on a blog delightfully titled Better Living Through Beowulf.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 7 2019 01:00PM

I recognize that not everyone craves another Jane Austen-themed screen drama.


Some may have balked at the all! sex! all! the! time! hype surrounding Sanditon, the British TV series based on the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, which wraps up its eight-part UK run on Sunday night. Others may have reached saturation point earlier, with last year’s onslaught of terrible Austen-influenced Hallmark movies, or with the 2016 release of the appallingly bad Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For still others, the aversion may go back decades – perhaps to the 1940 P&P adaptation that turned Lady Catherine de Bourgh into an old softie.


For the rest of us, however – those who will see anything, no matter how dubious, as long as a savvy marketer has slapped a Jane Austen label on it – I’ve got news of two planned Austen-ish projects.


--A contemporary update of Pride and Prejudice--wait, don’t fall asleep yet: I promise this is a little bit different—is coming to a cellphone near you.


The American actor and comedian Joel Kim Booster is writing the series -- Trip, set on the gay mecca of Fire Island, New York -- for the streaming platform Quibi, which serves up its dramas in ten-minute-long episodes (Quibi = quick bites) designed to be consumed via phone.


“The story centers around two best friends who set out to have a legendary week-long summer vacation with the help of cheap rosé and a cadre of eclectic friends,” explains the Hollywood news site Deadline. I guess we’ll have to wait for the show – no release date announced yet -- to find out if those besties are Jane and Elizabeth, or Darcy and Bingley.


As the LGBT+ site Pink News notes, this is not the first gay P&P: the 2017 movie Before the Fall, which I have yet to see, centered on a male-male romance. And that’s not even counting fanfic like Ann Herendeen's Pride/Prejudice, which gives both Darcy and Elizabeth same-sex interests.


I hate watching video on my phone – that’s one way you know I’m old – and I haven’t seen Booster’s earlier TV work. But he is the author of a sweet and wistful 2018 piece about the resonance of Austen’s work for gay readers. Plus, a savvy marketer has already slapped a Jane Austen label on Trip. So you know I’ll be watching.


--We Janeites do not owe our name to Rudyard Kipling’s 1924 short story “The Janeites”; the term was actually coined thirty years earlier by the Victorian literary critic George Saintsbury.


Still, Kipling’s oddly affecting tale of soldier-readers struggling to hold onto their sanity in the trenches of World War I marks a milestone in the popularization of the term. And so it’s intriguing to hear that a young Australian director is trying to raise money for a film based on Kipling’s story.


The project’s Indiegogo site doesn’t make clear whether the projected film would be a short or a feature, although given the sums involved, a short seems most likely. Director Toby Morris’s previous work seems to consist of music videos, commercial work, and shorts. And twelve days into the thirty-day campaign, fundraising is off to a slow start, with only $34 of a hoped-for $20,000 raised. (An earlier campaign raised $1,600, falling far short of its target; apparently Morris and producer Sean O'Reilly are trying again.)


I’m wishing them well this time around. As far as I know, "The Janeites" has never been filmed; this really would be an Austen screen drama we haven’t seen before.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 23 2019 01:00PM

See that headline? The one right above this blog post? I’m kind of proud of it. Doesn’t it totally sound like it could be the title of a new Hallmark Christmas movie?


Which is appropriate, since the mystery in question concerns the strange disappearance of a Jane Austen-themed movie from the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” schedule.


“Countdown to Christmas,” now in its tenth year, is Hallmark’s annual saccharine-laced marathon of cookie-baking, hot-chocolate-drinking, snowball-tossing, small-town-holiday-visiting made-for-TV romcoms, which begins airing right before Halloween and stretches on until a few days before New Year’s.


Last year, as blog readers will recall, “Countdown to Christmas” included not one but two nominally Pride and Prejudice-inspired movies, although in both cases fidelity to Jane Austen’s original was pretty much nil. So when I learned recently that Hallmark planned to include a new Austen-themed outing this year, my expectations were low.


They got lower when I learned that this year’s offering, Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, was apparently based on a book by Melissa de la Cruz, the author of the stupendously terrible Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, allegedly the inspiration for one of last year’s movies.


And then things got a little odd.


The buzz for Sense, Sensibility and Snowmen began over the summer, when Entertainment Tonight reported that the movie would star Erin Krakow, who plays the protagonist in Hallmark’s beloved period drama When Calls the Heart, set in the Canadian West in the early twentieth century.


In June, de la Cruz – who actually hasn’t published a book called Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen; maybe she just worked on the screenplay? -- tweeted about the cast. In July, Krakow tweeted pictures from the set. A couple of weeks ago, the movie was all set to air on November 27 – at least according to Passion for Savings, a thrifty-living website, which posted the full "Countdown to Christmas" schedule, along with a visual of Hallmark’s own suitable-for-printing one-page version, featuring a photo of an adorable little dog wearing a red scarf.


But last week, when I went to the Hallmark Channel’s website and found my own copy of that printable schedule with the cute little doggie, SS&S was nowhere to be seen, its slot on the roster apparently taken by something called Christmas Under the Stars. Although air dates had changed for a number of films since the posting of the earlier schedule, Triple S was the only one of the twenty-four that had vanished entirely.


Hmm. Was the movie not finished in time? Was its tale of party-planner sisters named Ella and Marianne who tangle with an irascible toy-company CEO named Edward insufficiently faithful to Jane Austen? (OK, probably not that.) Did the finished version fail to meet the standards of excellence expected of a Hallmark Christmas movie? (Stop laughing!)


I emailed Hallmark to see if they’ll tell me. Meanwhile, we’ll just have to hope – if that’s the right word – that the movie turns up sometime later on the Hallmark schedule.


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