Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 19 2017 01:00PM

Fifty-three years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, while he could not fully define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”


Apparently, so do the wardens of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. And for them, the category includes Jane Austen fanfic.


In a case now pending in federal appeals court, a convicted murderer serving a life-without-parole sentence argues that the prison’s no-porn policy, under which his jailers refused to give him a number of items mailed to him by his mother, is unconstitutionally broad and vague. Among the rejected items were Renaissance art images, a book on Picasso and Matisse, a collection of erotic fantasy tales called Thrones of Desire – and Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition. *


I take no position on the merits of the case, but based on my skim of the excerpt available online, Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition has no merits of its own, even if it was written by a sometime bestselling author. (Although the book is credited to “Jane Austen and Annabella Bloom,” the “Note from One of the Authors” – guess which one? -- is signed by a writer with the comically appropriate name of Michelle Pillow.)


Taking a leaf from the eighty-percent-Austen playbook of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book seems to consist largely of Austen’s prose, studded with occasional not-very-good edits (Mr. Bennet’s “quick parts” become “a fast mind”) and saccharine interpolations (Jane Bennet, mooning over Mr. Bingley after the Meryton Assembly, “danced around the room, twirling in her long nightgown till it billowed about her legs.”) And lest we be in any doubt about where we’re headed, Elizabeth has barely glimpsed Darcy before she’s daydreaming about the “unmistakably mesmerizing shift of his hips beneath his jacket.”


What’s that? You want to know more about the sex scenes? I’m shocked – shocked! We’re discussing literature here!


Oh, all right. I can confirm that they exist. Lydia sneaks away from the Meryton Assembly for an assignation with a married man’s “turgid shaft,” and as Chapter 3 closes, Darcy is – ahem! – “t[aking] himself in hand” to thoughts of that distracting Bennet girl. (Not handsome enough to tempt him, indeed!)


I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether the book’s presence in the case might stem from one of those mistakes that your mom sometimes makes when confronted with the puzzling intricacies of Amazon. Turns out that the editor of Thrones of Desire, Mitzi Szereto, is the author of yet another sexed-up P&P -- Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts. Could it be that the prisoner-son is a Szereto fan who never even wanted the Wild and Wanton Edition?


Tell it to the judge, I guess.



* Thanks to Devoney Looser for posting this tidbit on Facebook.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 31 2016 01:00PM

In her novels and letters, Jane Austen does not mention Halloween, whose modern-day form – costumes, trick-or-treating, ghouls, pumpkins – evolved only gradually, from Celtic pre-history into the twentieth century and beyond. Needless to say, that hasn’t prevented contemporary Janeites from incorporating Our Author into their holiday traditions.


Exhibit A: Bustle, our favorite source of all Austen-related misinformation, recently offered up a feature on Jane Austen-inspired Halloween costumes. You know the drill: dress as Jane Austen, or as a Jane Austen heroine, or as a Jane Austen couple, or as a zombie in a Regency gown.


In keeping with Bustle’s sterling record of inaccuracy, a fair proportion of their costume suggestions are completely wrong for Austen’s period. Even I, a mere amateur when it comes to historical fashion, know that an ankle-length skirt with frilly blouse (suggested here as a Fanny Price costume) is an Edwardian look, not a Regency one. But with luck, you’ll be trick-or-treating in the dark and no one will notice.


Exhibit B: Once more unto Bustle! This time, it’s our destination for tutorials on Halloween makeup, including two inspired by Austen or her spinoffs. You can go for a “Pride and Prejudice Inspired” look, courtesy of an American named Goldie Starling, who deploys foundation, concealer, powder, eye shadow, mascara, lip liner and an eyelash curler in strenuous pursuit of a “natural” look.


Or check in with New Zealander Shannon Harris to learn how to make yourself resemble the revolting undead Regency lady with the skeletonized jaw and ripped throat on the famous cover of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Needless to say, this takes even more time, effort and product than looking natural does.


No doubt some of this advice would have come in handy in Madison, Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin’s Odyssey Project, which introduces non-traditional students to literature, history and philosophy, recently hosted a costumed fundraiser entitled “Night of the Living Humanities.”


Austen scholar Emily Auerbach, who directs the Odyssey Project, was still mulling her costume choices a few days before the event. “Last year, I was Emily Dickinson, but people seemed to think I was Princess Leia. It was an epic fail,” Auerbach told a local journalist. “This year, I think I’m going to go as Jane Austen, but I haven’t decided yet.”


No word on what Auerbach eventually decided. But if you wear an Austen-related costume tonight, post some pictures below. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 9 2016 01:00PM

It is one of my life’s small, poignant sorrows that I have not yet made it to the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, which by all accounts is really a blast. This year’s festival, the eighth, will take place July 15-17, and, alas, I’m going to miss it once again.


And as if I weren’t already sorry enough, comes this story about the delicious-sounding scones that will be featured during the festival weekend. The two winners were selected from among fifty-seven recipe-contest entries tested by a squad of Janeite bakers.


The names alone – Orange Vanilla Scone and English Toffee and Walnut Scone – are enough to set tastebuds a-watering, and I am already planning to try out the recipe helpfully included with the news article. My local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America is planning a group viewing of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, now that it’s out on DVD, and I think English Toffee Scones may be the perfect accompaniment to Regency horror-movie bloodshed.


But why no second scone recipe? I guess you have to go to the festival. Which I hope to do next year.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 28 2016 01:00PM

We fans of Jane Austen movie adaptations have had kind of a dry spell for the last few years.


We’ve watched poor Sally Hawkins gallop through the streets of Bath, in the travesty that was the 2007 Persuasion. We’ve goggled at the utterly miscast cleavage of Billie Piper in the 2007 Mansfield Park. We’ve endured Austenland, survived Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (OK, I admit I haven’t actually seen that one yet – waiting for the DVD), and sat through – God help us – Unleashing Mr. Darcy.


So I think we really deserve to have Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, the first-ever screen adaptation of Lady Susan, be excellent. Early reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival (for instance, here) have been very positive, and now comes this trailer.


Squee! Looks ve-e-ry promising! Dry spell may be over!


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 11 2016 04:37PM

You remember 1995, right? The beginning of that halcyon eighteen-month stretch during which six Jane Austen film adaptations, ranging in quality from pretty good to totally classic, were released on big and small screens? Happy days.


Well, it’s beginning to look like happy days might be here again. As I reported previously, already this year we’ve seen the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan; the Hallmark Channel screening of Unleashing Mr. Darcy, based on a fan fiction update of Pride and Prejudice; and, just last weekend, the release of the movie version of the best-selling 2009 mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.


And now comes word that a UK production company is getting ready to shoot a film based on Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death. Charlotte Rampling, currently up for a Best Actress Oscar, will star as Lady Denham. This is great news: except for the extremely uneven web adaptation Welcome to Sanditon, the sophomore-slump effort of the folks who brought us the fabulous Lizzie Bennet Diaries, no one has ever tried to film Sanditon, whose seventy-five-ish pages tantalize with the promise of another great novel.


So far, it must be said, this current film boomlet hasn’t lived up to the high standard set by its1995-97 predecessor, which included the immortal Clueless, the iconic Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice, and the sublime Emma Thompson/Ang Lee Sense and Sensibility. While Love and Friendship has earned excellent reviews, P&P&Z got a decidedly mixed reception and looks to be a financial failure. I haven’t seen either of those yet, but I can attest that Unleashing Mr. Darcy was execrable.


Still: Sanditon! Can’t wait. And as long as we’re mining lesser-known Jane Austen, do I have any takers for The Watsons? This seems like the time to do it.


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