Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 30 2019 02:00PM

Now this is a community event I can get behind.

Over the weekend of January 10-12, the city of Modesto in California’s Central Valley is hosting an all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time event called, naturally, JaneCon.

The centerpiece of the weekend is the local opera company’s two performances of Mansfield Park, British composer Jonathan Dove’s operatic adaptation of the novel. Blog readers will recall that this 2011 piece, originally written for two pianists performing on a single instrument, had its American professional premiere in Indiana in 2016; the Modesto version is being billed as the first U.S. production of an orchestrated version.

But the opera is only one element of the weekend, which will also include a couple of costume parades, a showing of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, country dance lessons, a Regency arcade with vendors and booths, and a series of talks on everything from Regency clothing to the great Firth v. Macfadyen Darcy debate.

Plans call for JaneCon to be the first in a series of annual opera-and-literature tie-ins, via a program called Story Into Song. Sounds like yet another reason to visit California in January.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 6 2019 01:00PM

Some weeks, the Austen-related news tidbits that come my way are scattered and disparate, lacking any unifying theme. And then there’s last week:

* E.L. James, author of the phenomenally popular and extraordinarily badly written Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, is a Janeite. Or so we learn from her recent interview with the Arizona Republic, undertaken to promote her new novel, the first not to feature the brooding, insanely sexy twenty-something billionaire Christian Grey and his fetish for handcuffs, whips, and spankings.

Naming romance writers who influenced her, James lists the Brit Jilly Cooper and the Americans Catherine Coulter, Brenda Joyce, Laura Kinsale, Johanna Lindsey, and Judith McNaught. And then there’s this: “I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, and I would say that Emma is one of my favorite books.”

Emma is a nuanced, exquisitely written exploration of a woman’s coming-of-age during a year of near-plotless daily life in an English village. At first blush, it’s hard to think of a book less like the overwrought Fifty Shades trilogy, whose event-packed narrative careens from Seattle to Aspen to the French Riviera and features a deranged stalker, a revenge plot, an arson, a helicopter crash, a car chase, a kidnapping, and lots and lots (and lots) of explicit sex, much of it kinky.

But maybe I’m not thinking broadly enough. Influence is a subtle thing, after all. Perhaps Mr. Knightley’s frequent chastisement of Emma for her bad behavior bears more resemblance to Christian Grey’s erotic spankings than I’ve realized. (Badly done, indeed! Remind me again of our safe word?) After all, Jane Austen never does tell us what goes on during that seaside honeymoon. . .

* Back in the day, the Republic of Pemberley forbade the denizens of its late, lamented discussion boards from commenting on the personal lives of actors in Jane Austen adaptations. (Presumably, this rule was designed to scotch gossip about the romance between Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, who dated briefly while starring opposite each other in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.)

Luckily for me, this rule does not apply here at my blog, where I am free to ask why no one told me of an apparently well-known tidbit of celebrity news: the five-year-old romance between actors Lily James and Matt Smith, who met while filming the execrable 2016 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care about this particular pairing. I liked Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown. I’ve seen James in several things, and I think she is perfectly adequate, if somewhat overrated. If they're happy together, I'm happy for them. But—a relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Collins? Now that’s news! It’s like a scary fanfic come to life.

* What, no third Jamesian bullet point to officially make this an Austen Trend? Surely Lebron must be a closet Austen fan. . .

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.

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