Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2018 01:00PM

Recently – OK, it was two weeks ago – I found occasion to mention an old journalists’ joke: that three examples of a phenomenon constitute a trend. At the time, I was remarking upon the proliferation of second-order Jane Austen adaptations – adaptations of previous adaptations.*


Today I feel justified in identifying yet another Austen-adaptation trend: the proliferation of jukebox/karaoke shows based on Austen stories. I’m talking about the kind of show that inserts famous pop songs into a newly developed storyline, giving audiences the comfort of the familiar along with the thrill of the new. Think Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, or (on the silver screen) Moulin Rouge.


Lately, Jane Austen has been getting the same treatment. The requisite three examples are as follows:


* In 2015, the lyricist and playwright Eric Price created Emma! A Pop Musical, which updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs by female performers as a score. I’ve never seen it, but apparently it’s beloved by school drama departments.


* Earlier this summer, a Glasgow theater company produced Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), an all-female, slapstick version of the novel featuring interpolations like Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" (sung to Mr. Darcy, of course). Reviews were generally positive, if not rapturous.


* Speaking of Clueless, this fall an off-Broadway company will produce a musical version of the much-loved 1995 movie. The show featues classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics by Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed the original. **


Personally, I think the surface of this trend has barely been scratched.


Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” begs to be included in a Sense and Sensibility jukebox show – sung by Willoughby in the second act, as he writes his fateful brush-off letter, and then tragically reprised by Marianne and Elinor during the climactic illness scene. (Earlier, Elinor will have promised to keep silent about Lucy Steele’s secret engagement by vowing “My Lips Are Sealed” and nursed her broken heart to a rousing chorus of "I Will Survive.")


It goes on and on: “My Boyfriend’s Back” is obviously Anne Elliot’s big Act One number. . . . Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland bop around Bath to the accompaniment of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. . . . Maria Rushworth succumbs to the seductive Henry Crawford while singing “Like a Virgin’. . . the possibilities are endless. Paging Baz Luhrmann!



* And I forgot one – the upcoming TV show based on Curtis Sittenfeld’s P&P update Eligible. So, really, that trend is practically a tsunami.


** Devoted blog readers may recall that I already employed the Clueless musical as one of the confirmatory three points in my recent blog about the second-order-Austen-adaptation trend. Some may feel I am cheating by using it as one of the confirmatory three points in a blog about a different Austen trend. What can I say? Trend reporting is an unscrupulous business.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 25 2018 01:00PM

Back in high school, I did reasonably well in math. I may have trouble balancing my checkbook these days, but I promise I’m not one of those math-o-phobes who thinks numbers are the work of the devil.


Still, at the risk of sounding like a STEM Philistine, I can’t help but scratch my head at what seems to me to be the sheer pointlessness of a math-enhanced literary analysis spotlighted last month by the BBC.


Many years ago, apparently, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut concocted an anthropological theory that he summed up thusly: “Stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper.” More recently, math-y folk have used a statistical text-mining technique called “sentiment analysis” – basically, a way of coding the emotional content and associations of vocabulary words – to identify six archetypal story arcs characterized by the rising and falling patterns of the protagonist’s fortunes.


Summarizing academic work that’s been around for several years, the BBC provides us with the story-arc map that sentiment analysis creates for six famous works of literature -- including Pride and Prejudice, used to illustrate the “Cinderella” plot type (rise, fall, rise). “While not a perfect tool – it looks at words in isolation, ignoring context – [sentiment analysis] can be surprisingly insightful when applied to larger chunks of text,” the BBC opines, citing as an example of such insight a 2016 blog post on P&P by Janeite data scientist Julia Silge.


Sentiment analysis, as far as I can glean from Google, is a tool whose main purpose is commercial: It allows businesses to quickly sift online reviews, comments, and social media posts in order to pick up trends in consumer reactions and resolve problems before they metastasize. In other words, it’s designed for people who want to know the essence of what’s being written without actually having to read anything.


By contrast, literature – pace SparkNotes – is not about skimming to get the gist. It’s about reading carefully to get the nuance. From an anthropological point of view, it may be interesting and worthwhile to categorize the pattern in our storytelling – or the six patterns. But whatever sentiment analysis may have to teach us about the broad outlines of stories, it doesn’t have much to say about individual works of art, or about the subtleties that make great writers worth reading.


Can Austen’s novel be slotted into a plot archetype? I wouldn’t be surprised – human storytelling is an ancient art, after all – but filing P&P under Plot Type #5 doesn’t tell us much of anything about what makes it better than, say, all the P&P fanfic that mimics its structure.


Indeed, looking at Silge’s P&P plot graph suggests the shortcomings of the sentiment-analysis approach as applied to a specific book. For instance, Silge finds that the Netherfield Ball is the high point of positive sentiment in the novel, and it’s true that much excitement and anticipation attend that scene. But it’s also the locus of much disappointment and mortification for Elizabeth Bennet: Wickham mysteriously absents himself, Darcy surprises her into an unwanted dance and a tense conversation, and her mother, sister, and cousin commit public faux pas.


How does placing the ball at the top end of a sentiment scale help us unpack the complicated spectrum of feeling across which the scene in the novel actually ranges? Not at all, as far as I can tell. Arguably, Silge's graph, at least if it's used to analyze a specific book rather than to identify broad patterns across books, is not just pointless but actively misleading. And at the points where the graph matches any casual reader's impression of the book -- for example, in identifying Lydia's elopement as the story's emotional low point -- it's superfluous.


So file me under Unconvinced. But, then, I was a humanities major.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2018 01:00PM

Every now and again, along comes a Jane Austen adaptation, spinoff, or fanfic that, in its wishful thinking and reassuring punch-pulling, reminds us by contrast of how fearlessly unsentimental Austen is. Some of these remixes are pretty good (see under: Sittenfeld, Curtis). And some, like the movies with which I spent this past Saturday night, are pretty godawful.


In my continued pursuit of Jane Austen video completism – and in an effort to warn other Janeites before they commit themselves -- I curled up with a bowl of popcorn to watch the Hallmark Channel’s Marrying Mr. Darcy. But I didn’t stop there. Courtesy of Hallmark’s schedulers, I spent the preceding two hours re-watching the 2016 movie to which this one is a sequel: Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world.


You’re welcome.


Blog readers may recall that I was not a fan of either the first movie or the book on which it was based, and I cannot say that the movie improves with age: The acting is still wooden, the writing still execrable, the production values still bargain-basement. If I found it less offensive this time around, it was only because I was prepared.


Unleashing Mr. Darcy tells the story of the romance between perky Elizabeth Scott (Cindy Busby), unjustly fired from her teaching job at a posh D.C. high school, and rich-‘n’-handsome Donovan Darcy (Ryan Paevey), dog-show judge, successful businessman, devoted big brother, and – just for good measure – selfless philanthropist.


After several occasions of inexplicable, unmotivated hostility and rudeness on her part, the two bond over their shared love of Cavalier King Charles spaniels and patch up their differences in one of those climactic public reconciliations, complete with applause from an audience of strangers, that happen so often in the movies and so seldom in real life.


Marrying Mr. Darcy picks up the romance some indeterminate number of months later, the passage of time signified by the altered hairstyles of several of the main characters and the presence of a completely different actress playing Donovan’s younger sister, Zara. After a kissy-face proposal, we quickly find ourselves in the midst of that hoary sitcom plot staple: We Wanted a Small, Simple Wedding, But Everything Seems To Be Spinning Out of Control.


Leading the charge toward a wedding featuring a designer gown, a society church, and a guest list in the hundreds is Donovan’s Aunt Violet, our stand-in for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In the first movie, the veteran actress Frances Fisher tries valiantly to have fun with the role of an icy, manipulative villainess determined to scotch her nephew’s interest in the déclassé Elizabeth, but she is stymied by the egregious writing, which gives her little to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into.


At least, though, Unleashing Mr. Darcy allows her to be a villain. Marrying Mr. Darcy has a position to maintain: It’s the inaugural offering in Hallmark’s feel-good June Weddings series. Thus, it must follow the template of the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice in giving Austen’s arrogant, tyrannical Lady Catherine a heart of gold. Or, to quote Zara, “Aunt Violet, I’ve always known it. You’re just a softie underneath.”


And so Marrying presents us with a Violet who apologizes for trying to sabotage the Elizabeth-Donovan romance, gives her future niece-in-law heirloom family jewelry, and helps bring the young lovers together after a temporary estrangement. She’s sorry for interfering, she explains, but she still remembers Donovan as a heartbroken, newly orphaned nineteen-year-old. (Perhaps Aunt Violet has incipient Alzheimer’s? Those of us who had tuned in for the reprise of Unleashing Mr. Darcy had just been told that Darcy was twenty-one when he lost his parents in a tragic, yet unintentionally hilarious, boating accident.)


The new movie includes flashes of the Aunt Violet we could love to hate. Informed of Elizabeth’s shocking plan to return to her teaching career post-wedding, Violet purrs, in full 1950s Good Housekeeping mode, “That’s who you were. Now you will be Mrs. Donovan Darcy. That’s a very important full-time job.”


Alas, these hints of a more entertaining movie struggling to break out of the saccharine handcuffs go nowhere. Instead, it’s typical romcom fare, Billionaire Boyfriend division (“The Louvre may approve an after-hours visit for your honeymoon!” Darcy’s helpful assistant informs him.)


But Darcy is no Christian Gray: This is a strictly TV-G enterprise, and therefore, although both Donovan and Elizabeth are over thirty and have no discernible religious convictions, they maintain chastely separate residences, and their relationship shows no signs of having progressed below the neck. Like everything else about these movies, the prevailing temperature is tepid.


While the bland safety of these films is, of course, typical of the made-for-TV romance genre, it’s precisely not typical of the ruthlessly realistic Jane Austen. She has no qualms about leaving Lady Catherine as overbearing and snobbish at the end of Pride and Prejudice as she was at the beginning, even if the pragmatic Elizabeth does eventually engineer a reconciliation. It’s too bad that so many of Austen’s adapters don’t understand the very things about her that keep us coming back.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 28 2018 01:00PM

Last month, as blog readers will recall, a non-profit executive and Janeite with the extraordinarily appropriate name of Janet Austin was appointed lieutenant governor of the Canadian province of British Columbia.


This month, she confirmed her Janeite credentials in a twenty-question Proust questionnaire with the Toronto Globe and Mail.


For question #3, “Which living person do you most admire?” Austin named her friend Anne Giardini, chancellor of British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. As we learned last month, at the lunch bidding Austin farewell from her old job, Giardini “gave a talk called ‘Jane Austen talks about Janet Austin’ just using Jane Austen quotes.” According to Austin, the two women “sometimes talk to each other in Jane Austen quotes,” as well.


No surprise, then, that when she reached question #20, “If you could be a fictional character for one day, who would you like to be?” Austin replied, “Well, it’s got to be Jane Austen, so I would have to say Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.”


Personally, I’d think that depends on which day we’re talking about: Although I would rather not be Elizabeth Bennet on, say, the day of Mr. Collins’ proposal, I wouldn’t say no to the honeymoon at Pemberley. Still, we can all applaud the sentiment.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Although Jane Austen was, famously, not a big fan of Bath, London was a different story: Her trips to the metropolis to visit her worldly brother Henry seem to have been delightful whirls of shopping, parties, and culture – much like London tourism today.


The letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#85 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) memorializes a London trip during which Austen entertained herself with a whimsical pastime: seeking likenesses of the eldest Bennet sisters -- Pride and Prejudice had been published four months earlier – among the paintings in exhibitions she visited.


At one relatively unheralded exhibit, “I was very well pleased—particularly. . . with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. . . . exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” Austen writes. “She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.”


(Scholars believe Austen was probably referring to this painting, Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin), by the French portraitist Jean-François-Marie Huet-Villiers).




The following Monday, the day her letter was written, Austen attended a far more famous exhibition, the Sir Joshua Reynolds retrospective at the British Institution in Pall Mall, searching in vain for a portrait of “Mrs. D.,” aka Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. “I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye,” Austen writes. “I can imagine he wd have that sort [of] feeling—that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.”


The 1813 Reynolds exhibition is the subject of What Jane Saw, University of Texas English Prof. Janine Barchas’ fascinating online reconstruction of the paintings Austen viewed, displayed as they were two centuries ago. It’s a striking demonstration of the power that comes from marrying literary-historical scholarship to contemporary technology, and it brings to life the afternoon visit that Austen describes to Cassandra.


Scholarship aside, I find it charming to encounter the Austen of this letter -- another fond author, so wrapped up in her imagined people, with their favorite colors and happy marriages, that they seem to go on living once her story ends, becoming as real to her as the real-life sitters in the portraits she viewed. Devouring fanfic Austen sequels or comparing our co-workers to Austen characters, we Janeites can relate


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter