Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 12 2017 01:00PM

Austen adaptations, whether on stage, screen or fanfic page, all too often fall victim to an excess of earnestness – the bonnets, the hushed voices, the leisurely strolls through manicured gardens. It’s the disease of costume drama, but in Austen’s case, it’s especially jarring, since the original source material is laced with energy and subversive wit.


Whatever you might have thought of actress/playwright Kate Hamill’s version of Sense and Sensibility, you couldn’t accuse it of lacking energy: As blog readers may recall, this is the version in which furniture careened around the stage on wheels and actors played multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene.


The whole thing was a lot of fun, so I was excited to learn that Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice, which premiered last summer in New York’s Hudson Valley, will be produced in New York City this fall. (My family already has tickets for December. We’re calling it my birthday present.)


And now comes an entertaining interview with Hamill, coinciding with a Dallas-area production of her new P&P. In adapting the book, Hamill says, she set out to break the costume drama mold. “There are several good, straightforward [stage] versions of it out there, along with those on film and television,” she says. “So I wanted to do something very theatrical and surprising, not the typical Pride and Prejudice.”


The company putting on the show has produced a fun promotional video featuring a two-on-two basketball game between Elizabeth and Jane Bennet and Messrs. Darcy and Bingley, all four clad in Regency attire and tennis shoes. Apparently, this picks up on game imagery embedded in Hamill’s script.


“I’m really interested in the way we codify love as a game,” she tells her interviewer. “Love is very serious, yet inherently a little bit silly—and we do tend to play it as something with rules, strategies, wins, losses. . . And the way we treat love as a game does tend to pit people against each other in a way that’s often broken down by gender.”


Looking forward to my birthday. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 14 2017 01:00PM

It’s official: Starting today, Brits will be able to buy their tea, their scones -- even their books -- with a fistful of Jane Austen £10 notes.


More than four years after announcing plans to put Austen on the currency, and two months after unveiling the first notes during a ceremony at Winchester Cathedral on the bicentenary of Austen’s death, the Bank of England is putting the Austen tenner into circulation.


Despite Janeite joy at this honor for our beloved author, it’s been a rocky road. First came the feminist campaign to put a woman on the currency, after the bank announced that Winston Churchill would replace prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note. (Fry wasn’t the first woman on the currency, besides the queen: Florence Nightingale held that title, from 1975-94.)


Even as the bank swiftly decided to maintain a non-royal female presence on the currency by subbing Austen in for Charles Darwin on the tenner, Internet trolls harassed and threatened the leader of the feminist campaign.


Then Janeites pointed out that the Austen quote selected for the note – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading,” from Pride and Prejudice – is spoken by the execrable Caroline Bingley, moments before she tosses aside the book she has picked up only to impress the eligible Mr. Darcy.


Others noted that the picture of Austen is a prettified version of a sketch that may not even look much like her. Still others pointed out that Austen never lived permanently at Godmersham House, the stately home pictured in the background, although she did visit her brother’s family there.


These people! They’re never satisfied!


Still, it’s a great day for Janeites: Our author takes her place among a select pantheon of artists, scientists, politicians, and social reformers deemed important enough to represent the British nation. What would this country clergyman’s daughter have thought of it all?



By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 11 2017 01:32PM

We all have our own idea of Pemberley, the quintessential Jane Austen estate. On film, it’s been played by gorgeous Lyme Park, in Cheshire (15-acre garden, 1,400-acre deer park), and even more fabulous Chatsworth, in Derbyshire (126 rooms, 105-acre garden), although it’s likely that Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year would not have sufficed to maintain such palatial properties.


Still, even if Darcy contented himself with a more modest stately home, it seems likely he never had to make do with the 460 square feet of the Pemberley, a portable house-on-wheels recently built for a family of five by Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses.*


Tiny Houses are intended to be more affordable and environmentally sustainable than the sprawling McMansions of suburbia, but this particular model is hardly austere: The kitchen features cherry cabinets and granite countertops, the electronic hookup allows for a giant TV, and the appliances are high-end.


Personally, I can’t imagine raising small children in a space this, um, tiny -- not to mention that our books alone would take up all the available surfaces. But check out those beautiful poplar-wood walls! It’s enough to make a girl change her mind about a marriage proposal.


* Thanks to AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan for bringing this item to my attention via Twitter.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 21 2017 01:00PM

The Jane Austen bicentenary is already a month in the rearview mirror, but cute little tie-in pieces are still turning up online – sometimes new, sometimes overlooked in the mad July 18 rush.


Here are three that have caught my attention recently:


-- “If Jane Austen characters used dating apps”: The BBC imagines how Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham would behave in the Age of Tinder. Not surprisingly, Darcy’s profile is sparse – frankly, I don’t think he’d ever stoop to online dating in the first place, but I’ll suspend my disbelief – and yet Elizabeth swipes right anyway. (Hey, the profile photo is of Colin Firth, so who can blame her?) Funniest touch: Wickham texting an unsolicited pic of his, um, sword. Though I suspect Wickham would be smoother than that. Sword pics seem like more of a John Thorpe move.


--“History of Jane Austen (in One Take)”: History Bombs, which produces fast, hip educational videos and supporting materials for classroom use, offers a five-minute rap summarizing the basics of Jane Austen’s life. It’s funny and entertaining, and of course it’s better that kids should meet Jane Austen than not. But surely if you’re teaching history, you shouldn’t make factual errors about even relatively minor matters like Jane Austen’s age at death or the terms on which she published Emma. *


--“Jane Austen’s facts and figures – in charts”: The Guardian offers an intriguing graphic tour through such matters as the ages of Austen’s heroines, the relative incomes of her characters, and the proportion of unhappy marriages portrayed in her novels (42 percent, they claim). I would quibble over some details – Persuasion’s spontaneous after-dinner dance for three or four couples doesn’t qualify as a ball in my book – and it’s a shame that the Google doc laying out the data in more detail seems to have vanished. Still, this feature should be good for starting a few conversations.



* Thanks to Marian Wilson Kimber for bringing this one to my attention.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 17 2017 01:00PM

Lately, Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon, seems to be having a bit of a Jane Austen moment.


Earlier this month, as you’ll recall, a recording of Pride and Prejudice was included on the company’s list of audiobooks appropriate for calming anxious dogs during their owners’ extended absences. And now comes word of an Audible advertising campaign in Australia in which Austen herself puts in an appearance -- yet again in a therapeutic context.


In two thirty-second spots available on YouTube, authors and their less-than-diligent readers attend a couples’ counseling session presided over by an avuncular Aussie therapist. In the Austen spot, Our Author – unaccountably wearing her bonnet indoors, but never mind – mourns, “I just can’t keep his attention,” while her bearded reader listens apologetically.


“It’s not you, it’s me,” he explains, like a weasely contemporary avatar of Willoughby. “I’m busy, and -- to be honest, you can be a bit difficult.”


Can this marriage be saved? But of course -- the solution, apparently, is to listen to Austen on audiobook.


As a card-carrying Janeite, I take a bit of umbrage at the notion that Austen is difficult – of all the great writers you could choose, she is surely among the most accessible – but I suppose that’s an argument for another day. Obviously, Audible’s sudden Austen obsession isn’t really about Austen: she’s a placeholder, filling the generic Famous and Inoffensive Classic Writer slot.


Presumably, Anais Nin didn’t qualify. Though I’d rather like to eavesdrop on that counseling session.


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