Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 14 2017 01:00PM

Unless you’ve spent the past week entirely absorbed in stocking your fallout shelter with canned goods, you’ve probably heard that a fearless band of TV producers has announced plans for the unthinkable: a television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that doesn’t star Colin Firth.


By now, it is de rigueur for adapters of much-adapted classics to explain how their new versions will uncover Hidden Depths or Heretofore Unsuspected Resonances in some apparently familiar work.


When Andrew Davies wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s now-iconic 1995 P&P, starring Firth and Jennifer Ehle, he wanted an adaptation that was vigorous and outdoorsy. (Jane Austen can be sexy! Who knew?) When Joe Wright made his 2005 feature film, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, he wanted an adaptation that was muddy and earthbound. (Jane Austen can be messy! Who knew?)


This time around, the people involved say they want an adaptation that is edgy and grownup. (Jane Austen can be dark! Who knew?)


"Pride and Prejudice is actually a very adult book, much less bonnet-y than people assume," says the proposed screenwriter, the British playwright Nina Raine, whose most recent theatrical work centers on a murky rape case. "I hope I do justice to Austen’s dark intelligence – sparkling, yes, but sparkling like granite.”


Although AustenBlog’s indispensable Maggie Sullivan is already taking her Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness out of mothballs, in preparation for whacking any idiocy that may appear onscreen – and although I’ll cop to some skepticism over whether a British woman over forty can really never have seen an adaptation of P&P, as Raine claims -- I’m willing to reserve judgment.


Jane Austen can be dark! And also sexy and messy! (As well as the opposite of all of those, since she is a multifaceted writer whose many dimensions are seldom captured perfectly in any screen adaptation, no matter how well-done.) Unlikely as it seems that a new version will be “the definitive adaptation for the twenty-first century,” rather than another forgettable reboot, we can always hope.


No, what really concerns me is the previous work of some members of the team behind this new P&P. Mammoth Screen, the production company, is best-known for making the soapy Victoria and Poldark series – both highly entertaining, but both lacking anything like Austen’s subtlety. And the new adaptation will air on ITV, the British TV channel known for a more populist and commercial sensibility than the historically upper-crust and staid BBC, which made the six previous English-language TV adaptations of the novel.


Nothing wrong with populism and commercialism, except that ITV’s track record for Austen adaptations – it released three in 2007 -- is decidedly mixed. On the plus side, ITV made the well-cast Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones in a competent if imperfect Davies script that some criticized for injecting extra sensuality into the novel.


On the decidedly negative side, however, ITV is also responsible for two of the worst-ever Austen adaptations. How to forget that embarrassing Persuasion, featuring poor Sally Hawkins racing through the streets of Bath in an unforgivable travesty of the book’s sublime ending? Or that execrable Mansfield Park, starring the miscast Billie Piper and her all-too-ubiquitous cleavage -- Fanny Price as St. Pauli Girl?


The mind reels at the prospect of a P&P put through a similar meatgrinder. Thank God the Cluebat stands at the ready.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 10 2017 01:00PM

During World War I, historians tell us, Jane Austen’s novels were sometimes prescribed to traumatized British soldiers as a remedy for shell-shock, anxiety and despair. And now, it seems, the benefits of the Austen Cure are about to become available to another jumpy, unsettled demographic: lonely dogs and their guilt-ridden owners.


Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon, has just announced a new program, Audible for Dogs, whose spokesman is dog whisperer Cesar Millan. And among the titles Millan recommends for canine consumption (figuratively speaking, I hasten to add) is a 2015 recording of Pride and Prejudice, read by British actress Rosamund Pike, who played Jane Bennet in the 2005 P&P film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.


The idea of Audible for Dogs is to give man’s best friend a soothing substitute for His Master’s Voice when said master is out of the house for long periods of time. Just set up a digital speaker, crank up an audiobook featuring the calm, consistent tones of someone whose voice resembles that of the primary dog-owner, and voila: no more guilty worries that lonely, neurotic Fido will spend your absence peeing on the carpet, chewing your Manolos, or annoying the neighbors with incessant barking.


Such is the idea, anyway. Millan and Audible claim to have backed up their hunch with a month-long study featuring one hundred volunteer dog-human pairs, but forgive me for a teensy bit of skepticism about the objectivity and scientific rigor of this experiment.


For Janeites, the key question is clear: Although Pride and Prejudice is often suggested as a good introduction to Austen for human readers, is the same true for canine ones? I’m concerned that Millan may have set these four-legged neophytes up for failure by choosing a book that, as far as I can recall, contains no mention of dogs at all.


Given that omission, it hardly seems fair to stack P&P up against some of the more canine-centric titles on Millan’s list, including Soldier Dogs, A Dog’s Purpose, and The Art of Racing in the Rain. Wouldn’t he have been better off choosing Northanger Abbey, whose hero greets visitors accompanied by “the friends of his solitude, a large Newfoundland puppy and two or three terriers”? Or Sense and Sensibility, whose anti-hero Willougby, though lacking in moral fiber, at least has the good taste to own “the nicest little black bitch of a pointer” that Sir John Middleton has ever seen?


But really, the answer is obvious: Dogs are clearly the only readers who should be introduced to Jane Austen by way of Mansfield Park. To human readers, Fanny Price may seem insipid, and Edmund Bertram's cluelessness may cry out for a slap upside the head. But what canine companion, nursing feelings of neglect and abandonment as its owner departs for a long day at the office, won’t be charmed by Lady Bertram’s excellent judgment in “thinking more of her pug than her children”?


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 29 2017 01:00PM

A little over two centuries ago, Jane Austen famously recorded her acquaintances’ opinions, pro and con, of Emma and Mansfield Park. So perhaps she would have enjoyed browsing the catalogue of an auction held this week to benefit Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, a charity that runs literary events, gives grants and prizes to authors, and engages in outreach to students in disadvantaged public schools.


In keeping with the All Jane Austen All The Time theme of this bicentenary year, the RSL’s online and live auctions, which wrapped up on Tuesday, featured nothing but Austen-related items -- eighteen of them, including drawings, annotated film scripts, and special offers, such as a book-club visit from an Austen expert or tea with a recent Austen biographer.


Among the most covetable items were handwritten comments on Austen by famous authors – Kazuo Ishiguro on Mansfield Park; Margaret Atwood and British children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson on Pride and Prejudice; Ian McEwan on Northanger Abbey. Some of the comments were adoring (“I’ve learnt so much from this supreme novelist”-- Ishiguro) and some were impish (“Were underage readers of this book, such as myself, doomed to a series of hopeless liaisons in which unpleasant men turned out to be simply unpleasant?”— Atwood). And one commenter was as harsh as Austen’s young acquaintance Fanny Cage, whose response to Mansfield Park was “did not much like it. . . nothing interesting in the Characters––– Language poor”: Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin said he finds Austen “a bit stuffy and dull.”


Perhaps not coincidentally, bidding on the worshipful Ishiguro item closed at £1,899 (about $2,433), whereas the carping Rankin went for a mere £150 ($192).


Were I richer than I'm ever likely to be, I wouldn't have minded bidding on that Atwood letter. But my personal favorite among the items was the cartoon by British artist Posy Simmonds, who imagined Jane Austen weighing whether to return from the afterlife to enjoy the accolades now heaped upon her. Simmonds’ Austen envisions what awaits her – impertinent prying into her sex life, stultifying feminist lit-crit jargon, fans prattling about Colin Firth and calling her “Jane” – and decides to stay put.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 19 2017 01:00PM

“The new Darcy Hotel. . . is named for that taciturn hero of Jane Austen’s,” the Washington Times wrote earlier this month, at the outset of an enthusiastic review of the hotel’s seafood restaurant. Disappointingly, the restaurant is called Siren, a name with no P&P associations whatsoever. Instead of, say, Bennet. Or Lady Catherine’s Place. Or Lydia’s Petticoat.


Alas, this dearth of Austen associations is no anomaly, at least as far as I can glean from the website of the hotel, located in Washington D.C.’s upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood. Nary a mention of Austen appears anywhere on the site; without the Times tip-off, there'd be no way of knowing the hotel was named for the literary hero, rather than the character in Thor or the Smashing Pumpkins bassist.* The metal-and-glass décor is described as “updated mid-century modern” – presumably that’s not the mid-nineteenth century – and the his-and-hers silhouettes hanging above the bed in one room photo are rainbowed in neon.


Only the hotel’s amenities evoke that understated-elegance, waited-on-hand-and-foot Pemberley vibe: You can borrow cufflinks from the Haberdashery, order a bespoke suit custom-made during your stay, sip free cocktails every evening, or have a libation created for you in your own room by the “cocktail butler.”


For those of us who might be willing to overlook the thinness of the Austen veneer just so we can say we stayed at The Darcy, prices don’t seem to be excessive, as these things go: Although a mid-week stay begins perilously close to $400 a night and goes up from there, a summer weekend night starts at a more reasonable $179. And with luck, the company will be better than at Lady Catherine’s Place.



* All right, all right. I admit I would never have thought of either of these alternatives without an assist from Google.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2017 01:00PM

In my experience, non-Janeites are blissfully unaware of the vast universe of Austen fanfic in all its magnificent, explicit, pansexual variety. How else to explain the slightly breathless anxiety with which writer-director Byrum Geisler is ushering his film Before the Fall onto streaming video?


See, Before the Fall – apparently no relation to the bestselling book by Noah Hawley, soon to be a major motion picture – is a gay-themed update of Pride and Prejudice! The Darcy and Elizabeth characters are both men! Aren’t you shocked? Aren’t you? Aren’t you?


Me neither.


Gay versions of Austen’s stories date back at least to 2010, when Ann Herendeen published the odd but interesting Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Other Loves, which matches Darcy with Bingley and Elizabeth with Charlotte.


Nine years earlier, Arielle Eckstut and Dennis Ashton, the authors of the hilarious Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, penned a vignette in which the Bingley sisters welcome Jane Bennet to Netherfield in a most surprising fashion – although, admittedly, that one was parody.


And I’m sure that denizens of the online fanfic boards could cite many more unpublished examples of Austen slash fiction. So Geisler’s film – which can be rented for $4.99 through iTunes or Amazon – is hardly the incredible! pioneering! risk! that he seems to think it is.


In a two-minute featurette, viewable at the Huffington Post, Geisler notes the “timeless quality” of Austen’s stories. “Jane Austen just had to have been brilliant,” he opines. Well, yes.


I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s clear from the plot description that Geisler takes at least one other liberty with the original: not only is his Elizabeth now a man, but Geisler seems to have reversed the relative social standings of his protagonists. Ben Bennet is a wealthy Virginia lawyer, while Lee Darcy is a brooding factory worker. (Based on the trailer, however, I can attest that Darcy is, as he should be, very easy on the eyes.)


“I’m hoping Jane Austen’s fans will see [the film] as a tribute to her and not misusing the source material,” Geisler concludes, a tad anxiously.


Oh, honey. Not to worry. You have no idea what we’ve seen.


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