Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 29 2018 01:00PM

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. So perhaps the definition of Janeite insanity is repeatedly watching Austen-inspired Hallmark Channel movies and expecting them to be any good.


This rumination was occasioned by my Saturday night viewing of Christmas at Pemberley Manor, which kicked off Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas,” a dizzying series of holiday-themed entertainments scheduled to take us to the brink of the new year. Yes, October 27 seems early to launch – Halloween at Pemberley Manor would have been more like it – but the Christmas-industrial complex brooks no opposition to its saccharine imperium.


Hallmark is a recent convert to the Janeite cause. It’s less than three years since the channel aired Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a truly terrible Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world. Apparently, that offering was enough of a success that earlier this year, Hallmark felt compelled to give us an equally awful sequel, Marrying Mr. Darcy. And Pemberley Manor is only the first of the Austen-themed movies in this year’s “Countdown to Christmas”: the day after Thanksgiving, Hallmark will air Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, a gender-swapped update based on a fanfic of such execrable badness that even I may be unable to bring my usual sunny optimism to the enterprise.


But sufficient unto the day: for now, we are concerned with Pemberley Manor, which chronicles the romance between an event planner named Elizabeth Bennet and a titan of some indeterminate industry named William Darcy. They meet cute-ish over a coffee order and then bond when he agrees to let his palatial family home serve as the backdrop for the Christmas festival she is organizing in a Connecticut town whose Olde New Englande quaintness should make fans of Gilmore Girls feel right at home.


To be fair, the writing and acting on display here are an improvement over Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Alas, however, that’s a very low bar. The leads, TV actors Jessica Lowndes and Michael Rady, are professional, but it’s hard to believe that either of them hoped for roles like these when they dreamed of going into acting. (But hey – work is work. . .)


The story’s Austen connections are so tenuous that they barely deserve to be called perfunctory. Aside from the names of the protagonists, the Darcy homestead, and a few other characters – personal assistant Jane Lucas, overbearing boss Caroline Bingley, un-Wickham-like mayor George – not a shred of Austen’s story remains. (Although I give the writer props for calling the town Lambton – apparently, he did thumb through a dog-eared paperback of P&P.)


In place of Austen’s narrative, we have a bland and reassuring made-for-TV plot: Smart but pliant girl learns to stand up for herself while teaching successful but lonely workaholic guy that Love and Family are the Most Important Things. Phrases like “the magic of the holidays” and “Christmas miracle” are used repeatedly and without irony.


Even the now-classic first-they-hate-each-other-then-they-love-each-other rom-com template, itself lifted from Austen’s original, is barely gestured toward: Although Elizabeth and Darcy meet via an argument, it’s brief and good-natured, and before the movie is half over, they are decorating Christmas cookies and flirting adorably, with nary a hint of pride or prejudice in sight.


Nearly twenty-five years into Austen’s pop-culture renaissance, references to her most famous work now seem to function as a sort of all-purpose Romance Flavoring, a bit like a parsley garnish that can be sprinkled over almost any dish. Why do I keep hoping for more? Feel free to offer a diagnosis.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 25 2018 01:00PM

Can I get half credit?


As blog readers will recall, last week I predicted (correctly, as it turned out) that Pride and Prejudice, despite making it into the top ten finalists in PBS’s Great American Read competition, would not win.


On the other hand, I picked Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to sweep a field dominated by twentieth-century historical and fantasy epics, and by books most readers encounter in childhood. I was wrong: as PBS revealed on Tuesday night, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird led the voting from the start, winning forty-eight of the fifty states. (In retrospect: duh. What was I thinking?)


Ultimately, P&P finished fourth – coming in behind the Outlander and Harry Potter series, but edging out LOTR – a pretty good showing, all things considered.


PBS didn’t collect demographic breakdowns of its voters, but given years of research showing that women read more fiction than men do, it’s likely the pool skewed female. The makeup of the winners’ circle suggests as much: five of the top ten (Mockingbird, P&P, Gone with the Wind, Little Women and Jane Eyre) are female coming-of-age tales written by women, while in two more (the Outlander series and, arguably, Charlotte’s Web) female characters are the key protagonists. Even the fantasy epics that round out the list – LOTR, the Harry Potter series, andThe Chronicles of Narnia – feature important female characters, although male protagonists dominate.


So: girl power. And I’d still rather be reading Jane Austen. But hey – it’s all good, as long as we’re reading books.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 18 2018 01:00PM

When midnight strikes on the west coast tonight, something momentous will take place: Voting will close in PBS’s Great American Read competition.


OK, it’s not really that momentous. In fact, if you ask me, the GAR has been pretty silly all along – from the “statistically representative survey” used to draw up the pool of one hundred nominees (how did they account for the roughly one-quarter of Americans who don’t read books?) to the vote-every-day-if-you-feel-like-it policy, which will inevitably privilege authors with small but passionate fan bases over those with broader but less intense support.


From a blog post that Channel 13 published last week, we have some clue about which books remain in the running . Apparently, at this point, the top ten contenders are, in alphabetical order:


Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

The Chronicles of Narnia (series), by C.S. Lewis

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

The Lord of the Rings (series), by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee


Although I’ve only read about half the books on the full list, I’m clearly picking wisely – or at least lining up with majority taste -- since I’ve read every one of these top ten vote-getters. (OK, not all the Outlander books. But cut me a break -- they’re long. . .) And color me relieved that neither Fifty Shades of Grey nor The Da Vinci Code seems likely to win the top prize. National embarrassment averted!


PBS plans to announce the results of the voting next Tuesday, and my crystal ball is notoriously cloudy. That said, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Pride and Prejudice hasn’t got a prayer of winning.


Obviously, I’m not talking about which book deserves to win. That’s debatable, and probably unresolvable: Is, say, Jane Eyre a better book than The Lord of the Rings? They’re so different that the question doesn’t even make sense, in my humble opinion.


But looking at the top-ten list, a few patterns are readily discernible, and they don’t bode well for Our Jane.


Most obviously, seven of the top ten novels were written less than a century ago – Gone with the Wind (1936), The Lord of the Rings (1937-49), Charlotte’s Web (1952), The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the Outlander series (1990-present), and the Harry Potter series(1997-2007).


Pride and Prejudice (1813) is easily the oldest book on the list, beating out Jane Eyre (1847) and Little Women (1868-69) by decades. The great American reading public clearly prefers its novels set in semi-contemporary times, or at least employing a semi-contemporary vocabulary.


Half the books on the list -- The Chronicles of Narnia, Gone with the Wind, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and the Outlander series -- are also sweeping historical sagas and/or good-against-evil fantasy epics. They’re books with dozens of characters and countless plot twists, books that stuff their appendices with maps and family trees, or spawn companion volumes sorting out the many strands of backstory. “Three or four families in a country village” they ain’t.


And arguably, six or seven of the ten are books that most readers encounter before the age of thirteen. Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series, and Little Women are classed as children’s literature; The Lord of the Rings – and perhaps also Gone With the Wind -- is a favorite of bookish kids everywhere; and To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading in middle schools across the land.


This doesn’t mean they aren’t great books – I love them all! -- but it does mean that they’ve burrowed into the souls of their readers in a way that books encountered later in life can’t often match. Our memories of the books we loved as children come pre-wrapped in wistfulness.


It’s true that a subset of readers encounters Pride and Prejudice in early adolescence. It’s the first Austen novel many Janeites read, and they often pick it up around the age of twelve or thirteen. Still, it’s my impression that P&P isn’t a book that most readers associate with their child-selves, perhaps because its preoccupations -- marriage and money -- are so adult.


In sum: P&P is a nineteenth-century classic of domestic fiction on adult themes. It’s up against a list dominated by twentieth-century epics and gems of children’s literature. Its presence in the top ten is surprising enough; a victory would be downright astonishing.


For what it’s worth, my money is on The Lord of the Rings -- which, as it happens, won the BBC’s 2003 version of this competition.


Although admittedly, Pride and Prejudice came in second.



By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 8 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s books – usually Pride and Prejudice, sometimes Emma, occasionally one of the others -- perennially land on those ubiquitous, completely meaningless “best novel” lists (for instance, see here, here, here and here). Currently, P&P is duking it out with the dubious likes of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code for the top spot in PBS’s Great American Read series.


A bit of a shock, then, to see Austen’s entry in the PBS sweepstakes coming in at #5 on someone’s semi-scientific list of Books People Most Often Start and Don’t Finish.


Over at Gizmodo, writer James O’Malley has combed through the Currently Reading logs of some 24,000 Goodreads users to find the books they’ve parked there for more than a year and therefore, he argues, aren’t likely to finish. His top-ten list is half fiction, half non-fiction, and Pride and Prejudice is there in the middle, sandwiched between The New Oxford American Dictionary and Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.


Before you get up a good head of Janeite outrage, it’s worth pointing out some oddities about O’Malley’s list. Even his top-ranked unfinished book, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, has apparently been sitting untouched on the nightstands or in the Kindle queues of only thirty-one Goodreads members. By the time you get down to P&P, only twenty copies are gathering real or virtual dust – not exactly a tsunami of Austen-haters.


Meanwhile, two of the books on O’Malley’s list – the aforementioned dictionary, and Marie Kondo’s organizing manual, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up -- aren’t the kinds of books that people typically read cover to cover. They’re dip-in-and-out-as-needed books. There’s no shame in not finishing the dictionary! (Indeed, if you did finish it, it might be time to, you know, Get A Life.)


It’s not hard to imagine how books like Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (long, not as peppy as the musical) or Martin’s GoT (long, not as much skin as the TV series) or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (insanely long, kinda weird) end up marinating at the bottom of TBR piles.


To me, P&P, which is peppy and funny and not particularly long, seems out of place in this company, but of course pep, humor, and even length are subjective qualities. I suppose if you open the book expecting to find Matthew Macfadyen murmuring, “You have bewitched me body and soul,” the real thing could seem. . . different. Of course, if you don’t finish it, you won’t learn that Mr. Darcy never says, “You have bewitched me body and soul.” But perhaps you prefer to keep it that way.


In fact, the oddest thing about O’Malley’s list is that three of his five Most Unfinished novels – P&P, GoT, and George Orwell’s 1984 – are also among the Great American Read’s one hundred contenders for America’s Best-Loved Novel. Go figure. Or at least go back and finish what you’ve started.




By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 1 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s novels are filled with marital mismatches. Clever, sardonic Mr. Bennet treats Mrs. Bennet with thinly veiled disrespect. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Palmer has discovered “like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favor of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” The long-dead mothers of Anne Elliot and Henry Tilney seem to have suffered in their marriages to selfish, difficult men. As we close each novel, we trust that our heroine and hero will be happy together, but the specter of marital failure lurks everywhere.


Nevertheless, nearly a quarter-century of swoony screen adaptations of Austen’s novels have persuaded the non-Janeite public that she is the embodiment of all things romantic. Two examples of this phenomenon crossed my desk this week:


* “Derbyshire is the most romantic place in the UK,” declares the no-doubt-completely-impartial website DerbyshireLive, the online home of the Derbyshire Telegraph newspaper. The area “is visually stunning and has inspired love stories which have bewitched the world.”


Cue mention of Pride and Prejudice; unverifiable claim that Derbyshire landmark Chatsworth was the inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley; and mention of other local sites featured in various filmed versions of the novel. (Jane Eyre merits a cameo, too.)


Derbyshire looks gorgeous, so don’t let me discourage anyone from proposing there. (Indeed, Among the Janeites includes the story of a man who proposed to his Austen-scholar wife at Chatsworth, which played Pemberley in the 2005 movie of Pride and Prejudice.) I’m just a little leery of this “Austen=lifelong happiness” equation.


* “Make the love of your life fall for you all over again with these 50 beautiful love quotes that say ‘I love you’ in different ways,” urges YourTango, which bills itself as “the leading online magazine dedicated to love and relationships.”


I must admit that whenever my Jane Austen Google alert highlights listicles like this one, I experience a certain all-too-familiar sinking sensation. I fear I am about to enter the Land of Faux Austen Quotes, that zone in which any line ever uttered by a character in an Austen movie is automatically attributed to the novelist herself.


Alas, YourTango has indeed harvested its beautiful love quotes from this same barren field. Amid the lines credited to the likes of Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, and Ed Sheeran – plus a selection from Lolita*: how creepy is that? – are two attributed to “Jane Austen.”


Brace yourself. At #25, we have “My heart is, and always will be, yours.” And at #27, we have that hoary classic “You have bewitched me body and soul.”


I loved hearing Hugh Grant sweetly deliver #25 to Emma Thompson in the 1995 movie of Sense and Sensibility. I was less enamored of Matthew Macfadyen delivering #27 to Keira Knightley in the 2005 P&P, but to each her own. Neither line, however, appears in the Austen novel on which the film is based.


Indeed, there’s a reason that romantic sayings from Jane Austen are so seldom drawn from the actual novels of Jane Austen: She didn’t write many swoony love scenes. Her novels are as determinedly un-swoony as it’s possible for courtship novels to be.


But hey: If you want to go around saying these things to the love of your life, perhaps while proposing in front of Chatsworth, be my guest. Just don’t blame Jane Austen if the marriage doesn’t work out.




* Which is, IMHO, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, but not my go-to choice for healthy expressions of romantic love.


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