Deborah Yaffe


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.

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.

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