Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 29 2018 02:00PM

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


Talk about burying the lead.


The letter that Jane Austen began writing to her friend Martha Lloyd exactly 206 years ago today (#77 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) covers a multitude of topics: Martha’s ongoing visit to a dying friend, the purchase of a grey cloak and some calico, the comings and goings of assorted relatives and acquaintances.


And then, more than halfway through, we arrive at this passage: “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”


Yes, thus it is that Jane Austen announces the impending publication of one of the world’s most popular and enduring works of fiction – for which the author received only a single modest payment from publisher Thomas Egerton.


In the notoriously imprecise game of historical currency conversions, her take was the equivalent of somewhere between $6,500 and $8,500 today, depending on which online calculator you use. (Three can be found here, here, and here.) Today, it’s estimated that the novel has sold more than twenty million copies. No wonder that when novelist Michael Thomas Ford turned Austen into a vampire running a bookshop in upstate New York, he imagined her undead ruminations returning repeatedly to the theme of uncollectable royalties.


In retrospect, of course, the Pride and Prejudice deal looks like a financial mistake, but at the time it made sense. In the early nineteenth century, much book-publishing operated on a vanity press model: Authors paid the costs of publication and collected the majority of the profits – or absorbed the losses.


Although Sense and Sensibility, published on these terms in 1811, eventually sold out its first edition and made Austen a modest profit, that outcome was not yet certain in late 1812, when Austen was deciding what to do about P&P. By selling Egerton the copyright of her second novel outright, Austen ensured that her financially strapped family would lose no money.


Further, the deal ensured that Egerton would handle the printing and advertising, which Austen's brother and de facto literary agent Henry would otherwise have had to manage. “Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be most welcome to me,” Austen explains in her letter to Martha Lloyd.


If the gender expectations of 1812 had not left Austen apologetically dependent on male relatives to manage her business affairs, would she have felt empowered to hold out for a better deal? It’s impossible to say. No sooner has she passed on the publication news than she’s on to other matters: the purchase of a shawl for their impoverished spinster friend Miss Benn, the allocation of charitable donations at Christmas, the rain. The event that would still seem newsworthy two centuries later is just one more miscellaneous piece of information.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 26 2018 02:00PM

Last summer, when I learned that the Hallmark Channel would celebrate Christmas by broadcasting a movie based on a Jane Austen fanfic titled Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, I snapped up the Kindle edition of the book and started reading:


A Taylor Swift cover of “Last Christmas,” originally recorded by Wham! in 1986, strummed from the stereo of the sleek, black town car, where Darcy was sitting in the back seat.


It is never a good sign when you crack open a new book and your inner copy editor begins screaming at the very first sentence – pointing out, for example, that “strummed” is a verb that requires a direct object, or that the recording history of “Last Christmas” is a topic best left to the liner notes of the CD.


Such, however, are the joys of Melissa de la Cruz’s extraordinarily terrible P&P spinoff, which updates the story to the contemporary Midwest and swaps the genders of the protagonists. Darcy Fitzwilliam, the daughter of the richest family in Pemberley, Ohio, has left her hometown to make it big at a New York hedge fund. Local carpenter Luke Bennet was once her high school nemesis. Darcy comes home when her mother gets sick, locks lips with Luke under the mistletoe at her family Christmas party, and . . . oh, you know the drill. Her best friend and his brother – a same-sex couple, in this version – fall in love; the arrogant-but-secretly-insecure Darcy suggests romance, but Luke turns her down; she rescues his younger siblings from the consequences of their misbehavior; he acknowledges his love for her, and everyone lives happily ever after.


The story is limp and poorly paced, hitting the major beats of Jane Austen’s plot without a shred of wit, playfulness, or originality. And at times the prose rises (falls?) to an awe-inspiring level of badness. (My personal favorite: “She would barely be able to eat anyway, she knew, with the storm of knots and butterflies brewing in the pit of her stomach.”)


So my expectations were low when I tuned in Friday night for Hallmark’s filmed adaptation, the second P&P-inspired movie in the channel’s ongoing Countdown to Christmas series.


Blog readers will recall that Hallmark began venturing into Janeite territory nearly three years ago, with the airing of Unleashing Mr. Darcy, still the gold standard – or perhaps the dross standard – of Bad Austen-Themed Filmmaking.


Less than a month ago, the channel brought us its first holiday-themed Austen movie, Christmas at Pemberley Manor, which gave new meaning to the term “loosely,” as in “loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” In fact, except for the names of its characters, Pemberley Manor bears virtually no relation to Austen’s original: instead, it is the story of a driven workaholic named Darcy who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.


But given its roots in Austen fanfic, Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe – Hallmark has dispensed with the extra “and” – seemed likely to hew more closely to the original. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that de la Cruz’s by-way-of-Austen plot had been largely discarded in favor of a story about a driven workaholic named Darcy who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.


In this version, Luke (Brendan Penny) is a restaurateur who agrees to cater the annual benefit for the local youth center, which Darcy (Lacey Chabert) and her mother have agreed to organize at short notice. Gone are the rejected proposal and the troubled-sibling rescue, while the same-sex romance has been replaced by a heterosexual one: presumably, Hallmark wanted to avoid offending its most conservative viewers. (Meanwhile, Darcy's duplicitous business partner is a woman named -- in what I can only conclude is a spirit of gratuitous anti-Janeite insult -- Austin.)


It’s hard to know how to feel about the semi-radical transformation on display here. (Except for the craven gay-to-straight move; I know just how to feel about that.) On the one hand, I cannot lament the loss of de la Cruz’s plot, because it is terrible.


But on the other hand, the bait-and-switch is breathtaking: You lure viewers with the promise of P&P, and instead they get a generically written and tepidly acted Enemies-to-Lovers rom-com in which Girl and Boy trade a few vaguely hostile witticisms before settling into an exchange of soulful glances and heartfelt platitudes (“You’re every ounce the man your dad was”), sprinkled with holiday-tinted saccharine (“Christmas isn’t just a day or a season – it’s a state of mind.”).


I suppose it could be said that by repeatedly tuning in to these mediocre-at-best Austen spinoffs, we Janeites – and by “we” I mean “I” – deserve whatever we get. Like the “fond mother. . . in pursuit of praise for her children” whom Austen describes in chapter 21 of Sense and Sensibility, we may perhaps be “though . . . the most rapacious of human beings . . . likewise the most credulous; [our] demands are exorbitant; but [we] will swallow anything.”


Because you know that if next year’s Countdown to Christmas includes Holiday at Hartfield or Yuletide Abbey, I’ll be there.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 19 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s novels have provided the inspiration for any number of musical treatments, from operas and a classical instrumental suite to both original and jukebox musical theater. But only recently, it seems, has anyone had the idea of training a computer to write songs by feeding it the text of Emma.


Yes, that’s what they’re up to over at Google, as we learned last week from an article made available online by two of the company’s researchers, Pablo Samuel Castro and Maria Attarian.


Apparently, getting artificial intelligence to produce decent poetry and song lyrics is an especially challenging computer-science task. Castro and Attarian attempted to improve on previous efforts by training their neural network on two datasets, one consisting of the lyrics of songs in a variety of genres (excluding hip-hop, “to reduce the amount of profanity” in the results), and one drawn from sixteen popular books, all but one of them fiction, available via Project Gutenberg.


Yes, just as Mr. Darcy would dictate, it was not enough for the computers to have a thorough knowledge of music and singing; they also had to improve their minds by extensive reading.


Among the items in the second dataset, which was designed to expand the computer system’s vocabulary, were Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Austen, Dickens, and Twain were the only authors with two books on the list, which also included works by writers ranging from Machiavelli to Charlotte Perkins Gilman.


Alas, however, getting a computer to write poetry is even harder than turning a nineteenth-century heroine into Mr. Darcy's idea of a truly accomplished young lady. The experiment's results, though of interest to computer scientists, were hardly toe-tapping Top 40 hits. (Sample result: “come on, uh/ you remember the voice of the widow/i love the girl of the age/i have a regard for the whole/i have no doubt of the kind/i am sitting in the corner of the mantelpiece.”)


In future, the researchers say, they hope to refine the training process by including more books, as well as books employing a more modern lingo. Since Project Gutenberg primarily includes out-of-copyright works, the list of books used in the experiment is heavy on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels, whose vocabularies are not exactly typical for today’s songs. (In the resulting lyrics, Austen’s influence can perhaps be detected in the presence of words like “estate,” and “fancy” used as a noun.)


Personally, however, I’m in favor of nipping this whole thing in the bud right now. Since I make my living, such as it is, as a writer, I’m all in favor of teaching machines as little as possible about writing. Keep the computers ignorant, I say!


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2018 02:00PM

This business of Austen trend-spotting is getting to be exhausting.


Barely four months ago, I noted that the two-decade-long craze for adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels seems to have inaugurated a more recent craze for second-order Austen spinoffs: adaptations of works that are themselves Austen adaptations. Broaden the category to include films that constitute original works of fanfic -- one-and-a-half order adaptations? -- and the numbers multiply.


Before the year is out, we will have experienced (at least!) five second-ish-order spinoffs: an Off Broadway musical based on Clueless, the 1995 movie that updates the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills; a fifth-anniversary sequel to the web series Emma Approved; and no fewer than three Pride and Prejudice-inspired Hallmark movies (here, here, and -- before long -- here). And that's not even to mention the announced plans for a remake of Clueless; a movie version of Ayesha at Last, a P&P fanfic set among young Muslims in Toronto; and a filmed update of Persuasion.


Apparently, next year will bring more of the same: Lifetime, the TV channel famed for its tales about women in love, women in danger, and women in love with danger, has just promised us Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta. In this version of the story, the main characters are African-American, Mr. Bennet is a minister – call him Rev. Bennet – and his wife is in a rush to marry off her five daughters because she’s the author of a self-help marriage manual. (Shades of the 2003 P&P movie set among devout Mormons in contemporary Utah?)


I approach almost every new Austen project in a spirit of Christmas-in-July good cheer. Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta? I’m game! Good news: Tracy McMillan, a veteran TV writer whose wise and funny Huffington Post piece “Why You’re Not Married” went viral in 2011, is doing the screenplay! Hurrah! This could be awesome!


And what with the Ayesha At Last news and the September publication of Pride, billed as “a Pride and Prejudice remix” set among black and Latino teenagers in Brooklyn, that brings us to a total of three recent Austen fanfics revolving around characters of color. Don’t look now, but we may have a trend on our hands.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 8 2018 02:00PM

Back in middle and high school, I took French. In college, I took Italian. I enjoyed them both – beautiful languages, fascinating cultures and histories, great national literatures.


Alas, however, it seems I should have been studying Portuguese.


This belated realization came to me last week, when I learned that Brazilian TV had just concluded the six-month, hundred-hour run of a racy new early-evening soap opera, Orgulho e Paixão (Pride and Passion), that gleefully mingles characters and plot elements from four Jane Austen novels and the novella Lady Susan.


The adapters seem to have taken a few liberties with their source material, and not just in the title pairing. Although the story still concerns a family with five daughters to marry off, it’s set among early twentieth-century coffee barons in rural southern Brazil – “more Downton Abbey than Jane Austen,” writer Marcos Bernstein told the BBC.


In this version, two of the Benedito family’s girls hail from Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and free-spirited Elisabeta has not only a love interest named Darcy but also a close friend named Ema.


Oh, and the proceedings also involve a pregnant Lydia-clone who abandons her groom at the altar, an Elisabeta who attends a party in male costume, a Bingley-equivalent who joins a fight club, and a Darcy who ventures down a mine -- not to mention a gay kiss and a scene in which a couple bathe together under a waterfall. All of it was shocking enough that Brazilian regulators deemed the program unsuitable for children.


OK, so it’s not a strictly faithful adaptation.


But come on – does this not sound wildly entertaining? It’s probably too late for me to learn Portuguese, but according to the BBC, the Jane Austen Society of Brazil (blog here, website here) now boasts four thousand members, making it among the largest Austen societies in the world. Surely someone in this group has a little free time on her hands and would like to spend it creating English subtitles for Orgulho e Paixão? Can you say "Janeite service project"?


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