Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 6 2020 02:00PM

If only the Austens had invested in Steventon real estate.

Back in 1801, as Janeites will recall, the Rev. George Austen moved out of the rectory in the rural village of Steventon, turned the house and the minister’s job over to his son James, and retired to Bath, taking along his wife and his daughters, Cassandra and Jane. James Austen kept the Steventon living until his death in 1819; the rectory itself was torn down some years later.

That teardown looks like a grievous mistake now that an exceedingly modest cottage in this tiny village is on the market for £350,000 (about $464,000). In the not-inexpensive New Jersey suburb where I live, a comparable price will typically get you about two thousand square feet comprising three bedrooms and two baths. In Steventon, it gets you just over six hundred square feet with two bedrooms and one bath.

It’s hard to believe that even that astute judge of real estate Robert Ferrars would find room for eighteen couples to stand up in this dining room. And with two hundred and fifty residents, Steventon is truly tiny. Even the shop, the school, and the two pubs are located in the next town over.

Still, Myrtle Cottage does look cute, if small – I believe “cozy” is the approved real estate term – plus the Jane Austen association probably adds something to the price. And hey – it’s called Myrtle Cottage. How many American suburbs have houses with names? Really, if people do but know how to set about it, every comfort may be as well enjoyed in a cottage as in the most spacious dwelling. (To quote that real estate expert again.)

OK, Robert, you’ve talked me into it. Anyone have a spare £350,000?

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 5 2019 02:00PM

These days, it takes a lot for an instance of Austenian inaccuracy to surprise me. I hardly turn a hair when quotes from Austen screen adaptations are attributed to Austen’s novels, or when movies that barely gesture toward her plots brandish titles implying a close relationship to the original, or when cosmetic and hygiene products unknown to the Regency claim an association with her brand.

So hats off to Republic World, an online news platform from India, for pulling me up short with its recent listicle “Hollywood Movie Adaptations: Five Classics That Were Adapted From Plays.”

Three of the items on the list are filmed versions of Shakespeare plays (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo + Juliet), while a fourth is the adaptation of a Broadway classic, Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.

The fifth item is the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility, based, in this telling, on “the original play. . . written by legendary playwright and author Jane Austen.”

We could, I suppose, spend time contemplating writer Drushti Sawant’s selection of the adjective “legendary”: did she mean to imply that Austen’s status as a playwright is a matter of legend, rather than fact? Or we might speculate that Sawant has chosen sides in the scholarly debate over whether Jane Austen or her young niece Anna was the true author of the play Sir Charles Grandison, the manuscript of which is now in the possession of Jane Austen’s House Museum.

Or we might go for the simplest explanation and conclude that Sawant figured the Austen name is always good for clickbait, even when the novelist herself has absolutely no relevance to the topic at hand.

Either way, Sawant did manage to surprise me. Which is something, I guess.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 2 2019 02:00PM

My husband seems befuddled, even a tad shell-shocked. His maiden viewing of a Jane Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie – Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen, which premiered last Saturday night – has paused for its first commercial break, and he has a question.

“People watch this?” he says. “For fun?”

After nearly four years of Austenesque Hallmark movies, my expectations of each new offering have hit rock-bottom. Seventeen minutes into Saturday’s broadcast, it is no surprise to me that SS&S bears almost no relationship to Austen’s work. I don’t flinch – well, not much, anyway – at the predictable storyline, the limp writing, or the bargain-basement acting.

But my husband, poor lamb, is new to it all. “The acting in the adverts is better,” he points out plaintively a few minutes later. (He’s a Brit. Over there, they say “adverts” instead of “commercials.”)

Arguably, his statement is true, but still, as mediocre Austen spinoffs go, SS&S is no worse than average. For plot: a (sort-of) Enemies to (tepid) Lovers tale, wherein a driven workaholic (here, a staid toy-company CEO named Edward Ferris) falls for a creative free spirit (here, a winsome event planner named Ella Dashwood) while they jointly plan a communal Christmas gathering (here, a last-minute holiday party for important clients).

In place of Austen’s plot, we get name-dropping: Ella’s sister, the cautious and conservative Marianne, exchanges an off-stage ex named Willoughby for a nice-guy lawyer named Brandon. Edward’s high-school-girlfriend-turned-company-VP is Lucy Steele. Brandon’s law firm, we learn from a nameplate on a lobby wall, is Morton, Middleton & Jennings. (OK, that one makes me laugh.)

Wait – what? Marianne is cautious and Ella is free-spirited? “I’m confused,” my husband says, as the second commercial break dawns, a mere nine minutes after the conclusion of the first one. “Why did they swap the names? They could have the original names and it would be exactly the same. Now it’s just confusing.”

“Only if you’ve read the book,” I point out. (And actually, he's wrong: more has changed than the names alone. In the original, it's the wild sister who gets Brandon and the staid one who gets Edward.)

The film winds on. Edward tells Ella that his company has discontinued its signature teddy bear because it is “no longer marketable.” (What? A teddy bear no longer marketable? In what universe?) Ella introduces Edward, who has allegedly grown up in the toy business, to the revolutionary concept of testing toys on focus groups of actual children. A pair of French toy-store owners named Jacques and Vivienne arrive in town. Their accents wax and wane, like the moon in December.

“I think they’re not really French,” my husband opines darkly.

Ella chides Edward for his lack of Christmas spirit, as evidenced by his boring, solid-color ties. Edward ribs Ella over her corny, Yuletide-inspired scarves. Ella suggests the party theme should be “Winter Wonderland.” I note that this was also the theme of the party in Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe, one of last year’s Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movies. (That’s what we English-major types call intertextuality, boys and girls.)

My husband shows signs of bailing. Hang in there, I urge him. Before long, our protagonists will decorate a Christmas tree together! They will have a snowball fight! They will bake cookies and drink hot chocolate!

Ella offers to help decorate Edward’s home for the holidays, as “an extra service.”

“Ooh. . . extra services. . .” my husband comments wolfishly. Apparently, he has forgotten the movie’s TV-G rating.

Forty-seven minutes into our evening, as the third commercial break concludes, my husband leaves for the home office adjoining our TV room. I try to guilt him into staying. I fail. “It’s really bad,” he says. He sounds apologetic. Well, half-apologetic, anyway.

Three minutes later, Edward and Ella are decorating a Christmas tree. I announce the milestone in a voice loud enough to be heard in the room next door. My husband grunts. He seems curiously unimpressed. Five minutes later, an onscreen snowball fight breaks out. I report that, too. “You called this half an hour ago,” he says. “I still think the Big Reveal is the French people aren’t really French.” Then he goes to bed.

Edward and Ella decorate a gingerbread house together, which I decide is close enough to count as cookie-baking. Hot drinks are distributed – but do the cups contain cocoa, or just coffee? Hard to tell. The French characters hop into a sleigh. “Salut!" Jacques exclaims, Frenchly. "Joyeux Noel!”

Edward’s company relaunches its signature teddy bear. The big party goes off without a hitch, even though the servers are dressed as elves. The Dashwood sisters have a small, implausible tiff. The lovers have another. The sisters make up and agree to expand their business together.

The lovers go for a walk through a quaintly snow-covered town center. Edward is wearing a corny, Yuletide-inspired scarf. He and Ella kiss and make up. My heart leaps, but not because of the kiss, which is Hallmark-chaste. No, I’ve spotted a hot chocolate stand in the background! Will they. . . .?

But no. Onscreen, it is Christmas Day, and so the stand is unstaffed. I retire to bed.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 28 2019 02:00PM

As we sit down to our turkey tonight, perhaps in company with relatives or acquaintances whom we carefully avoid the rest of the year, let us turn our thoughts to a similar ordeal faced by the Dashwood sisters.

Invited for dinner at the London home of their selfish, neglectful half-brother John and his equally grasping wife, Elinor and Marianne endure a dinner party that may remind one or two of us of Thanksgivings past:

“The dinner was a grand one, the servants were numerous, and everything bespoke the Mistress's inclination for shew, and the Master's ability to support it. . . . no poverty of any kind, except of conversation, appeared--but there, the deficiency was considerable. John Dashwood had not much to say for himself that was worth hearing, and his wife had still less. But there was no peculiar disgrace in this, for it was very much the case with the chief of their visitors, who almost all labored under one or other of these disqualifications for being agreeable--Want of sense, either natural or improved--want of elegance--want of spirits--or want of temper.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 34)

Here's hoping that your Thanksgiving meal is a cut above the Dashwoods' dinner!

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 26 2019 01:00PM

Bipartisanship is sadly rare in Washington these days, so it’s refreshing to find one instance of agreement across the aisle, even in these polarized times. Hot on the heels of the news that First Daughter Ivanka Trump is (possibly) a Janeite comes word that Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a leading contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, is also an Austen fan.

“In Iowa City, Elizabeth Warren is asked her favorite book,” New York Times politics reporter Thomas Kaplan tweeted last week. “ ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ she says, ‘because it's about an observant woman who cuts through all of -- I know Jane would never call it this -- but the BS.’ ”

When I read Kaplan’s tweet, I assumed Warren was referring to Elinor Dashwood, who is indeed an observant woman with a sensitive bullshit detector, although more often than not she keeps her findings to herself. On the campaign trail, I figured, Warren probably found herself paying the compliment of rational opposition to many who didn’t deserve it. No wonder Elinor appealed to her.

But apparently Warren had someone besides Elinor in mind, and luckily another intrepid reporter was on hand to clarify her point.

During that same trip to Iowa City, it appears, Warren sat down for a fifteen-minute Q&A with Marie Claire magazine, covering trivial matters like climate change, abortion rights, and the crushing costs of housing, education, and child care. Luckily, however, the final question touched on a truly important topic: What book does Warren reread frequently?

Warren’s answer: yes, Sense and Sensibility. “Every time I read it, I see another layer in it,” she said. “The characters are interesting and far more complex than appears on the surface. I am reminded that a serious woman who is a sharp observer has the capacity to open our eyes in ways we had never thought of before.”

“Are you referring to Jane or Elinor?” asked interviewer Chloe Angyal, who – props to her – had clearly read the book, or at least seen the movie.

“Both,” Warren replied. “I was really thinking about Jane, but it’s both of them. It’s the whole notion of, it celebrates the observer. And I like that.”

If all this reading and rereading weren’t enough to confirm Warren’s Janeite status, the repeated references to the novel’s author as “Jane” would probably do it. But perhaps the most revealing detail is Warren’s transparently autobiographical interpretation of S&S as a celebration of “a serious woman who is a sharp observer.” Reading yourself into your favorite Austen novel: That’s the mark of a true Janeite.

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