Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 22 2016 01:00PM

Screenwriter Andrew Davies, who turned 80 this past Tuesday, is a Janeite demigod, the man who brought us not only the beloved 1995 Firth-Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice, but also highly respected TV adaptations of Northanger Abbey, Emma and Sense and Sensibility.

Davies is famous for adding S-E-X to the supposedly sexless classics -- “People say that I could sex up the Tube map,” he told a Radio Times interviewer last weekend.

At least in his Austen adaptations, the supposedly shocking material is strictly PG-13 -- a bare shoulder here, a rumpled bed there, the odd clingy wet shirt. But twenty years ago, that was enough to cause a sensation in the decorous world of period drama. (Not any more, of course: Thanks to Davies himself, we now expect our bonnet dramas to come with bedroom scenes.)

No, what’s really notable about his work is how often he manages to convey the subtle layers of character and meaning that come through on the page but are often flattened out on screen. That’s why Davies’ adaptations repay repeated viewings, while lesser adaptations – ahem! Naming no names here – pall after a time or two.

Davies manages to stay faithful to the spirit of the works he adapts while taking liberties with some of the details – often in the service of a feminist agenda. The ending of his Bleak House improves on Dickens’ creepy original, with its patronizing handling of Esther’s love life; and Davies’ Sense and Sensibility gives Edward and Elinor a satisfyingly romantic proposal scene that Austen denies them – though arguably she had her reasons.

Now there’s a dinner party I’d like to host: Andrew Davies meets Jane Austen, over a couple of glasses of excellent Cabernet. I suspect she’d care a lot less about the sex than people think.

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 5 2016 01:00PM

Six summers ago, a faux trailer for a non-existent film titled Jane Austen’s Fight Club went viral, with its hilarious juxtaposition of ladylike accomplishments and left hooks. (Repeat after me: “No corsets, no hat pins -- and no crying.”) Created by actress Emily Janice Card, who also plays a rather-less-passive-than-you-remember Fanny Price, it's by now been viewed more than 1.5 million times on YouTube.

In a similar, if less inspired, vein comes Entertainment Weekly’s faux trailer for a version of Sense and Sensibility directed by Zack Snyder, the auteur behind action flicks like 300 and Watchmen. Not being a teenage boy, I’ve never seen Snyder’s work, but just as you don’t have to be a Gothic novel-reader to grasp the satire in Northanger Abbey, you don’t have to be a Snyder aficionado to snicker at this clip. (The S&S trailer runs from 1:32-3:32, sandwiched between faux trailers for Snyder-directed versions of Catcher in the Rye and The Giving Tree.)

Judging from the evidence here, the hallmarks of Snyder’s style seem to be low-angle shots and slo-mo segments designed to invest every character with heroic gravitas, accompanied by portentous dialogue casting every situation in archetypal terms presaging apocalyptic violence. “It is our right – it is our destiny -- to take back what is ours,” Elinor tells Marianne as they contemplate their exile from Norland. “And we will take it back – by force.”

It must be said that Jane Austen’s Fight Club was cleverer, with a feminist point to make about the murderous boredom of Austen heroines’ lives and the seething rage that boredom must sometimes have inspired. Nothing that semi-profound is going on here. But I’ll take my Austen-related giggles where I can get them.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 8 2016 01:00PM

Although “Jane Austen Detectives” sounds like the title of a beach book I’d want to read, it’s actually the name of a sixteen-month-old web site/research project/promotional effort I stumbled across only recently.

The site seems to be the joint creation of Australian food consultant and TV presenter Ester Davies and British children’s book writer Gwynneth Ashby. Its stated purpose is to “unravel the world of Jane Austen -- her life, food, medicine and her social position in Georgian England.”

Given the wealth of existing resources on those very topics, I’m not sure how much unraveling these matters still need, and, on the whole, it is not a good sign when your Austen research site includes both a quotation from Northanger Abbey incorrectly attributed to Sense and Sensibility and a quotation from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Sense and Sensibility incorrectly attributed to Jane Austen.

But I digress. And to be fair, I rather enjoyed a number of the items I found on the site, including a video clip of Davies baking some delicious-looking cookies from a recipe book owned by the family of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward Knight.

Reading between the lines, it looks like the real purpose of the site is to gin up interest in a TV project or two, including one to be called Food For Thought, in which famous contemporary chefs cook lavish meals inspired by famous dead writers – Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Mitchell and others.

According to the promo clip, Austen will be assigned to British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, whose planned menu for a “Ball Supper for Twenty People” – scrolled amid clips from the Keira Knightley film version of Pride and Prejudice -- includes an appetizer course named “First Impressions,” entrees entitled “Pride of Salmon” and “Prejudice Duck,” and a dessert called “Tarte Lizzie,” described as lemon ice with pine cone.

It’s all a bit corny, and yet – you know I’d watch. And if anyone wants to try her hand at writing The Jane Austen Detectives, I’m there for that, too.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 6 2016 01:00PM

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to see a very enjoyable and ingenious stage production of Sense and Sensibility, performed in New York by the off-Broadway Bedlam theater company. After a spring vacation of sorts, performances resume next week, and WCSI, a Fox Radio station, recently interviewed playwright Kate Hamill, who also plays Marianne Dashwood.

In the interview, Hamill talks about how she began writing plays after realizing, as she lived on ramen noodles while making the rounds of New York auditions, how few stage roles were written by and for women, even though women make up the majority of theatergoers.

Hamill’s S&S emphasizes the funny side of Austen, and the price is some loss of emotional intensity. But the comedy is highly entertaining. Much Austen dialogue, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is preserved. Furniture and props are mounted on casters and shoved into position from one end of the stage to the other – including in a memorable dinner-party scene in which actors simultaneously playing two different characters careen from one end of the table to the other without missing a beat. The undisguised artifice of the staging plays like a wry commentary on the artificiality of the manners on display.

The play has scored excellent reviews, including from many Janeites. “Those are my people,” Hamill tells her interviewer, Jane Metzler. “I’m very pleased that the Austenites like it. When I was first working on this, I thought, ‘If I don’t do this right, they’ll come after me with pitchforks.’ ” (Oh, honey – you were always safe. There’s so much Austen-related dreck out there that we can’t take the time to give everyone the pitchfork treatment.)

Hamill’s play, with a different cast but the same director, will be staged at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. this fall; a Sunday matinee is one of the special events on offer during the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. And in the interview, Hamill announces good news for Janeites: apparently she’s already working on adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 25 2016 01:00PM

Twelfth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.

In the spring of 1811, Jane Austen stood on the cusp of great change. She had spent her first thirty-five years as the younger daughter of a country clergyman, but finally she was about to become something more: a published novelist. Amid the social whirl of a London visit to her brother Henry and his elegant wife, Eliza, Austen was correcting the proofs of her first book, Sense and Sensibility.

The letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly two hundred and five years ago today (#71 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) makes clear that this momentous development was much in Austen’s thoughts. She was obviously having a great time in London – she tells Cassandra about plays she’s seen, an art exhibition she’s planning to visit, and Eliza’s recent musical soiree for sixty-six (!) guests – and in an earlier letter, Cassandra seems to have asked whether all these distractions had left no time to think of the book.

“No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S&S,” Austen replies. “I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child.”

Critics obsessed with Austen’s childlessness leap upon this line, and a similar statement two years later about the newly published Pride and Prejudice, as evidence that Austen saw her books as replacements for the babies she never had. Well, maybe, but all the writers I know, even those who, like myself, are in secure possession of actual flesh-and-blood children, think of their books as babies.

And no wonder: You devote countless hours of time and thought to your books; nurture, protect and argue with them; watch them grow from tiny ideas into full-fledged manuscripts; and then send them out into the world, hoping that others will love them as much as you do. As a parent, you can’t know if your beloved child will become a Nobel Prize-winning scientist or a deadbeat loser, and as an author, you can’t know if you’ve produced a tour de force destined to win a Pulitzer or a beach read fated to migrate rapidly to the remainder bin. But it doesn’t matter: you love them just the same.

As we know, Jane Austen’s metaphorical “sucking child” grew up to be a deathless masterpiece, and its creator never produced any non-metaphorical children of her own. But I think even a Jane Austen with a brood of real-life babies to nurse would have loved her little S&S just the same.

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