Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2015 01:00PM

Halfway to the finish line, the Austen Project is looking increasingly like the Austen Fiasco.


The Austen Project, as you may recall, is publisher HarperCollins’ effort to confer respectability upon the much-maligned genre of Jane Austen fan fiction by assigning a modern-day update of each Austen novel to a commercially successful yet critically acclaimed contemporary writer.


The first three volumes have now been published, and each is, in its own way, pretty bad. No adapter has yet been announced for Mansfield Park and Persuasion (although I’m rather partial to my husband’s suggestion that E.L. James should take on Fanny Price), and the project’s web site shows signs of infrequent updating. Could it be that HarperCollins is having trouble persuading writers with the appropriate track record to jump aboard this listing ship?

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 12 2015 01:00PM

“Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy made his fortune from slavery”! “Romantic hero profited from the misery of others”!


So scream this week’s scandal-mongering UK headlines (in, respectively, the Independent and the Daily Mail). Both stories report on a recent speech at the Festival of Literature in Dubai (there’s a lit festival in Dubai? Who knew?) by British novelist Joanna Trollope, who, since penning a deeply mediocre Sense and Sensibility update, has apparently been crowned the Queen of the Austen Experts.


As best I can tell from the overwrought coverage, Trollope seems to have been making a rather uncontroversial point: that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English fortunes, such as those possessed by the heroes of Pride and Prejudice, almost always rested on foundations that look pretty unsavory to our modern eyes.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 28 2013 01:00PM

Joanna Trollope’s modern-dress adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the first in a planned series of six Austen updates by popular contemporary authors, will be published here on Tuesday. I’ve already preordered for my Kindle, but now comes word that Trollope, whose earlier, non-Austen novels I’ve greatly enjoyed, doesn’t want me to read her latest book.


We American Austen fans – apparently we’re noted for our militancy – will be offended that she’s updated the story by, for example, having Willoughby give Marianne a sports car instead of a horse.


“There’s a Jane Austen Society in America which takes it even more seriously than the Jane Austen Society in this country,” Trollope told the audience at a British literary festival this month. “I’ve been to one of their conventions, which was held in Winchester, and most of the delegates from America — none of whom was exactly anorexic — were all in Jane Austen clothes.”


Translation: we’re fat, silly purists with no sense of humor.


Sigh. These aren’t the smart, funny Janeites I know – many of whom, incidentally, rather enjoy a well-written Austen spinoff, whether a sequel set in the Regency or a modern-dress update, a la Bridget Jones’ Diary.


Indeed, it’s pretty clear that this whole “Austen Project” was inspired by the success of P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, which reportedly sold 300,000 copies in hardback alone. Many Janeites I know read that book – although, admittedly, we tended to be far less enthusiastic about it than were mainstream critics.


Trollope’s rather mean-spirited remarks smack of a pre-emptive strike against Janeite criticism. If we don’t like her book, apparently it won’t be because it’s not a good book; it’ll be because we’re nuts.


I understand that enthusiastic fandom can look kind of silly to outsiders, especially, I'm afraid, when the enthusiasts are middle-aged women. But judging from her earlier books, Trollope is keenly aware of the many ways in which our culture slights, ignores and patronizes middle-aged women. She should know better than to indulge in this cheap ridicule of Austen nuts -- especially since it’s the Austen nuts who’ve made the entire Austen Project possible.


A little more politeness – even of the fake, social-smile kind – might be in order. Where’s Elinor Dashwood when you need her?


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