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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 10 2017 01:00PM

During World War I, historians tell us, Jane Austen’s novels were sometimes prescribed to traumatized British soldiers as a remedy for shell-shock, anxiety and despair. And now, it seems, the benefits of the Austen Cure are about to become available to another jumpy, unsettled demographic: lonely dogs and their guilt-ridden owners.


Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon, has just announced a new program, Audible for Dogs, whose spokesman is dog whisperer Cesar Millan. And among the titles Millan recommends for canine consumption (figuratively speaking, I hasten to add) is a 2015 recording of Pride and Prejudice, read by British actress Rosamund Pike, who played Jane Bennet in the 2005 P&P film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.


The idea of Audible for Dogs is to give man’s best friend a soothing substitute for His Master’s Voice when said master is out of the house for long periods of time. Just set up a digital speaker, crank up an audiobook featuring the calm, consistent tones of someone whose voice resembles that of the primary dog-owner, and voila: no more guilty worries that lonely, neurotic Fido will spend your absence peeing on the carpet, chewing your Manolos, or annoying the neighbors with incessant barking.


Such is the idea, anyway. Millan and Audible claim to have backed up their hunch with a month-long study featuring one hundred volunteer dog-human pairs, but forgive me for a teensy bit of skepticism about the objectivity and scientific rigor of this experiment.


For Janeites, the key question is clear: Although Pride and Prejudice is often suggested as a good introduction to Austen for human readers, is the same true for canine ones? I’m concerned that Millan may have set these four-legged neophytes up for failure by choosing a book that, as far as I can recall, contains no mention of dogs at all.


Given that omission, it hardly seems fair to stack P&P up against some of the more canine-centric titles on Millan’s list, including Soldier Dogs, A Dog’s Purpose, and The Art of Racing in the Rain. Wouldn’t he have been better off choosing Northanger Abbey, whose hero greets visitors accompanied by “the friends of his solitude, a large Newfoundland puppy and two or three terriers”? Or Sense and Sensibility, whose anti-hero Willougby, though lacking in moral fiber, at least has the good taste to own “the nicest little black bitch of a pointer” that Sir John Middleton has ever seen?


But really, the answer is obvious: Dogs are clearly the only readers who should be introduced to Jane Austen by way of Mansfield Park. To human readers, Fanny Price may seem insipid, and Edmund Bertram's cluelessness may cry out for a slap upside the head. But what canine companion, nursing feelings of neglect and abandonment as its owner departs for a long day at the office, won’t be charmed by Lady Bertram’s excellent judgment in “thinking more of her pug than her children”?


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 7 2017 01:00PM

Perhaps it is because game-playing is so common in Jane Austen’s novels – think Lydia Bennet’s lottery tickets, Mary Crawford’s spirited round of speculation, or Mr. Woodhouse’s backgammon board – that every year seems to bring a new Janeite game.


As blog readers will recall, I’ve greatly enjoyed some of the earlier Janeite entertainments, and so I’m happy to learn that we’ll soon have an addition to the collection: The Austen-themed board game Polite Society has reached its Kickstarter goal, and its Australian creators expect to deliver their final product by March.


Unlike some previous Austen games, in which players compete for glory in the marriage market, Polite Society concerns the less irrevocable, but no less cutthroat, competition for high-status dinner guests. Still, the general idea is familiar: Instead of potential spouses, game cards represent fifty-two potential guests -- heroes, heroines and secondary characters, both attractive (Jane Fairfax) and repellant (John Thorpe), from all six novels.


Under rules that recall the marriage-linked Austen games, inviting these characters to dine requires forking over varying numbers of cards representing Wealth, Wit, Beauty, and Heart. Once acquired, prestigious characters generate rewards that, in turn, make it easier to invite still more prestigious guests.


The creators of Polite Society are a pair of sisters who, in addition to their day jobs, run a company called Veldi Games. So although it’s not clear from the Kickstarter description, I assume that, once launched, Polite Society will be available for sale to the general public, not just to those who backed the original appeal.


But if you want to get in on the ground floor before the Kickstarter campaign ends on August 24, it costs only $5 Australian (about $4 US) to get a print-and-play electronic version, available now, and only $39 Australian (about $31 US) to get the boxed set next year. Which leaves you plenty of time to come up with a menu sumptuous enough to tempt Mr. Darcy.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 3 2017 01:00PM

I like to think that I am not a complainer, but I have to admit that I've done a lot of complaining on this blog.


Some of my moans are chronic: I never tire of pointing out that quotes from filmed adaptations of Jane Austen’s works are not, in fact, quotes by Jane Austen. And some of my moans are situational: This year, I have frequently noted the misfortune of being an American Janeite with a limited travel budget just when the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death has brought an avalanche of Austen-related events to Britain.


How exciting, then, to be able to combine my complaints into one Super-Moan, as I managed to do when I ran across this post by Sophie Andrews, who blogs at Laughing with Lizzie and is a volunteer ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation.


As you’ll recall, one of the many, many bicentenary events that we budget-conscious American Janeites can’t experience is Sitting With Jane, the art trail composed of twenty-four specially painted, Austen-inspired, book-shaped benches located in and around Basingstoke, in Austen's home county of Hampshire.


Luckily, however, Andrews has visited all twenty-four, and in her post she provides excellent photos of the front and back of each one, along with some details about its location. Judging from her photos, the artistic approaches and interpretative attitudes taken by the bench creators vary widely, from Regency restraint to comic-book sass, but many are quite lovely and all are interesting. Grr! Why can’t I go see them myself?


But really now: If you’re going to create a bench (“Jane and Her Forgotten Peers”) dedicated to Austen and some of the pioneering female writers who came before her, and if you’re going to put that bench outside Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, shouldn’t you make sure that any quotes you attribute to Austen actually come from one of her books?


Yes, I’m afraid it’s true: On the back of the Winchester Cathedral bench,* next to a portrait of Austen, appears this quote: “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”


***headdesk***


I have said it before, and no doubt I will have to say it again. Jane Austen did not write this line, no matter how many web sites claim she did. It is a garbled version of a line written by Andrew Davies in his screenplay for the 2008 television adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.


I hate to think of Jane Austen rolling over in her nearby grave at this misattribution. On the other hand, she might have enjoyed the irony: A bench dedicated to great female writers uses a quote from a male one.



* In fact, “Jane Talk,” another bench in the Sitting With Jane series, also uses movie quotes (though not the Davies one) in a “modern graphic art style” montage of Austen-related lines. But at least the creator of that bench seems to have realized she was using movie lines. (The “Jane Talk” bench is supposed to “inspire all to read [Austen’s] novels,” though I must grumpily point out that this goal might be better served by quoting from those novels, rather than from screenplays based on them but written by other people.)


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