Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 14 2018 01:00PM

In the annals of news-that-isn’t-exactly-new, the year 1975 holds a special place.

That fall, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lapsed into a coma. For nearly three weeks, the evening newscasts featured stories about Franco’s lingering, along the lines of “Francisco Franco is still clinging to life,” before he finally died on November 20 at the age of eighty-two.

Then Saturday Night Live got into the act: For weeks afterwards -- months? Years? -- its parody newscast would often include an anchor reporting, “In other news, Francisco Franco is still dead.”

In that spirit, I note that earlier this month, a newspaper in Leicestershire, England, helpfully pointed out that the last Jane Austen Golden Fiver has still not been found.

You remember the Golden Fivers. Back in December 2016, a famous micro-engraver named Graham Short decorated four UK £5 notes with a teeny-tiny portrait of Jane Austen encircled by a teeny-tiny quote from one of her novels. Then he secretly spent the notes in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and waited for them to turn up in the pockets of unsuspecting consumers.

Newspapers breathlessly reported that, based on pricing of other works by Short, who is known for mind-blowing feats like engraving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, each fiver could be worth as much as £50,000 (about $67,000).

In the following year, these things happened: People found the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish notes. Two of the finders decided to keep their notes as souvenirs, but the third returned hers to the art gallery that had planned this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type stunt, asking that it be sold and the proceeds used to help children. When the note was auctioned to benefit BBC Children in Need, the charitable arm of the venerable broadcaster, it fetched £5,000 (about $6,700) -- which is either a heck of a lot for a piece of currency with a face value of under $7, or a bitter disappointment, depending on how credulously you swallowed that £50,000 estimate.

But as the Leicester Mercury notes, here’s what didn’t happen: No one found the English note, which Short says he spent at Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray. By now, the last Golden Fiver could be anywhere, from Melton Mowbray to Edinburgh, from the piggy bank of a child in Cornwall to the saved-for-my-next-UK-trip stash of a tourist in Hong Kong. It could turn up tomorrow! Next Christmas! Or never!

And Francisco Franco is still dead.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 11 2018 01:00PM

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

The story of Jane Austen fandom has been told more than once, in books by Claire Harman, Claudia L. Johnson, Devoney Looser, Deidre Lynch (as editor), and (ahem!) myself. Austen devotees have been located among those who read her novels soon after their publication in 1813-17, among those who first devoured her nephew’s hagiographic 1869 memoir, and among those who swooned over Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Arguably, however, the first mention of a Jane Austen fan outside Austen’s own family – a Janeite Patient Zero, as it were -- comes in the letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 219 years ago today (#21 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

The twenty-three-year-old Austen is staying with relatives in Bath while Cassandra remains behind in Steventon. Amid a bubbly account of what she’s done, who she’s met, and what she’s bought, Jane mentions the Austen sisters’ great friend Martha Lloyd, who has apparently asked Cassandra if she can see the manuscript of First Impressions, the early Austen work that we believe eventually became Pride and Prejudice.

“I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power,” Jane writes jokingly to Cassandra. “She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.”

And there you have it: Martha Lloyd, the friend who a decade later set up housekeeping with the Austen sisters and their mother at Chawton cottage, is the first obsessive Austen re-reader for whom we have documentary evidence – the prototype of those people who read all the novels every year, recite dialogue by heart, and mentally file everyone they meet under headings like “Lady Catherine” and “Mr. Collins.”

Welcome to the club, Martha.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 7 2018 01:00PM

As a fan of not only Jane Austen but also the Jane Austen Society of North America (member since 1981), I was pleased to see JASNA pop up in an unexpected context recently: as a practitioner of exemplary PR.

“Most recently, I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) and have reveled in the refinement of its messaging,” Janeite Laura Hale Brockway, a writer and editor from Texas, recently noted in the online newsletter PR Daily. “In a world of fake news, spam, and ham-handed marketing techniques, receiving their messages is like feeling the sun on your face on a cold day.”

Brockway goes on to praise JASNA for its welcome letter, its donation thank-you, and its crisis communications, which unfortunately got a workout recently when the registration system for September’s Annual General Meeting in Kansas City crashed on the first day it opened. (Luckily, my registration was processed before the problems cropped up, which is of course all that matters.)

I share Brockway’s admiration for JASNA’s literate and gracious approach. Although, really, Jane Austen demands no less.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2018 01:00PM

Every now and again, along comes a Jane Austen adaptation, spinoff, or fanfic that, in its wishful thinking and reassuring punch-pulling, reminds us by contrast of how fearlessly unsentimental Austen is. Some of these remixes are pretty good (see under: Sittenfeld, Curtis). And some, like the movies with which I spent this past Saturday night, are pretty godawful.

In my continued pursuit of Jane Austen video completism – and in an effort to warn other Janeites before they commit themselves -- I curled up with a bowl of popcorn to watch the Hallmark Channel’s Marrying Mr. Darcy. But I didn’t stop there. Courtesy of Hallmark’s schedulers, I spent the preceding two hours re-watching the 2016 movie to which this one is a sequel: Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world.

You’re welcome.

Blog readers may recall that I was not a fan of either the first movie or the book on which it was based, and I cannot say that the movie improves with age: The acting is still wooden, the writing still execrable, the production values still bargain-basement. If I found it less offensive this time around, it was only because I was prepared.

Unleashing Mr. Darcy tells the story of the romance between perky Elizabeth Scott (Cindy Busby), unjustly fired from her teaching job at a posh D.C. high school, and rich-‘n’-handsome Donovan Darcy (Ryan Paevey), dog-show judge, successful businessman, devoted big brother, and – just for good measure – selfless philanthropist.

After several occasions of inexplicable, unmotivated hostility and rudeness on her part, the two bond over their shared love of Cavalier King Charles spaniels and patch up their differences in one of those climactic public reconciliations, complete with applause from an audience of strangers, that happen so often in the movies and so seldom in real life.

Marrying Mr. Darcy picks up the romance some indeterminate number of months later, the passage of time signified by the altered hairstyles of several of the main characters and the presence of a completely different actress playing Donovan’s younger sister, Zara. After a kissy-face proposal, we quickly find ourselves in the midst of that hoary sitcom plot staple: We Wanted a Small, Simple Wedding, But Everything Seems To Be Spinning Out of Control.

Leading the charge toward a wedding featuring a designer gown, a society church, and a guest list in the hundreds is Donovan’s Aunt Violet, our stand-in for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In the first movie, the veteran actress Frances Fisher tries valiantly to have fun with the role of an icy, manipulative villainess determined to scotch her nephew’s interest in the déclassé Elizabeth, but she is stymied by the egregious writing, which gives her little to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into.

At least, though, Unleashing Mr. Darcy allows her to be a villain. Marrying Mr. Darcy has a position to maintain: It’s the inaugural offering in Hallmark’s feel-good June Weddings series. Thus, it must follow the template of the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice in giving Austen’s arrogant, tyrannical Lady Catherine a heart of gold. Or, to quote Zara, “Aunt Violet, I’ve always known it. You’re just a softie underneath.”

And so Marrying presents us with a Violet who apologizes for trying to sabotage the Elizabeth-Donovan romance, gives her future niece-in-law heirloom family jewelry, and helps bring the young lovers together after a temporary estrangement. She’s sorry for interfering, she explains, but she still remembers Donovan as a heartbroken, newly orphaned nineteen-year-old. (Perhaps Aunt Violet has incipient Alzheimer’s? Those of us who had tuned in for the reprise of Unleashing Mr. Darcy had just been told that Darcy was twenty-one when he lost his parents in a tragic, yet unintentionally hilarious, boating accident.)

The new movie includes flashes of the Aunt Violet we could love to hate. Informed of Elizabeth’s shocking plan to return to her teaching career post-wedding, Violet purrs, in full 1950s Good Housekeeping mode, “That’s who you were. Now you will be Mrs. Donovan Darcy. That’s a very important full-time job.”

Alas, these hints of a more entertaining movie struggling to break out of the saccharine handcuffs go nowhere. Instead, it’s typical romcom fare, Billionaire Boyfriend division (“The Louvre may approve an after-hours visit for your honeymoon!” Darcy’s helpful assistant informs him.)

But Darcy is no Christian Gray: This is a strictly TV-G enterprise, and therefore, although both Donovan and Elizabeth are over thirty and have no discernible religious convictions, they maintain chastely separate residences, and their relationship shows no signs of having progressed below the neck. Like everything else about these movies, the prevailing temperature is tepid.

While the bland safety of these films is, of course, typical of the made-for-TV romance genre, it’s precisely not typical of the ruthlessly realistic Jane Austen. She has no qualms about leaving Lady Catherine as overbearing and snobbish at the end of Pride and Prejudice as she was at the beginning, even if the pragmatic Elizabeth does eventually engineer a reconciliation. It’s too bad that so many of Austen’s adapters don’t understand the very things about her that keep us coming back.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 31 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral, as all good Janeites know, but it’s another prominent medieval English church that will host an academic lecture about her work next week: Westminster Abbey, perhaps the most famous religious site in the British Isles.

For three evenings next month, the abbey and the British non-profit Art + Christanity are sponsoring a free lecture series on nineteenth-century English female novelists who “use fiction to explore questions of faith, morality and personal adherence to the Church of England.”

In addition to Austen, talks will cover Charlotte Bronte, born a year before Austen’s death, and Charlotte Yonge, who, although less well-known today than either Austen or Bronte, had a far longer and more prolific career than either, dying at the start of the twentieth century.

Next Tuesday’s kickoff talk, “Jane Austen’s Afterlife: Art, Culture and Religion,” will be given by the Rev. Alison Grant Milbank, associate professor of literature and theology at England’s University of Nottingham.

Jane Austen’s religious commitments and influences are unfamiliar to many modern-day Janeites, who live in far more secular cultures than the one that shaped her writing. It should be fascinating to hear a theologian talk about her work – wish I could be there. (And if you are, please let us know what you think!)

As a side note, I felt a little thrill at the title of the lecture series: “Excellent Women,” surely a tribute to the wonderful twentieth-century British writer Barbara Pym, whose most famous novel bears the same title. Pym’s books, with their precise Austenian irony and frequent references to Austen’s characters, often center on quiet, overlooked spinsters whose volunteerism underpins church life – excellent women indeed.

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