Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 21 2017 01:00PM

The Jane Austen adaptation factory never seems to stop churning out fresh material. By now, the proliferating combinations and recombinations for stage and screen – I’m not even talking about the books! -- are enough to make the head spin: straight-up Regency, Regency plus zombies, Regency plus murder mystery, Regency plus time travel, modern-day update (American), modern-day update (Indian), Austen biographical, ballet, opera, talking dog. . .


And yet more is on the horizon, judging from a few tidbits of news that came my way in the past week or two.


* ABC plans to air a pilot, and perhaps an entire TV series, adapted from Curtis Sittenfeld’s best-selling 2016 novel Eligible, which updated Pride and Prejudice to contemporary Cincinnati. Regular blog readers will recall that I enjoyed Eligible, and a “soapy drama series” based on it could be kind of fun – though after the first few episodes, it presumably won’t have much to do with Jane Austen. No word on when we can look for this, but I hope it's soon! I'm having new-Austen-adaptation withdrawal symptoms.


* Jane Austen’s relatively quiet life has, improbably, already spawned not one but two screen dramatizations (Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets). And now Austen the Musical – which is, as you might expect, a musical-theater version of that same quiet life – is launching UK and US tours. (The UK performances run from October 2017 to April 2018; no US dates have been announced yet).


Apparently, the show has already played to good reviews in arty venues like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I must confess that I felt a qualm when I ran across website copy telling me that “Austen the Musical explores Jane’s struggle to have her work published in a male dominated environment, her romances and her vow to reject a woman’s lifestyle in Georgian England.” (Qualms since a) it’s not clear that her publishing struggles were gender-related; b) her romances are mostly fictitious; and c) I’m unaware of any such feminist “vow.”) But I’m willing to give the show a shot if it comes to a theater near me.


* Meanwhile, the horizon has receded a bit for the long-awaited movie of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, according to an interview the film’s producer gave to the period drama website Willow and Thatch. (Scroll down to “Update 9/6/2017.”) Back in early 2016, there was talk of a 2017 release -- I blogged about the movie here and here -- but now it looks as if filming won’t even start until next year. Until then, I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with other products of the Austen adaptation factory.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 18 2017 01:00PM

The ongoing saga of Chawton House Library’s beloved Shire horses – likely casualties of the Austen site’s cost-cutting campaign – is yielding some interesting peeks into what’s been going on behind the scenes.


Last week, a local newspaper reported that a last-ditch effort to keep the horses at Chawton, the library of early English writing by women that is housed at the Hampshire estate of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward, had drawn interest from a deep-pocketed local conservationist.


According to the story in the Liphook Herald, the donor, Diana Tennyson (a Tennyson rides to the rescue of an Austen! You can’t make this stuff up), has offered “£10,000 security” in exchange for a promise that Chawton’s stables will stay open for six months of further planning for the horses’ future.


It’s not clear to me if that £10,000 would be enough to cover the full cost of maintaining the horses, but in any case, the matter is apparently moot: Chawton’s COO, James MacBain, says the horses have to go.


And here’s where the inside info comes in. One of the curiosities of Chawton’s money woes is the speed with which they appear to have arisen. Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley gazillionaire who founded the library and poured millions into its renovation and operations, announced in the summer of 2016 that she would cease her financial support by the end of 2017. But the library didn’t launch a major fundraising campaign until almost a year later, leaving little time to replace Lerner’s sixty-five percent share of the operating budget.


In his interview with the newspaper, MacBain suggests why that problematic delay occurred: Lerner, he said, had promised “a very substantial one-off donation” that the library assumed would give it time to create a business plan. But months later, “it became apparent that no time or plans had been fixed by Dr. Lerner for this donation, and the trustees had to make speedy decisions in a very different and unwelcome context, recognizing that such a donation may well not ever materialize,” he said.


I have done no reporting of my own on this dispute, and no one seems to have asked Lerner for her side of the story. But with this much being said in public about matters that typically remain boardroom confidential, it doesn’t take a Kremlinologist to suspect that some truly bad blood has developed between Sandy Lerner and the treasured Janeite institution she created. What a shame.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 14 2017 01:00PM

It’s official: Starting today, Brits will be able to buy their tea, their scones -- even their books -- with a fistful of Jane Austen £10 notes.


More than four years after announcing plans to put Austen on the currency, and two months after unveiling the first notes during a ceremony at Winchester Cathedral on the bicentenary of Austen’s death, the Bank of England is putting the Austen tenner into circulation.


Despite Janeite joy at this honor for our beloved author, it’s been a rocky road. First came the feminist campaign to put a woman on the currency, after the bank announced that Winston Churchill would replace prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note. (Fry wasn’t the first woman on the currency, besides the queen: Florence Nightingale held that title, from 1975-94.)


Even as the bank swiftly decided to maintain a non-royal female presence on the currency by subbing Austen in for Charles Darwin on the tenner, Internet trolls harassed and threatened the leader of the feminist campaign.


Then Janeites pointed out that the Austen quote selected for the note – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading,” from Pride and Prejudice – is spoken by the execrable Caroline Bingley, moments before she tosses aside the book she has picked up only to impress the eligible Mr. Darcy.


Others noted that the picture of Austen is a prettified version of a sketch that may not even look much like her. Still others pointed out that Austen never lived permanently at Godmersham House, the stately home pictured in the background, although she did visit her brother’s family there.


These people! They’re never satisfied!


Still, it’s a great day for Janeites: Our author takes her place among a select pantheon of artists, scientists, politicians, and social reformers deemed important enough to represent the British nation. What would this country clergyman’s daughter have thought of it all?



By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 11 2017 01:32PM

We all have our own idea of Pemberley, the quintessential Jane Austen estate. On film, it’s been played by gorgeous Lyme Park, in Cheshire (15-acre garden, 1,400-acre deer park), and even more fabulous Chatsworth, in Derbyshire (126 rooms, 105-acre garden), although it’s likely that Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year would not have sufficed to maintain such palatial properties.


Still, even if Darcy contented himself with a more modest stately home, it seems likely he never had to make do with the 460 square feet of the Pemberley, a portable house-on-wheels recently built for a family of five by Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses.*


Tiny Houses are intended to be more affordable and environmentally sustainable than the sprawling McMansions of suburbia, but this particular model is hardly austere: The kitchen features cherry cabinets and granite countertops, the electronic hookup allows for a giant TV, and the appliances are high-end.


Personally, I can’t imagine raising small children in a space this, um, tiny -- not to mention that our books alone would take up all the available surfaces. But check out those beautiful poplar-wood walls! It’s enough to make a girl change her mind about a marriage proposal.


* Thanks to AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan for bringing this item to my attention via Twitter.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 7 2017 01:00PM

When Silicon Valley multimillionaire Sandy Lerner opened Chawton House Library in 2003, the new Janeite landmark in Hampshire, England, bore her stamp in more ways than one.


Lerner's money had funded the $20 million renovation of the dilapidated Elizabethan mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother. Lerner's rare book collection formed the core of the library’s holdings in early English writing by women. And Lerner's passionate love of animals had ensured that the rolling acres surrounding the property would be home to a handful of Shire horses, the strong, sturdy breed traditionally used in farmwork.


But last year, the library announced that Lerner was leaving the board and would soon take her 65 percent share of the annual budget with her. And now comes word that the expense of maintaining the Shire horses hasn’t survived the subsequent cost-cutting.


“We have loved having Shire horses on our estate, but their upkeep is particularly expensive,” the library wrote last month on its web site. And so, despite grumbles from some locals, the four remaining horses will go to new homes, and their two human supervisors will lose their jobs.


Though it’s sad to see these beautiful animals go, I’m more intrigued by the question of just how bleak the library’s future really is. Signs point to anxiety. On its web site, the library describes its recently unveiled funding campaign as “urgent,” and the numbers involved are daunting: Reportedly, the library must raise £150,000 in eighteen months just to cover operating costs, with far more needed for the substantial capital investments envisioned to turn the site into a major tourist draw.


Still, I’d be surprised if Chawton House Library didn’t survive in some form. It’s hard to believe that even austerity-era Britain would let an Austen site go dark just months after celebrating the bicentenary of Our Jane’s death.


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