Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 22 2018 02:00PM

Thanksgiving Day may seem to be a holiday with no connection whatsoever to the works of Jane Austen. True, her major novels include the occasional reference to a holiday food – in past years, I’ve covered turkey, potatoes, and pie – but the pickings are pretty slim.

One Austen character, however, has a profound, if heretofore unrecognized, connection to the holiday. For at about the age of seventeen, Jane Austen created Charlotte Lutterell -- the patron saint of leftovers.

The unfinished Lesley Castle is one of the short, hilarious epistolary novels included in Jane Austen’s teenage writings, known as the Juvenilia. Three of its ten letters are written by Charlotte, a dedicated cook whose obsession with ensuring that no food goes to waste will seem sadly familiar to, ahem, any member of my family, especially over the next few days.

Charlotte has spent five weeks preparing a feast for her sister’s wedding, so imagine her horror when she learns from the prospective bride that the groom lies at the point of death after a horseback riding accident:

“ ‘Good God! (said I) you don’t say so? Why, what in the name of heaven will become of all the victuals! We shall never be able to eat it while it is good. However, we’ll call in the surgeon to help us. I shall be able to manage the sirloin myself, my mother will eat the soup, and you and the doctor must finish the rest.’ ” (Letter the Second)

Fortunately, Charlotte’s labors are not in vain: two weeks later, having left home to give her grieving sister a change of air, Charlotte informs her correspondent that all is well:

“I have the satisfaction of informing you that we have every reason to imagine our pantry is by this time nearly cleared, as we left particular orders with the servants to eat as hard as they possibly could, and to call in a couple of chairwomen to assist them. We brought a cold pigeon pie, a cold turkey, a cold tongue, and half a dozen jellies with us, which we were lucky enough with the help of our landlady, her husband, and their three children, to get rid of in less than two days after our arrival.” (Letter the Fourth)

Some may think that Charlotte is cold, unfeeling, and self-absorbed. Indeed, I suspect that Jane Austen herself thought so. I, however, think that poor Charlotte is unfairly maligned. What could be worse than watching cold turkey go to waste?

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 19 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s novels have provided the inspiration for any number of musical treatments, from operas and a classical instrumental suite to both original and jukebox musical theater. But only recently, it seems, has anyone had the idea of training a computer to write songs by feeding it the text of Emma.

Yes, that’s what they’re up to over at Google, as we learned last week from an article made available online by two of the company’s researchers, Pablo Samuel Castro and Maria Attarian.

Apparently, getting artificial intelligence to produce decent poetry and song lyrics is an especially challenging computer-science task. Castro and Attarian attempted to improve on previous efforts by training their neural network on two datasets, one consisting of the lyrics of songs in a variety of genres (excluding hip-hop, “to reduce the amount of profanity” in the results), and one drawn from sixteen popular books, all but one of them fiction, available via Project Gutenberg.

Yes, just as Mr. Darcy would dictate, it was not enough for the computers to have a thorough knowledge of music and singing; they also had to improve their minds by extensive reading.

Among the items in the second dataset, which was designed to expand the computer system’s vocabulary, were Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Austen, Dickens, and Twain were the only authors with two books on the list, which also included works by writers ranging from Machiavelli to Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Alas, however, getting a computer to write poetry is even harder than turning a nineteenth-century heroine into Mr. Darcy's idea of a truly accomplished young lady. The experiment's results, though of interest to computer scientists, were hardly toe-tapping Top 40 hits. (Sample result: “come on, uh/ you remember the voice of the widow/i love the girl of the age/i have a regard for the whole/i have no doubt of the kind/i am sitting in the corner of the mantelpiece.”)

In future, the researchers say, they hope to refine the training process by including more books, as well as books employing a more modern lingo. Since Project Gutenberg primarily includes out-of-copyright works, the list of books used in the experiment is heavy on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels, whose vocabularies are not exactly typical for today’s songs. (In the resulting lyrics, Austen’s influence can perhaps be detected in the presence of words like “estate,” and “fancy” used as a noun.)

Personally, however, I’m in favor of nipping this whole thing in the bud right now. Since I make my living, such as it is, as a writer, I’m all in favor of teaching machines as little as possible about writing. Keep the computers ignorant, I say!

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 15 2018 02:00PM

From time to time, you happen across a story that makes clear how entirely some people miss the point of Jane Austen.

For instance, when you learn that an effort to commemorate her ethically rigorous work with a dozen brass paving-stone plaques has been temporarily thwarted because a thief walked off with two of the plaques, literally before the glue had dried.

Such was last weekend’s sad (but, let’s face it, also kind of hilarious -- at least that part is Austenian) story from Basingstoke, England. Last month, it seems, local officials and heritage organizations set out to install a Jane Austen trail in Basingstoke, the big town nearest to the Hampshire village of Chawton, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life.

The trail is meant to include twelve plaques, each containing a few words from one of two Austen quotes. To reconstruct the quotes in their entirety, you must follow the trail, which ends at the Austen statue erected last year in the town center.

Somewhat oddly, this particular Austen commemoration was apparently inspired by a far sadder and more serious piece of public art: the Stolperstein (stumbling stone) project, originated in Germany in 1992, in which commemorative paving stones mark the last homes in which Holocaust victims lived before they emigrated, died, or were deported to concentration camps.

The launch of the more light-hearted Austen project was planned for October 28, but as local tour operator Phil Howe was installing the plaques, an enterprising thief apparently moved in right behind him. “Whoever stole them must have acted pretty quickly,” Howe told the local paper, “as the product I used to put them in place is pretty stern stuff once it sets.”

I'm still trying to figure out what value two brass plaques etched with a few random words could possibly have. Can you melt them down for scrap? Search me.

Just to add an extra touch of irony, however, one of the quotes rendered less than comprehensible by the plundering expressed the twenty-four-year-old Jane Austen’s unflattering evaluation of the available pickings at a local ball: “There was a scarcity of men in general, and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much” (Letter #24 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

The other quote – the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice – is so familiar to Janeites that we could recite it even if a thief stole all its plaques.

Nevertheless, the local Austen boosters plan to replace the stolen items -- assuming the thief fails to behave as Jane Austen would certainly require, and return them at once.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2018 02:00PM

This business of Austen trend-spotting is getting to be exhausting.

Barely four months ago, I noted that the two-decade-long craze for adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels seems to have inaugurated a more recent craze for second-order Austen spinoffs: adaptations of works that are themselves Austen adaptations. Broaden the category to include films that constitute original works of fanfic -- one-and-a-half order adaptations? -- and the numbers multiply.

Before the year is out, we will have experienced (at least!) five second-ish-order spinoffs: an Off Broadway musical based on Clueless, the 1995 movie that updates the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills; a fifth-anniversary sequel to the web series Emma Approved; and no fewer than three Pride and Prejudice-inspired Hallmark movies (here, here, and -- before long -- here). And that's not even to mention the announced plans for a remake of Clueless; a movie version of Ayesha at Last, a P&P fanfic set among young Muslims in Toronto; and a filmed update of Persuasion.

Apparently, next year will bring more of the same: Lifetime, the TV channel famed for its tales about women in love, women in danger, and women in love with danger, has just promised us Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta. In this version of the story, the main characters are African-American, Mr. Bennet is a minister – call him Rev. Bennet – and his wife is in a rush to marry off her five daughters because she’s the author of a self-help marriage manual. (Shades of the 2003 P&P movie set among devout Mormons in contemporary Utah?)

I approach almost every new Austen project in a spirit of Christmas-in-July good cheer. Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta? I’m game! Good news: Tracy McMillan, a veteran TV writer whose wise and funny Huffington Post piece “Why You’re Not Married” went viral in 2011, is doing the screenplay! Hurrah! This could be awesome!

And what with the Ayesha At Last news and the September publication of Pride, billed as “a Pride and Prejudice remix” set among black and Latino teenagers in Brooklyn, that brings us to a total of three recent Austen fanfics revolving around characters of color. Don’t look now, but we may have a trend on our hands.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 8 2018 02:00PM

Back in middle and high school, I took French. In college, I took Italian. I enjoyed them both – beautiful languages, fascinating cultures and histories, great national literatures.

Alas, however, it seems I should have been studying Portuguese.

This belated realization came to me last week, when I learned that Brazilian TV had just concluded the six-month, hundred-hour run of a racy new early-evening soap opera, Orgulho e Paixão (Pride and Passion), that gleefully mingles characters and plot elements from four Jane Austen novels and the novella Lady Susan.

The adapters seem to have taken a few liberties with their source material, and not just in the title pairing. Although the story still concerns a family with five daughters to marry off, it’s set among early twentieth-century coffee barons in rural southern Brazil – “more Downton Abbey than Jane Austen,” writer Marcos Bernstein told the BBC.

In this version, two of the Benedito family’s girls hail from Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and free-spirited Elisabeta has not only a love interest named Darcy but also a close friend named Ema.

Oh, and the proceedings also involve a pregnant Lydia-clone who abandons her groom at the altar, an Elisabeta who attends a party in male costume, a Bingley-equivalent who joins a fight club, and a Darcy who ventures down a mine -- not to mention a gay kiss and a scene in which a couple bathe together under a waterfall. All of it was shocking enough that Brazilian regulators deemed the program unsuitable for children.

OK, so it’s not a strictly faithful adaptation.

But come on – does this not sound wildly entertaining? It’s probably too late for me to learn Portuguese, but according to the BBC, the Jane Austen Society of Brazil (blog here, website here) now boasts four thousand members, making it among the largest Austen societies in the world. Surely someone in this group has a little free time on her hands and would like to spend it creating English subtitles for Orgulho e Paixão? Can you say "Janeite service project"?

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