Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2017 01:00PM

In my experience, non-Janeites are blissfully unaware of the vast universe of Austen fanfic in all its magnificent, explicit, pansexual variety. How else to explain the slightly breathless anxiety with which writer-director Byrum Geisler is ushering his film Before the Fall onto streaming video?


See, Before the Fall – apparently no relation to the bestselling book by Noah Hawley, soon to be a major motion picture – is a gay-themed update of Pride and Prejudice! The Darcy and Elizabeth characters are both men! Aren’t you shocked? Aren’t you? Aren’t you?


Me neither.


Gay versions of Austen’s stories date back at least to 2010, when Ann Herendeen published the odd but interesting Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Other Loves, which matches Darcy with Bingley and Elizabeth with Charlotte.


Nine years earlier, Arielle Eckstut and Dennis Ashton, the authors of the hilarious Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, penned a vignette in which the Bingley sisters welcome Jane Bennet to Netherfield in a most surprising fashion – although, admittedly, that one was parody.


And I’m sure that denizens of the online fanfic boards could cite many more unpublished examples of Austen slash fiction. So Geisler’s film – which can be rented for $4.99 through iTunes or Amazon – is hardly the incredible! pioneering! risk! that he seems to think it is.


In a two-minute featurette, viewable at the Huffington Post, Geisler notes the “timeless quality” of Austen’s stories. “Jane Austen just had to have been brilliant,” he opines. Well, yes.


I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s clear from the plot description that Geisler takes at least one other liberty with the original: not only is his Elizabeth now a man, but Geisler seems to have reversed the relative social standings of his protagonists. Ben Bennet is a wealthy Virginia lawyer, while Lee Darcy is a brooding factory worker. (Based on the trailer, however, I can attest that Darcy is, as he should be, very easy on the eyes.)


“I’m hoping Jane Austen’s fans will see [the film] as a tribute to her and not misusing the source material,” Geisler concludes, a tad anxiously.


Oh, honey. Not to worry. You have no idea what we’ve seen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 5 2017 01:00PM

I love the British press. When it comes to Jane Austen, they can manufacture a story out of the thinnest gossamer. Even recycled gossamer, as it turns out.


Last week, several UK news outlets (see here, here and here) were shocked – shocked! – to learn that the image of Jane Austen that will appear on the new £10 note, set for release in September, is somewhat controversial. The Austen portrait chosen by the Bank of England has been “air-brushed,” “prettified,” or “retouched,” they asserted, quoting recent Austen biographers Paula Byrne and Lucy Worsley.


Regular readers of my blog may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. Back in 2013, when the bank unveiled its prototype of the Austen tenner, Byrne made this identical point about the chosen image. And she wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every Janeite who pays attention noticed that the bank’s Austen image is based not on Cassandra Austen’s well-known sketch of her sister -- arguably the only portrait of Austen’s face made during her lifetime -- but on the gussied-up version of the Cassandra sketch commissioned by the family as a frontispiece to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 memoir of his famous aunt.


Why did the bank choose this particular image? As far as I know, they haven’t explained. Perhaps the National Portrait Gallery, where the Cassandra sketch hangs, was going to charge too much for the rights, as AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan suggested when I wrote about this topic before. (The NPG certainly charged me enough when I put the Cassandra sketch on my website!) Perhaps bank officials thought Cassandra’s peevish Austen conveys insufficient Great Writer Gravitas. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better.


But really -- does it matter? I don’t think so, and here’s why:


It’s fair to object that the Austen on the note looks calmer and sweeter than the Cassandra sketch. It’s fair to object that a calm, sweet Austen doesn’t match your personal mental image of a novelist noted for her biting wit. But as I have pointed out before, it’s not fair to object that the Austen portrait doesn’t look like Jane Austen – because we don’t have any idea what Austen looked like. And therefore, as far as I’m concerned, one fictional image is as good as any other.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 1 2017 01:00PM

I love the idea of gardening – fresh air! Closeness to nature! The magic of growth and change!


I love the results of gardening -- beautiful flowers! Homegrown vegetables! Aromatic herbs!


In fact, I love everything about gardening -- except for the actual gardening, which involves dirt, sweat, and backbreaking, repetitive labor.


So I will leave to others the practical application of the latest Jane Austen bicentenary news: the launch, during last week’s Chelsea Flower Show in London, of a new “Jane Austen rose.” (Not to be confused with the Pride and Prejudice rose, released by the same grower in 2013.)


The Jane Austen rose


Suitable-for-planting versions of the new rose, described by The English Garden magazine as an “orange-flowered Floribunda” with “a light sweet scent,” will be on sale this fall for £12.95 (about $16.59). As usual with these Austen tie-ins, it's impossible to say wherein the Austen-ness of this particular flower inheres, but it certainly looks pretty.


And Janeites can feel particularly virtuous about buying their own rosebush because a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage. Later this year, a Jane Austen rose will also be planted in the museum’s garden. Where I hope to someday admire the results, since I’m unlikely to have one planted closer to home.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 29 2017 01:00PM

Any plans late next month? No? Then head over to the web site of Jane Austen 200 – the clearinghouse for events scheduled this year in Hampshire, England, to mark the bicentenary of Austen’s death – and enter the sweepstakes.


The prize is a three-night, late-June stay in Winchester and Basingstoke, along with free tickets to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried; Chawton cottage, now a museum of her life; Chawton House Library, located in the mansion once owned by her brother Edward; and a book talk by historian, curator and TV presenter Lucy Worsley, author of a new Austen biography. Plus £100 (about $130) towards travel expenses.


OK, it’s obvious that this package is more of a draw for British Janeites, who a) can probably get to Winchester for not much more than £100; and b) had probably heard of Worsley before the recent plagiarism kerfuffle. But hey – three free nights in England is three free nights in England, right? And entering is a breeze, requiring only the answer to an Austen trivia question of such laughable simplicity that it’s practically an insult to Janeite intelligence.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 25 2017 01:00PM

No one reads Pride and Prejudice and dreams of living at Longbourn. The Bennet family estate, much as Mr. Collins may praise it, is so thoroughly eclipsed by the glories of Pemberley that it merits barely a smidgen of real estate lust.


But Luckington Court, the house that played Longbourn in the BBC’s iconic Firth-Ehle P&P, is another story: 9,600 feet of living space -- comprising seven bedrooms, six bathrooms, and assorted cottages, not to mention the stables and outbuildings – situated on 156 acres of gardens and woodland in southern England’s green and pleasant Cotswolds.


And all yours, for a mere £9 million ($11.7 million).


Yes, the Bennet estate is up for sale, after seventy years in the same family – or so says a recent issue of the oh-so-upper-crust Country Life magazine. (When the New York Post called the real estate agents to confirm, however, the firm told the newspaper that its “clients have asked them to cease marketing the property,” leaving it unclear – at least to me – whether the house is off the market, or whether interest is already so great that advertising is superfluous.)


Luckington Court is what the Brits call a “listed” property, meaning one with special historic importance; indeed, it’s listed in Grade II*, reserved for “particularly important buildings of more than special interest.” According to Country Life, it is said to stand on the site of a medieval manor owned by King Harold II, England’s last pre-Norman Conquest ruler.


The core of the present building may date back to the sixteenth century, or even earlier, but it was remodeled starting in the seventeenth century by a Bristol merchant family, the Fitzherberts. (In trade! The Bingley sisters would sneer.) Later residents – renters or owners -- included a Latvian Nazi-sympathizer, a dashing British spy, and the family of the director of the Badminton Horse Trials, which prepare British equestrians for international competition.


And judging from the photos, the rooms are absolutely beautiful – high ceilings, tall windows, wood floors, and oodles of natural light. What else could you wish for? Oh, that. No, Colin Firth is not included.


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