Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 19 2017 01:00PM

Fifty-three years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that, while he could not fully define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”


Apparently, so do the wardens of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. And for them, the category includes Jane Austen fanfic.


In a case now pending in federal appeals court, a convicted murderer serving a life-without-parole sentence argues that the prison’s no-porn policy, under which his jailers refused to give him a number of items mailed to him by his mother, is unconstitutionally broad and vague. Among the rejected items were Renaissance art images, a book on Picasso and Matisse, a collection of erotic fantasy tales called Thrones of Desire – and Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition. *


I take no position on the merits of the case, but based on my skim of the excerpt available online, Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition has no merits of its own, even if it was written by a sometime bestselling author. (Although the book is credited to “Jane Austen and Annabella Bloom,” the “Note from One of the Authors” – guess which one? -- is signed by a writer with the comically appropriate name of Michelle Pillow.)


Taking a leaf from the eighty-percent-Austen playbook of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book seems to consist largely of Austen’s prose, studded with occasional not-very-good edits (Mr. Bennet’s “quick parts” become “a fast mind”) and saccharine interpolations (Jane Bennet, mooning over Mr. Bingley after the Meryton Assembly, “danced around the room, twirling in her long nightgown till it billowed about her legs.”) And lest we be in any doubt about where we’re headed, Elizabeth has barely glimpsed Darcy before she’s daydreaming about the “unmistakably mesmerizing shift of his hips beneath his jacket.”


What’s that? You want to know more about the sex scenes? I’m shocked – shocked! We’re discussing literature here!


Oh, all right. I can confirm that they exist. Lydia sneaks away from the Meryton Assembly for an assignation with a married man’s “turgid shaft,” and as Chapter 3 closes, Darcy is – ahem! – “t[aking] himself in hand” to thoughts of that distracting Bennet girl. (Not handsome enough to tempt him, indeed!)


I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether the book’s presence in the case might stem from one of those mistakes that your mom sometimes makes when confronted with the puzzling intricacies of Amazon. Turns out that the editor of Thrones of Desire, Mitzi Szereto, is the author of yet another sexed-up P&P -- Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts. Could it be that the prisoner-son is a Szereto fan who never even wanted the Wild and Wanton Edition?


Tell it to the judge, I guess.



* Thanks to Devoney Looser for posting this tidbit on Facebook.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 16 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen anticipates current events in Hollywood:


Northanger Abbey, ch. 15:

“ ‘Did you ever hear the old song ‘Going to One Wedding Brings on Another?’ I say, you will come to Belle’s wedding, I hope. . . . And then you know’ — twisting himself about and forcing a foolish laugh — ‘I say, then you know, we may try the truth of this same old song. . . . But I have a notion, Miss Morland, you and I think pretty much alike upon most matters.’ ”


Emma, ch. 15:

“. . . scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up -- her hand seized -- her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping -- fearing -- adoring -- ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible. . . .


“ ‘Charming Miss Woodhouse! allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me.’ ”


Pride and Prejudice, ch. 19:

"I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favor; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long. . . .


"When I do myself the honor of speaking to you next on this subject, I shall hope to receive a more favorable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character. . .


"You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. . . . in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small, that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females."


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 12 2017 01:00PM

Austen adaptations, whether on stage, screen or fanfic page, all too often fall victim to an excess of earnestness – the bonnets, the hushed voices, the leisurely strolls through manicured gardens. It’s the disease of costume drama, but in Austen’s case, it’s especially jarring, since the original source material is laced with energy and subversive wit.


Whatever you might have thought of actress/playwright Kate Hamill’s version of Sense and Sensibility, you couldn’t accuse it of lacking energy: As blog readers may recall, this is the version in which furniture careened around the stage on wheels and actors played multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene.


The whole thing was a lot of fun, so I was excited to learn that Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice, which premiered last summer in New York’s Hudson Valley, will be produced in New York City this fall. (My family already has tickets for December. We’re calling it my birthday present.)


And now comes an entertaining interview with Hamill, coinciding with a Dallas-area production of her new P&P. In adapting the book, Hamill says, she set out to break the costume drama mold. “There are several good, straightforward [stage] versions of it out there, along with those on film and television,” she says. “So I wanted to do something very theatrical and surprising, not the typical Pride and Prejudice.”


The company putting on the show has produced a fun promotional video featuring a two-on-two basketball game between Elizabeth and Jane Bennet and Messrs. Darcy and Bingley, all four clad in Regency attire and tennis shoes. Apparently, this picks up on game imagery embedded in Hamill’s script.


“I’m really interested in the way we codify love as a game,” she tells her interviewer. “Love is very serious, yet inherently a little bit silly—and we do tend to play it as something with rules, strategies, wins, losses. . . And the way we treat love as a game does tend to pit people against each other in a way that’s often broken down by gender.”


Looking forward to my birthday. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 9 2017 01:00PM

When is $13 worth $9,410? When it’s embodied in a low-serial-number Jane Austen banknote, apparently.


Last week, the Bank of England auctioned off eighty-seven of its new Jane Austen £10 notes as a charity fundraiser, offering speculators and collectors a shot at owning notes with serial numbers beginning AA01.


The very lowest-numbered note – AA01 000001 – wasn’t available: That one is given to the queen, the only person whose portrait appears on every piece of British currency. The next eight notes in the series also went to VIPs, and the AA01 001817 was donated to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen was buried in – yes -- 1817.


But the tenth-lowest serial numbered note -- AA01 000010 -- was up for grabs, and the lucky bidder forked over a whopping £7,200, more than double the top pre-auction estimate of £3,000. Notes with slightly higher serial numbers went for less, but they also sold for far more than their face value, helping the auction raise £263,200 (about $344,000) for health-care charities.


It’s possible many of these notes will soon be starring in an eBay auction near you, though I will not be bidding. Personally, I’d be more interested in the other £10 note serial-number series expected to generate some excitement: the series whose numbers start with “JA.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 5 2017 01:00PM

For many Janeites, a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England, is incomplete without a stop at Cassandra’s Cup, the teashop across the street from the iconic cottage where Austen wrote or revised all six of her finished novels.


Now it looks as if Cassandra’s is getting some competition, albeit a bit farther afield: Austen’s Cafe and Takeaway opened last month in Alton, the much larger town near the tiny village of Chawton, in the county of Hampshire.


Although Austen’s seems more self-consciously Janeite than Cassandra’s – the décor features Austen book covers, and the afternoon tea options include choices named “Emma” and “Darcy” – the menus of both restaurants will look pretty familiar to anyone who has eaten out recently in provincial England. It’s the usual mix of British staples (jacket potatoes, ham and cheese sandwiches) and vaguely foreign fare (paninis, eggs Benedict), all washed down with copious lashings of tea. Both restaurants even offer a cream tea (scones, jam, clotted cream) with prosecco, which really leaves one little to complain of.


Curiously, I am a Janeite who has never set foot in Cassandra’s Cup: the last time I was in Chawton, it looked crowded, and I didn’t want to spend my scarce tourist time queuing for lunch. It’s good to know that next time I’ll have two options for prosecco cream tea.


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