Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 1 2018 01:00PM

Sometimes it feels as if only die-hard Janeites are still thinking about Jane Austen. And other times – like these past few weeks -- you’d think the whole world was composed of die-hard Janeites, given the sudden flurry of news about impending or recently released Austen-themed work.


Herewith a roundup:


1. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is set to star in a new adaptation of Emma, with a screenplay by New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton, the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize. There’s no shortage of Emmas – think Romola Garai in 2009, Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996, and Doran Godwin in 1972, not to mention Alicia Silverstone in 1995’s Clueless – but Janeites still disagree about whether the definitive adaptation has yet been made. I’d say there’s room for another version.


2. But is there room for another Clueless? Apparently, we’re going to find out: the writers of recent female-themed hits Girls Trip and GLOW plan to remake Amy Heckerling’s deathless film, which updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. I’m not sure why Clueless is suddenly hot again – a musical version opens Off Broadway next month – but personally I’m quite happy with the original, thank you very much.


3. Meanwhile, over in the world of books, an Italian artist named Manuela Santoni recently published Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper, a graphic novel for young adults based on Austen’s life. Judging from the online descriptions, the book sounds as if it owes more to the biopic Becoming Jane, with its highly speculative Tom-Lefroy-love-of-her-life-and-inspiration-for-Mr.-Darcy plotline, than to more sober biographical reflections. But the pictures look nice. . .


4. And speaking of highly speculative biography: In 2020, the British writer Gill Hornby will publish Miss Austen, a novel about Cassandra Austen and her relationship with her famous sister. The book by Hornby -- whose works of fiction and non-fiction include The Story of Jane Austen: The Girl with the Golden Pen, a 2005 Austen bio for kids -- will focus on Cassandra’s late-life decision to burn many of her sister’s letters, thus breaking the hearts of Janeites and biographers everywhere. I’m crossing my fingers that this won’t be yet another tale of Austen’s allegedly star-crossed love life, but – well, let’s just say I’m reserving judgment.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2018 01:00PM

Recently – OK, it was two weeks ago – I found occasion to mention an old journalists’ joke: that three examples of a phenomenon constitute a trend. At the time, I was remarking upon the proliferation of second-order Jane Austen adaptations – adaptations of previous adaptations.*


Today I feel justified in identifying yet another Austen-adaptation trend: the proliferation of jukebox/karaoke shows based on Austen stories. I’m talking about the kind of show that inserts famous pop songs into a newly developed storyline, giving audiences the comfort of the familiar along with the thrill of the new. Think Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, or (on the silver screen) Moulin Rouge.


Lately, Jane Austen has been getting the same treatment. The requisite three examples are as follows:


* In 2015, the lyricist and playwright Eric Price created Emma! A Pop Musical, which updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs by female performers as a score. I’ve never seen it, but apparently it’s beloved by school drama departments.


* Earlier this summer, a Glasgow theater company produced Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), an all-female, slapstick version of the novel featuring interpolations like Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" (sung to Mr. Darcy, of course). Reviews were generally positive, if not rapturous.


* Speaking of Clueless, this fall an off-Broadway company will produce a musical version of the much-loved 1995 movie. The show featues classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics by Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed the original. **


Personally, I think the surface of this trend has barely been scratched.


Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” begs to be included in a Sense and Sensibility jukebox show – sung by Willoughby in the second act, as he writes his fateful brush-off letter, and then tragically reprised by Marianne and Elinor during the climactic illness scene. (Earlier, Elinor will have promised to keep silent about Lucy Steele’s secret engagement by vowing “My Lips Are Sealed” and nursed her broken heart to a rousing chorus of "I Will Survive.")


It goes on and on: “My Boyfriend’s Back” is obviously Anne Elliot’s big Act One number. . . . Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland bop around Bath to the accompaniment of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. . . . Maria Rushworth succumbs to the seductive Henry Crawford while singing “Like a Virgin’. . . the possibilities are endless. Paging Baz Luhrmann!



* And I forgot one – the upcoming TV show based on Curtis Sittenfeld’s P&P update Eligible. So, really, that trend is practically a tsunami.


** Devoted blog readers may recall that I already employed the Clueless musical as one of the confirmatory three points in my recent blog about the second-order-Austen-adaptation trend. Some may feel I am cheating by using it as one of the confirmatory three points in a blog about a different Austen trend. What can I say? Trend reporting is an unscrupulous business.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 2 2018 01:00PM

We journalists like to joke that once you have three examples of something – avocado toast! Suburban sex-toy parties! -- you can write a story declaring said phenomenon to be “a trend.” Thus it is that I feel completely justified in declaring that second-order Jane Austen spinoffs -- adaptations of Austen adaptations – officially constitute a trend.


Herewith the crucial three data points:


1. Last month, the Hallmark Channel subjected us to Marrying Mr. Darcy, the limp sequel to Unleashing Mr. Darcy, its execrable 2016 filmed version of a novel setting Pride and Prejudice in the contemporary dog-show world.


2. This fall, an off-Broadway theater plans to premier Clueless: The Musical, featuring classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics written by Amy Heckerling, the auteur behind the beloved 1995 movie that updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills.


3. Perhaps inspired by the success, if such it can be called, of dog-show Darcy, Hallmark has announced plans for a Christmas movie entitled Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, “a Yuletide-themed, gender-swapping update of the classic Jane Austen novel,” according to Entertainment Weekly.


This movie too is based on Austen fanfic – a book of the same title by Melissa de la Cruz, whose Amazon listing reveals her to be the hard-working author of dozens of novels on subjects ranging from bikini-clad au pairs to time-traveling witches to Alexander Hamilton’s love life. I haven’t read any of her stuff, but P&P&M is on my Kindle as of today. (I always prefer to read the book before seeing the movie. And you know I'll see the movie.)


Et voilà – three examples, and thus a trend.


Now that I think about it, I may even be a bit late in my trend-spotting. After all, it’s been nearly four years since the BBC brought us a filmed version of Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’ murder-mystery-themed Pride and Prejudice sequel. Yes, the book was terrible and the movie only marginally better – but that’s not enough to stop a speeding trend in its tracks.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 27 2017 01:00PM

Barely is the metaphorical ink dry on my recent blog post lamenting all the great UK Jane Austen bicentenary events that we American Janeites are likely to miss when I happen across another one.


This time it’s an exhibition of Austen manuscripts, artifacts and film clips, titled “Which Jane Austen?” and on display at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries from June 22 to October 29. Among the items in the exhibition – some from the Bod’s own collections, some on loan from other places – will be the manuscripts of The Watsons and Sanditon, Austen’s two unfinished novels; the logbook that her sailor brother Frank kept on board one of his ships, HMS Canopus; and Austen’s hand-copied music books.


The point of the exhibition, according to curator Kathryn Sutherland, an eminent Austen scholar who teaches at Oxford, is to counter the “popular belief” that Austen was a “retiring country mouse” by showing her intimate engagement, both in her fiction and through the experiences of family members, with the worlds of politics, war and commerce.


Sigh.


Don’t get me wrong: The exhibit sounds great, and I am green with envy of all the British Janeites who will get to see it. But really: Could we let go of the dear-innocent-little-Jane meme that we keep insisting is everybody else’s idea of Austen?


Yes, in the decades following the 1870 publication of her nephew’s hagiographic Memoir of Jane Austen, Kindly Domestic Aunt Jane was the accepted image. But at least since the 1940s, when D.W. Harding published his famous essay on Austen’s “regulated hatred,” an alternative view of a tougher, more politically engaged Austen has been equally prevalent, if not more so.


And by now – after decades of scholarship about the mentions of slavery in Mansfield Park, the Napoleonic Wars context to Persuasion, the guillotining of Austen’s French cousin-by-marriage, the radicalism or conservatism of Austen’s sexual politics, the cutting things she writes about the Prince Regent in her letters, yada yada yada – it’s not clear to me that anyone still believes Austen was a sweet-natured maiden aunt who barely noticed that her country was at war for most of her adult life.


I suppose if Sutherland is talking about the views of your average person on the street, whose acquaintance with Jane Austen mostly consists of a forced high school march through Pride and Prejudice and repeated viewings of Clueless, this could be an accurate account. But does someone like that even know, or care, enough about Jane Austen to think of her as a retiring country mouse? I have my doubts.


Perhaps the exigencies of marketing in our noisy culture require that every new Austen book, movie, or exhibition be portrayed as a fearless effort to push back the forces that insist on inappropriately domesticating a strong and subversive woman writer. From where I sit, though, it looks like this battle was over -- and won -- long ago.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 20 2017 01:00PM

Given the ubiquity of comic books based on Jane Austen’s novels, I suppose it’s not surprising that we’ve now moved on to Version 2.0: comic books based on spinoffs and adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.


And so it is that we will soon have a comic book based on Clueless, the justly beloved 1995 film that updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. In a further meta twist, the comic book will be cowritten by Amber Benson, a one-time actress (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who, as a teenager, auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in the movie.


Rather than retelling the story of the film, the comic book version imagines how the characters from Clueless would cope with senior year at Bronson Alcott High School. It’s not clear from the Boom! Studios press release how many books are planned for the series, but the first one debuts in August.


As I’ve written before, I’m not entirely on board with the Jane Austen comic book thing, but the pop-culture sensibility of Clueless seems like a perfect fit.


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