Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 12 2018 01:00PM

For the Jane Austen world, it qualifies as blockbuster news: Revered screenwriter Andrew Davies, the man behind the iconic 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice and adaptations of three other Austen novels, has adapted Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, into a miniseries of its own.


Earlier this week, PBS’s Masterpiece series announced that it is collaborating with Britain’s ITV on a version of Sanditon, the story of Charlotte Heywood's adventures in an up-and-coming seaside resort, that will likely begin filming next spring.


“The twists and turns of the plot, which take viewers from the West Indies to the rotting alleys of London, expose the hidden agendas of each character and sees [sic] Charlotte discover herself… and ultimately find love,” the press release promises.


Those of us who have read Sanditon’s tantalizing 24,000 words will not remember any scenes set in the West Indies or in London alleys, whether rotting or otherwise, so it’s pretty clear that this production will be more Davies than Austen.


Indeed, a lot more: Masterpiece is promising us eight hour-long episodes, and even shaving off a few minutes per episode to allow space to advertise Danube cruises, that’s a big chunk of airtime. Davies managed to squeeze all 122,000 words of P&P into a mere six episodes running to five and a half hours. Heck, his version of War and Peace ran less than six and a half.


Davies, famed for allegedly "sexing-up" Jane Austen, is apparently up to his usual tricks this time around: His new version of Sanditon features "quite a bit of nude bathing," he promises, possibly with tongue firmly ensconced in cheek (although, with Davies, you never know).


For Sanditon fans, the big unanswered question is what the new production means for an earlier Sanditon project, Fluidity Films’ long aborning feature-length version, based on the 1975 completion of Austen’s fragment by Australian journalist and novelist Marie Dobbs.


More than two years ago, we were treated to exciting casting news – Charlotte Rampling as Lady Denham! – and confident-sounding predictions of a 2017 release date. Late that year, filming was said to be delayed until 2018. And although Fluidity Films’ website still lists the production, it offers no details about timing.


Could two separate Sanditons – one a conventional two-hour-long period film, the other a sweeping seven-hour wallow in melodrama – find audiences, potentially within mere months of each other? If Janeites ran the world (and wouldn’t everyone be better off if we did? You know it), the answer wouldn’t be in doubt.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2018 01:00PM

It’s been quite a while since I last discussed the unfortunate phenomenon of faux-Jane Austen quotes, usually originating in Jane Austen movie scripts, proliferating in the Internet echo chamber. Perhaps this pause has lulled you into the belief that my good work, along with that of untold numbers of other Janeites laboring to correct the record, has borne fruit, driving the legions of misquoters into retirement.


Alas, no.


Once again, our text is drawn from Bustle, that rah-rah Girl Power website that seems to take a perverse pride in never, ever double-checking its sources, at least when it comes to Austen. The latest offender: a story headlined, with a word-omitting sloppiness that bodes ill for what follows, “15 Quotes From Books To Use Your Personal Mantra On Bad Mental Health Days.”


Parenthetically, I must note the strange self-contradiction of this particular article, which points out the bankruptcy of feel-good bromides – “[b]eing told to ‘just think happy thoughts’ and ‘try harder’ gets really old after a while, as anyone with mental illness will tell you” – before offering up more elegant versions of the same thing from the likes of Alice Walker, Audre Lord, and Sylvia Plath (!) and urging readers to “[m]emorize them to recite like mantras, and you'll always have an uplifting quote to help you muddle through.”


I admit I feel a teensy bit bad about criticizing the writer, who implies that she is among “those of us who live with mental illness every day.” But not bad enough to stay my hand when, right there at number fourteen among the promised “Quotes From Books,” I find this: " 'It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.' — Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility"


Back in November 2015, I laid the issue of this particular misquotation to rest in what I feel I may describe, with all due humility, as the definitive blog post on the topic. Yet, like a zombie out of a Pride and Prejudice mashup, this mistake will not stay dead. So I must repeat: This is not a line from a Jane Austen novel. It is not even really a line from a filmed adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. It is a garbled version of a line from Andrew Davies’ 2008 TV adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.


I think it’s time that someone created an online listicle discussing how best to cope with the stress and anxiety brought on by finding faux-Austen quotes on the web. It probably won’t appear on Bustle.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 12 2018 02:00PM

Long, long ago – wait, was it only 2009? – a clever young man named Seth Grahame-Smith interpolated zombie references into the text of Pride and Prejudice and sold a gazillion copies of the resulting mashup.


Ever since, the temptation to take Jane Austen’s out-of-copyright masterpieces and dress them up with references to. . . whatever. . . has seemed inescapable. We’ve had Sense and Sensibility with sea monsters, Mansfield Park with mummies, P&P with added Jews, and Emma with previously unsuspected vampires.


This year, just in time for Valentine’s Day, a British TV channel called Drama* has brought us yet another addition to this trend: Pride and Prejudice reimagined for the social media age. No, not another update of the story to our own times: Drama’s version is the 1813 text, except with Facebook, WhatsApp, email and selfies accompanying the carriage rides and formal balls.


“We're seeing if technology would ruin the 'art of romance' in classic love stories,” Drama explains on its website, which offers a free download of this new P&P, along with social-media-enhanced versions of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.


From my skim of the enhanced Austen, the changes seem much as they were in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: sometimes amusing, mostly cosmetic, and likely to become tiresome when stretched to book length. Darcy spends his time at the Meryton Assembly swiping on Tinder instead of dancing with the locals. Elizabeth captures his insult to her beauty in a Snapchat video. Mr. Collins’ letters arrive via email. Lady Catherine threatens to unfollow Elizabeth if she persists in her designs on Darcy. After Wickham leaves Meryton, rumors circulate that he “had created a secret online account under the name ‘The Militia Stallion’ which he used first to entrap, then to ghost certain ladies.” And a ringing cellphone interrupts both of Darcy’s proposals.


The only major plot change I detected was Drama’s decision to correct Jane Austen’s unaccountable error in omitting the now-famous scene of Darcy diving into the Pemberley lake and emerging in a clinging wet shirt. Yes, at last this moment, invented by Andrew Davies for the BBC’s iconic 1995 P&P adaptation, has made it onto the page. And this time, Elizabeth takes a smartphone photo of Darcy in post-lake deshabille, captions it “OMG,” and posts it online, inadvertently setting off “a Twitter storm of epic proportions.”


So what's the answer to Drama's question? Does social media ruin “the art of romance”?


Not really. As soon as Darcy switches off his phone, that second proposal goes about as well as you'd expect.



* As blog readers will recall, it was Drama that -- exactly a year ago, also just in time for Valentine’s Day -- earned a tidy little publicity windfall for its rebroadcast of beloved Austen adaptations by commissioning an artist’s rendering of the “real” Mr. Darcy. The dweeby result, based on the investigations of a historian and an Austen scholar, made clear that the standards of male beauty in Austen’s time differed dramatically from our own Firth-and-Macfadyen-inflected preferences.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 14 2017 01:00PM

Unless you’ve spent the past week entirely absorbed in stocking your fallout shelter with canned goods, you’ve probably heard that a fearless band of TV producers has announced plans for the unthinkable: a television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that doesn’t star Colin Firth.


By now, it is de rigueur for adapters of much-adapted classics to explain how their new versions will uncover Hidden Depths or Heretofore Unsuspected Resonances in some apparently familiar work.


When Andrew Davies wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s now-iconic 1995 P&P, starring Firth and Jennifer Ehle, he wanted an adaptation that was vigorous and outdoorsy. (Jane Austen can be sexy! Who knew?) When Joe Wright made his 2005 feature film, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, he wanted an adaptation that was muddy and earthbound. (Jane Austen can be messy! Who knew?)


This time around, the people involved say they want an adaptation that is edgy and grownup. (Jane Austen can be dark! Who knew?)


"Pride and Prejudice is actually a very adult book, much less bonnet-y than people assume," says the proposed screenwriter, the British playwright Nina Raine, whose most recent theatrical work centers on a murky rape case. "I hope I do justice to Austen’s dark intelligence – sparkling, yes, but sparkling like granite.”


Although AustenBlog’s indispensable Maggie Sullivan is already taking her Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness out of mothballs, in preparation for whacking any idiocy that may appear onscreen – and although I’ll cop to some skepticism over whether a British woman over forty can really never have seen an adaptation of P&P, as Raine claims -- I’m willing to reserve judgment.


Jane Austen can be dark! And also sexy and messy! (As well as the opposite of all of those, since she is a multifaceted writer whose many dimensions are seldom captured perfectly in any screen adaptation, no matter how well-done.) Unlikely as it seems that a new version will be “the definitive adaptation for the twenty-first century,” rather than another forgettable reboot, we can always hope.


No, what really concerns me is the previous work of some members of the team behind this new P&P. Mammoth Screen, the production company, is best-known for making the soapy Victoria and Poldark series – both highly entertaining, but both lacking anything like Austen’s subtlety. And the new adaptation will air on ITV, the British TV channel known for a more populist and commercial sensibility than the historically upper-crust and staid BBC, which made the six previous English-language TV adaptations of the novel.


Nothing wrong with populism and commercialism, except that ITV’s track record for Austen adaptations – it released three in 2007 -- is decidedly mixed. On the plus side, ITV made the well-cast Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones in a competent if imperfect Davies script that some criticized for injecting extra sensuality into the novel.


On the decidedly negative side, however, ITV is also responsible for two of the worst-ever Austen adaptations. How to forget that embarrassing Persuasion, featuring poor Sally Hawkins racing through the streets of Bath in an unforgivable travesty of the book’s sublime ending? Or that execrable Mansfield Park, starring the miscast Billie Piper and her all-too-ubiquitous cleavage -- Fanny Price as St. Pauli Girl?


The mind reels at the prospect of a P&P put through a similar meatgrinder. Thank God the Cluebat stands at the ready.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 3 2017 01:00PM

I like to think that I am not a complainer, but I have to admit that I've done a lot of complaining on this blog.


Some of my moans are chronic: I never tire of pointing out that quotes from filmed adaptations of Jane Austen’s works are not, in fact, quotes by Jane Austen. And some of my moans are situational: This year, I have frequently noted the misfortune of being an American Janeite with a limited travel budget just when the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death has brought an avalanche of Austen-related events to Britain.


How exciting, then, to be able to combine my complaints into one Super-Moan, as I managed to do when I ran across this post by Sophie Andrews, who blogs at Laughing with Lizzie and is a volunteer ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation.


As you’ll recall, one of the many, many bicentenary events that we budget-conscious American Janeites can’t experience is Sitting With Jane, the art trail composed of twenty-four specially painted, Austen-inspired, book-shaped benches located in and around Basingstoke, in Austen's home county of Hampshire.


Luckily, however, Andrews has visited all twenty-four, and in her post she provides excellent photos of the front and back of each one, along with some details about its location. Judging from her photos, the artistic approaches and interpretative attitudes taken by the bench creators vary widely, from Regency restraint to comic-book sass, but many are quite lovely and all are interesting. Grr! Why can’t I go see them myself?


But really now: If you’re going to create a bench (“Jane and Her Forgotten Peers”) dedicated to Austen and some of the pioneering female writers who came before her, and if you’re going to put that bench outside Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, shouldn’t you make sure that any quotes you attribute to Austen actually come from one of her books?


Yes, I’m afraid it’s true: On the back of the Winchester Cathedral bench,* next to a portrait of Austen, appears this quote: “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”


***headdesk***


I have said it before, and no doubt I will have to say it again. Jane Austen did not write this line, no matter how many web sites claim she did. It is a garbled version of a line written by Andrew Davies in his screenplay for the 2008 television adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.


I hate to think of Jane Austen rolling over in her nearby grave at this misattribution. On the other hand, she might have enjoyed the irony: A bench dedicated to great female writers uses a quote from a male one.



* In fact, “Jane Talk,” another bench in the Sitting With Jane series, also uses movie quotes (though not the Davies one) in a “modern graphic art style” montage of Austen-related lines. But at least the creator of that bench seems to have realized she was using movie lines. (The “Jane Talk” bench is supposed to “inspire all to read [Austen’s] novels,” though I must grumpily point out that this goal might be better served by quoting from those novels, rather than from screenplays based on them but written by other people.)


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