Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2019 02:00PM

Literary critics turn up in the most unexpected places.


Last November, the Maryland Zoo, in Baltimore, asked the public whether this year’s crop of African penguin chicks should be named for shades of color, types of pasta, or literary characters. Literary characters won, and earlier this month the zoo announced names for the first four of its recent hatchlings.


Three of them – Zorro, Gatsby and Coraline – need not detain us here. No doubt those chicks will grow up into perfectly adequate penguins.


The fourth, however, has been named Knightley.



Knightley the penguin


No doubt you, like me, are wondering why the zookeepers of Baltimore feel that, when you contemplate Austen’s large gallery of characters, the hero of Emma is the one who says Penguin.


Alas, because the zoo has provided no explanation for its literary exegesis, we can only speculate. Perhaps it’s because Mr. Knightley looks good in formalwear. (“His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body's eyes” – ch. 38). Or because, like the monogamous African penguin, he’s a one-woman man. (“There is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell” – ch. 42). Or because, like the members of this species, in which males and females share equally in egg-incubation duties, he’s good with kids. (“He was soon led on to. . . take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity” – ch. 12).


Whatever the reason, I’m sure we Janeites can all agree that this name sets a high bar for its avian owner. He’s not a happy-go-lucky Bingley, a brooding Brandon, or even a kindly Croft. He evokes one of Jane Austen’s most grownup characters: responsible, mature, ethically rigorous, a good neighbor, a careful estate manager.


It’s a lot for one small penguin to live up to.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 7 2019 02:00PM

Over the weekend, I went to see Clueless: The Musical. It made me miss Clueless: The Movie. Which was probably not the intended effect.


The original, immortal Clueless – the 1995 Amy Heckerling movie that updated the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills – is witty, charming, energetic and sweet. The new Off-Broadway show is . . . energetic.


We get duplicates of the characters, costumes and much of the plot of the original, along with ‘90s-vintage pop songs featuring new lyrics by Heckerling, but the result feels strained, as if everyone is trying a bit too hard. The light touch that makes the movie such a pleasure is entirely absent. Remarkably, it turns out that it’s possible to watch (a version of) Clueless without laughing.


The hard-working performers aren’t to blame, though we saw the show sans its semi-big star, Disney Channel actress Dove Cameron, who has been getting lots of social-media hate for missing performances over health concerns. Those on stage were certainly . . . energetic, but they mostly seemed to be imitating their cinematic predecessors, rather than making the roles their own.


Would a fan better versed than I in ‘90s pop have recognized more of the songs and thereby enjoyed their transformation more? Maybe. Instead, I found myself wishing that Heckerling had just hired a decent composer and created some catchy original music, instead of rehashing the sometimes mediocre hits of decades past.


The whole experience left me even more skeptical than I already was about the Clueless movie remake that’s supposedly on Hollywood’s agenda. Tempted to mess with perfection? Yeah – no. Just don’t.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2018 02:00PM

Nineteen is a number much on our collective minds today, as we prepare to usher in 2019, the last year of the second decade of the twenty-first century.


Accordingly, I went looking for nineteens in Jane Austen -- and I found eleven references, in ten different passages spread over four of the completed novels. (Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are nineteen-free zones.) With the exception of one throwaway Mansfield Park reference to “nineteen times out of twenty,” Austen’s nineteens are an interesting bunch – at any rate, significant enough to provide fodder for discussion while awaiting the Times Square ball drop.


For Jane Austen, nineteen is both too young and old enough: her nineteen-year-olds are variously mature and naïve, sensible and foolish. For Austen – and for us? -- nineteen is a transitional age, a waystation between childhood and adulthood.


In Mansfield Park, “eighteen or nineteen” is the age at which Mary Crawford expects girls to retain a certain innocent shyness, even if they are officially “out” in the marriage market. “One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to everything—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before,” Mary tells the Bertram brothers (ch. 5).


Yet some nineteen-year-olds are perfectly competent, it seems: Although Emma Woodhouse, at nearly twenty-one, still has much to learn, “at eighteen or nineteen [Jane Fairfax] was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself” (Emma, ch. 20).


The nineteen-year-olds of Persuasion are old enough to fall in love for keeps -- like Anne Elliot, who is nineteen when she accepts, and then refuses, Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal. But they are also young enough to mistake infatuation for the real thing -- like Louisa Musgrove, who, interestingly, is also nineteen when her charms temporarily turn the same man’s head, perhaps because he is unconsciously trying to recapture his youthful romance. And the novel contains a third naïve nineteen-year-old -- Mrs. Smith, who is nineteen when she meets, and initially likes, the duplicitous Mr. Elliot. “At nineteen, you know, one does not think very seriously,” she tells Anne (ch. 21).


Well, some nineteen-year-olds don’t: At the start of Sense and Sensibility, Austen tells us, Elinor Dashwood already “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother” (ch. 1). Like Persuasion, however, S&S features three significant nineteen-year-olds: in addition to the Elinor of the novel’s opening, there are the Edward Ferrars of four years earlier, whose “youthful infatuation of nineteen” has unhappily bound him to Lucy Steele (ch. 23), and the newlywed Marianne Dashwood of the novel’s end, who “found herself, at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (ch. 50).


Austen’s nineteen-year-olds are old enough to experience deep and sincere emotions, yet young enough to make dreadful errors of judgment. Some of them are ready to give counsel, while others trustingly follow the counsel of others. They stand on a threshold, looking backward to the consequence-free choices of childhood and ahead to the responsibilities of adulthood, with one foot in each place. Rather like us, tonight, as we leave 2018 behind and look ahead to what will come.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2018 02:00PM

Tomorrow is Christmas, the day on which a larger-than-life personage employing semi-equine transport suddenly appears in our homes, bringing good things for the good and not-so-good things for the naughty.


You may think Jane Austen didn’t have this covered. But you would be wrong.


Yes, it’s true that Christmas comes up only once in a while in Austen’s work, and seldom as an occasion of joy and revelry.


Of the three novels that refer to the holiday, only Persuasion gives us a cheerful family scene. The Christmas section of Mansfield Park highlights Mary Crawford’s inability to enjoy tranquil home pleasures, and as for the fiasco of Emma’s Christmas Eve party. . .


Austen’s proliferation of unhappy, or entirely absent, Yuletides isn’t all that surprising: As Austen scholar Devoney Looser recently explained, for Regency folk, the holiday was a relatively low-key affair, lacking the stockings-trees-and-adorable-children froufrou that was popularized by the Victorians and that still informs our modern conception of the season.


But there is at least one Austen work in which the Christmas season is indeed heralded by the arrival of a larger-than-life personage employing equine transport and, arguably, calling down appropriate rewards and punishments upon the good and the not-so-good. My text is drawn from Lady Susan, Letter 3, as Catherine Vernon writes to her mother, Lady De Courcy:


“My dear Mother

I am very sorry to tell you that it will not be in our power to keep our promise of spending our Christmas with you; and we are prevented that happiness by a circumstance which is not likely to make us any amends. Lady Susan . . . has declared her intention of visiting us almost immediately.”


True, as far as we can tell from Austen's text, the carriage that takes Lady Susan to Churchill, the Vernons’ home, is drawn by horses, not reindeer, and arrives at the front door, not on the roof. And honesty compels me to admit that, apart from one further passing reference, Christmas is never mentioned again in the course of the novella. But aside from all that. . .


Oh, fine: I’ll concede that casting the poisonous Lady Susan as Santa Claus may be something of a stretch. But think about it: an estranged relative turns up unexpectedly in a small town, disrupting family holiday plans and sparking romantic entanglements? Obviously, Lady Susan is the latest Jane-Austen-themed Hallmark Christmas movie -- and written by Jane Austen herself, no less. Just add hot chocolate and stir.


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!


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