Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 14 2018 01:00PM

By now, pretty much every Janeite in the known universe has seen the moment in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice when Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy dives into a lake for a refreshing swim and then strides home across a field with his wet white shirt clinging fetchingly to his manly chest.


Most of us were, um, not paying attention to the scenery when we watched that part. But if you’re the kind of person who found Firth’s pectorals an annoying distraction from the artfully cultivated wildflower meadow through which he walks, I’ve got a job for you: Lyme Park, the estate in Cheshire, England, that stood in for Darcy's Pemberley in the BBC’s P&P, is looking for a new head gardener.


Gary Rainford, who held the job for the last twenty-four years – and who managed the gardens during the filming of P&P – retired in April. The listing for his job quotes a salary of just over £28,000 (about $38,000), plus benefits that include a discounted gym membership, which seems like it would be superfluous for someone supervising seventeen acres of garden. “A broad knowledge of plants and horticultural skills” is among the professional requirements, which puts me – a person who, literally, once killed a small cactus -- well out of the running.


Applications for the job closed yesterday, but hey – maybe they’ll extend the deadline if you can prove you’ve read P&P thoroughly enough to know that the wet-shirt scene isn’t in there.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 26 2018 02:00PM

The Winter Olympics are over, but not without a fleeting Jane Austen moment.


Last week, as my daughter and I were sitting glued to the livestream of the ice dancing competition, I perked up when the announcers informed us that the German team of Kavita Lorenz and Joti Polizoakis would be setting their four-minute free skate to – and I quote -- “Pride and Prejudice.”


Since the Germans were probably not going to be skating to an Audible-style reading of Jane Austen’s immortal masterpiece, we were clearly about to hear a short excerpt from the soundtrack to one of the filmed adaptations of the novel. But which adaptation? NBC’s announcement provided no clue.


And then the swoonily romantic opening bars played, and all became clear. Although both Lorenz and Polizoakis were born in 1995, the year the BBC released its iconic Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt P&P, they skated to music from the 2005 film – aka the Keira Knightley version.


Maybe they should have gone with the music from the earlier, better adaptation. As it was, Lorenz and Polizoakis finished in sixteenth place.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2017 01:00PM

“At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy,” the 20-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister in January 1796. “My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”


Even with no flirtatious suitor in the picture, it’s hard not to channel Jane Austen’s melancholy tears, for today – just six weeks after the bicentenary of Austen’s death -- the day is come that will see the end of the discussion boards at the Republic of Pemberley, the web’s largest Austen fan site for the past twenty years. Although the site’s static content – including the archive of original fan fiction and the compilation of well-researched posts on Austen’s life and times – will remain, evolving discussions among Janeite obsessives have been relocated to Pemberley’s Facebook group.


I was shocked and saddened when I learned the news earlier this month, via an announcement from Pemberley’s volunteer site manager, Myretta Robens, but the fiscal writing has been on the wall for some time now. Five years ago, a change in Google’s ad policy threatened the community’s survival. Three years ago, Pemberley downsized from its expansive original site to a more streamlined version. Last year, only a spate of last-minute contributions saved it from going dark.


When Robens, a New England technology manager, and Amy Bellinger, a Chicago freelance writer, founded Pemberley in May 1997, Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt Austenmania was at its height. By the time I wrote about it in Among the Janeites, years after I’d fallen in love with the place myself, Pemberley was getting five to ten million hits per month from 150,000 unique visitors hailing from 165 countries.


But times change. The Austen frenzy may have cooled – though you wouldn’t know it from the voluminous and enthusiastic coverage of last month’s bicentenary – and other forms of social media have siphoned off some of the community-building impulses that drew so many Janeites to the conversations at Pemberley.


Will Pemberley’s polite and literate ethos flourish on Facebook? Not everyone plans to find out: In the month since Robens announced the changes, a number of Pemberleans have given notice that they won’t be coming along to the new venue -- because of privacy concerns, disdain for Facebook’s corporate policies, or fear that Pemberley’s uniquely civilized form of discourse will be coarsened and corrupted in a more freewheeling social media space.


Although I’ve joined the Facebook group, I’m not acclimated yet. It still feels like a Dashwood-level comedown – renting a room in a noisy boarding house, when we’ve been accustomed to living in a quiet cottage of our own. But Facebook is free, and presumably moderating the discussions there will demand far less unpaid labor from the dedicated volunteers who have run Pemberley for so long.


As of last night, Pemberley’s discussion groups were still active. At the Pride & Prejudice board, posters were debating the likely quality of the planned new ITV adaptation of the novel. At the All Other Austen board, they were recommending Austen biographies and wondering about the size of Anne Elliot’s dowry. On Read & View, they were discussing Poldark, Dunkirk, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid’s Tale.


It felt poignant to eavesdrop on all these conversations, knowing that they would fall silent so soon. The death of a community – or even its metamorphosis into a different kind of community -- isn’t quite like the death of a person, but it’s not entirely dissimilar, either. It’s still an ending, and endings are sad.


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, 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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