Deborah Yaffe

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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.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 13 2017 02:00PM

Edward IV, who reigned as king of England for most of the period from 1461-1483, was described by contemporaries as an unusually handsome man. But you wouldn’t guess it from looking at the paintings, which suggest he had an extremely long nose and an extraordinarily small mouth.*




This digression into medieval history, brought to you courtesy of my eighth-grade research paper on the Wars of the Roses, was inspired by last week’s tiny Internet furor over a British TV channel’s allegedly expert historical reconstruction of What Mr. Darcy Really Looked Like. (Unsurprisingly, this expert historical reconstruction was timed to draw attention to the channel’s new Jane Austen Season, featuring the rebroadcast of various beloved Austen adaptations.)


Georgian-historian-cum-TV-personality Amanda Vickery and Austen scholar John Sutherland teamed up to investigate the standards of male beauty that would likely have been in Jane Austen’s mind when she created her handsome hero. Surprise! Over the past two centuries, our idea of male beauty has. . . well, let’s just say changed. “Evolved” might denote condescension toward our ancestors’ misguided ideas of hotness. (See under: Edward IV.)


But on to Mr. Darcy. Tall, dark and handsome? Nah. Instead of muscular, square-jawed, altogether hunky Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen, the real Mr. Darcy would apparently have been pale, pointy-faced and narrow-shouldered. (Strapping chests were for common laborers, not gentlemen of leisure.) And he would have powdered his hair! And he would have stood only 5’11”! Frankly, the artist's rendition commissioned for the occasion makes him look like a bit of a dweeb.


I suppose it is churlish to point out that whatever the fashion when Jane Austen began writing First Impressions, by the time Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, powdered hair was passé. Or that 5’11”, while a few inches below the heights of Messrs. Firth and Macfadyen, is above average (i.e. tall) for white men in both England and the United States even today.


(Surely, however, we are allowed to giggle over the RadioTimes headline: “Science reveals what Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy would really have looked like.” You kind of wonder if the headline writer realized that Darcy is fictional, and therefore not easily accessible to science.)


This whole teapot tempest should remind us, again, that Jane Austen’s genius lies as much in what she leaves out as in what she puts in. Was Darcy a Colin Firth hunk, or a pointy-chinned aristocrat? She doesn’t really say. She leaves it to each of us to envision “his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien,” according to whatever historically inflected, invariably subjective standard we choose to apply. She puts our imaginations in service to her story, engaging us in the project of making her fictional worlds real. What did Mr. Darcy "really" look like? You tell me.



* Honesty compels me to admit that these paintings were created decades after Edward’s death. But my point remains: no one looking at them now would say, “Now, there’s a good-looking guy!”


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 15 2016 02:00PM

Just in case yesterday’s festivities didn’t give you enough of that Valentine’s Day spirit, Biltmore House, the palatial Asheville, N.C., estate of the Vanderbilt family, has the perfect solution: “Fashionable Romance,” an exhibit of wedding gowns worn in the movies.


Included in the exhibit, which runs through July 4, are gowns from the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma, and the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. Judging from the web site pictures, the display – which includes a total of forty costumes from nineteen films -- will be a feast for costume-mad Janeites.


I’ve never been to Biltmore, but from here it looks kind of like Pemberley on steroids. If you go sometime this spring or summer, please report back!


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