Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 8 2019 01:00PM

The success of the screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels has been attributed to many factors: romantic plots, attractive stars, witty dialogue, stately mansions. And, of course, great-looking clothes.


No surprise, then, that Austen tourist venues frequently display costumes from the movies, even though, as modern reproductions worn by contemporary actors playing fictional characters, these outfits fall at least three degrees of separation short of historical reality.


Now Janeite costume fans can look forward to another opportunity to wallow in Regency fashion: The Exhibits Development Group, a Minnesota-based company that assembles traveling shows on art, science, history, and pop culture, has put together “Jane Austen: Fashion and Sensibility.” Thus far, no venues have been announced for the exhibition, although EDG’s projected schedule seems to imagine a tour of eighteen sites over six years, starting in the fall of 2020.


The show features forty-nine costumes from eight different filmed adaptations of four Austen novels, but the lion’s share of the items – thirty-five of the forty-nine – come from just two of those adaptations: the iconic 1995 BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, written by Andrew Davies and starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; and the 1995 Ang Lee movie of Sense and Sensibility, written by Emma Thompson and starring Thompson and Kate Winslet.


While more than two-thirds of the featured costumes were worn by women – because let’s face it: who usually gets the more interesting clothes in these movies? – the exhibitors clearly have a savvy eye on their market: Among the smaller number of male garments on display will be the so fetchingly moistened white shirt that Firth wore in the BBC P&P, and the long gray coat and halfway-unbuttoned shirt in which a super-hot Matthew Macfadyen met Keira Knightley at the end of Joe Wright’s 2005 movie of P&P.


Cue swooning.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 18 2019 01:00PM

Pity poor Colin Firth. His IMDB page lists more than seventy-five film and TV credits in a career stretching back thirty-five years, and yet we mostly remember only one of them.


And thus it was that last week, when the British actor and comedian Miranda Hart released the latest three-minute installment in a daily video series designed to raise money for charity, she had herself filmed sitting in front of a roaring fire, reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to . . . you know who.


Janeite fantasy though this scenario may be, the skit is on the lame side. (Though I did giggle at the moment when Hart, rebuffed after trying to steal a kiss from Firth, covers her embarrassment by turning to the camera and indignantly protesting, “Can people stop kissing Colin Firth? That’s really inappropriate!”)


Still, the whole thing proves that Firth can be a good sport about this Mr. Darcy thing, at least when it’s in the service of a good cause. “I've never resented it,” he told an interviewer in an intermittently resentful-sounding 2007 conversation. “If it wasn't for him, I might be languishing. I dare say it will be my saving grace when the only employment available to me is opening supermarkets dressed in breeches and a wig.”


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.


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