Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 19 2017 01:00PM

“The new Darcy Hotel. . . is named for that taciturn hero of Jane Austen’s,” the Washington Times wrote earlier this month, at the outset of an enthusiastic review of the hotel’s seafood restaurant. Disappointingly, the restaurant is called Siren, a name with no P&P associations whatsoever. Instead of, say, Bennet. Or Lady Catherine’s Place. Or Lydia’s Petticoat.

Alas, this dearth of Austen associations is no anomaly, at least as far as I can glean from the website of the hotel, located in Washington D.C.’s upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood. Nary a mention of Austen appears anywhere on the site; without the Times tip-off, there'd be no way of knowing the hotel was named for the literary hero, rather than the character in Thor or the Smashing Pumpkins bassist.* The metal-and-glass décor is described as “updated mid-century modern” – presumably that’s not the mid-nineteenth century – and the his-and-hers silhouettes hanging above the bed in one room photo are rainbowed in neon.

Only the hotel’s amenities evoke that understated-elegance, waited-on-hand-and-foot Pemberley vibe: You can borrow cufflinks from the Haberdashery, order a bespoke suit custom-made during your stay, sip free cocktails every evening, or have a libation created for you in your own room by the “cocktail butler.”

For those of us who might be willing to overlook the thinness of the Austen veneer just so we can say we stayed at The Darcy, prices don’t seem to be excessive, as these things go: Although a mid-week stay begins perilously close to $400 a night and goes up from there, a summer weekend night starts at a more reasonable $179. And with luck, the company will be better than at Lady Catherine’s Place.

* All right, all right. I admit I would never have thought of either of these alternatives without an assist from Google.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2017 01:00PM

In my experience, non-Janeites are blissfully unaware of the vast universe of Austen fanfic in all its magnificent, explicit, pansexual variety. How else to explain the slightly breathless anxiety with which writer-director Byrum Geisler is ushering his film Before the Fall onto streaming video?

See, Before the Fall – apparently no relation to the bestselling book by Noah Hawley, soon to be a major motion picture – is a gay-themed update of Pride and Prejudice! The Darcy and Elizabeth characters are both men! Aren’t you shocked? Aren’t you? Aren’t you?

Me neither.

Gay versions of Austen’s stories date back at least to 2010, when Ann Herendeen published the odd but interesting Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Other Loves, which matches Darcy with Bingley and Elizabeth with Charlotte.

Nine years earlier, Arielle Eckstut and Dennis Ashton, the authors of the hilarious Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, penned a vignette in which the Bingley sisters welcome Jane Bennet to Netherfield in a most surprising fashion – although, admittedly, that one was parody.

And I’m sure that denizens of the online fanfic boards could cite many more unpublished examples of Austen slash fiction. So Geisler’s film – which can be rented for $4.99 through iTunes or Amazon – is hardly the incredible! pioneering! risk! that he seems to think it is.

In a two-minute featurette, viewable at the Huffington Post, Geisler notes the “timeless quality” of Austen’s stories. “Jane Austen just had to have been brilliant,” he opines. Well, yes.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s clear from the plot description that Geisler takes at least one other liberty with the original: not only is his Elizabeth now a man, but Geisler seems to have reversed the relative social standings of his protagonists. Ben Bennet is a wealthy Virginia lawyer, while Lee Darcy is a brooding factory worker. (Based on the trailer, however, I can attest that Darcy is, as he should be, very easy on the eyes.)

“I’m hoping Jane Austen’s fans will see [the film] as a tribute to her and not misusing the source material,” Geisler concludes, a tad anxiously.

Oh, honey. Not to worry. You have no idea what we’ve seen.

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, May 15 2017 01:00PM

“To put it bluntly, he was screwing her.”

It’s not every day that my Jane Austen Google alert yields a line like that. Especially when the screw-ee in question is alleged to be the thirteen-year-old Jane Austen.

Read it and weep: An Australian writer claims that Our Jane was the barely pubescent lover of a dashing, possibly criminal Irish-born surgeon nearly fourteen years her senior who emigrated to Australia and became an important public figure in the young colony. The surgeon’s name? D’Arcy Wentworth.

The author of the newly released, apparently self-published Jane and D’Arcy: Folly is Not Always Folly, the first of a projected two volumes, is Wal Walker, himself a Wentworth descendant. Unsurprisingly, he’s certain that his new discovery – based on “research into both their lives and a detailed reading of Austen’s writing” -- will blow the fusty world of Jane Austen scholarship wide open.

“Jane Austen ‘people’ are in fear of recognizing it,” Walker told the Weekend Australian. “This will change the whole way Jane Austen is viewed.’’

Austen first crossed paths with the oh-so-fascinating Wentworth when she was a ten-year-old schoolgirl in Reading, Walker says. “There was no romance, but he kissed her hand,’’ Walker explains. Things hotted up a couple of years later, when Wentworth landed in the employ of an apothecary in Alton, a town in Austen’s home county of Hampshire.

From there, Walker suggests, the romance proceeded apace, culminating in a secret wedding, undertaken before Wentworth, pursued by charges of highway robbery, decamped for Botany Bay aboard a ship that left port right around Austen’s fourteenth birthday. But they kept in touch via letter, and Austen was so deeply attached that she named the hero of Pride and Prejudice after her exiled love, just so she could hear his name read aloud.

At this point, those of us who’ve read Jane Austen’s letters, her family’s reminiscences of her life, and perhaps a biography or two may be wondering how this passionate episode slipped our minds. Not to worry: Walker acknowledges that he doesn’t have any of what the reporter calls “explicit evidence” – aka evidence – of the connection; he’s just figured out “where and when they might have met, and what brought them together,” a (surprisingly sympathetic) reviewer writes.

I will not bother pointing out how utterly ludicrous this tale is, in every particular; the estimable Susannah Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, has done so elegantly. (“There is no factual basis for it, so you have to say it’s not true,” Fullerton notes, tactfully but firmly.)

No, I’d prefer to focus on what seems to be Walker’s bedrock rationale for pursuing this silly fantasia. To wit: “She couldn’t have written those books without experiencing a love affair.”

Taken at face value, this claim is bizarre. It’s not as if Jane Austen’s novels contain detailed sex scenes, or even lengthy passages of lovey-dovey talk; they’re about virginal young women feeling their first serious attractions to respectable men who never attempt to steal so much as a pre-engagement kiss. How extensive does the writer’s personal romantic experience have to be before she can plausibly tell such stories?

But (Walker might argue): The emotion! The passion! The psychological depth! How could Austen possibly have portrayed all of that so compellingly if she hadn’t, say, screwed a surgeon in her early teen years?

Sigh. Haven’t we been down this road before? (See – or, preferably, don’t see – Becoming Jane.) The explanation is quite simple -- or, from another perspective, quite profound. It’s called imagination. Perceptiveness. Acuity in observation. You know – novelistic genius. Why do so many people find it easier to believe in a phantom love affair that left no trace in the historical record than in brilliant artistry that flowered into six great masterpieces?

By Deborah Yaffe, May 8 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen and sex: By now, you’ve heard all the arguments.

1. She’s a sex-free zone, where female modesty and male decorum are prized and celebrated. (And thank goodness for that.)

2. She’s a simmering cauldron of veiled sexual references, from Lydia Bennet’s ripped petticoat to Mary Crawford’s accomplished horseback riding. (The Regency was earthy; it’s the Victorians who were repressed prudes.)

3. She’s the ur-romance novelist, whose Elizabeth and Darcy would certainly have had a super-hot married life. (See under: seventy percent of Jane Austen fanfic.)

4. She’s the anti-romance novelist, who keeps pairing her heroines off with condescending father figures. (Sleep with Edmund Bertram? Ick! No, thank you!)

Clearly, what’s been missing from this discussion is a truly delightful piece of merchandise whose existence I learned of only recently: the Austen-themed condom. Turns out that for this year’s fourth annual Independent Bookstore Day, an April event celebrating places that are not Amazon or Barnes & Noble, participating retailers could lay in a stock of “literary condoms” – perfect for the reader in your bed.

Judging from the order form (scroll down for condom reference), only two designs were available this year: the Dickensian “Great Expectations” (no pressure!); and the Austen-themed “Give Me That Darcy,” in a package adorned with a cartoon of a pants-less Regency gentleman using his top hat in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. But Instagram evidence suggests that the line created last year by the San Francisco store The Booksmith also included two other designs: the Alice-inspired “Eat Me”; and “Dive Deep,” illustrated with a picture of a lasciviously grinning Great White Whale, clearly based on Moby Dick. (Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.)

The romantic possibilities here are obvious. We all have tests for our prospective partners – movies or books or songs that s/he must like, or it’s a dealbreaker. Now we can move that conversation to an even more intimate stage: can’t sleep with someone who fails to identify the literary reference on the condom package.

Alas, it doesn’t look like these adorably naughty items are available for purchase by the general public, except through indie booksellers stocking them for the celebration. Just for the record, though, the wholesale price was $47.88 for a package of twelve, or $3.99 per prophylactic. As a boring married person, I haven’t bought condoms in so long that I have no idea if this is a bargain or not. And whatever your views on Jane Austen and sex, I doubt she would have known, either.

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