Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 10 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s mature work features only one character of color: the teenaged West Indian heiress Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender,” who receives a passing mention near the end of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death.


The lily-white nature of Austen’s cast of characters isn’t surprising, given the racial makeup of the rural English world she knew best. What is intriguing is a recent spate – I think we can call it a trend! -- of Austen fanfic, in both book and screen form, featuring characters of color.


The latest example is Unmarriageable, by the journalist and novelist Soniah Kamal, which updates the story of Pride and Prejudice to contemporary Pakistan, much as did the short stories in last year’s Austenistan.


But although the Indian subcontinent, as I’ve noted before, is a longtime hotbed of Austen adapters, the current characters-of-color trend is broader.


Late last summer, a production company acquired the movie rights to Ayesha At Last, a Pride and Prejudice update set among young Muslims in modern-day Toronto, and HarperCollins published Pride, a P&P update set among young Latinos and African-Americans in Brooklyn.


Then, last month, Lifetime TV announced plans for Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta – yes, a P&P update set against the backdrop of a black church in Georgia. (The producers may have a good idea here: it might be easier to keep these versions straight if the titles of all P&P spinoffs were required to identify the adaptation’s location, CSI-style.)


The impulse to adapt Austen’s stories -- or at least her most famous one -- to characters whose life experiences diverge significantly from those of the people she knew is yet more proof, were any needed, of the universality of her incisive portraits of families, relationships, and comings-of-age. I haven’t yet read the latest offerings, but with luck the writers will use Austen’s narrative template as a vehicle for reflecting on the issues of class and gender that we still wrestle with, two centuries after Austen’s time – as well as the issues of race that she mostly ignored.


No idea how Unmarriageable will stack up against all these other products of the ever-churning Fanfic Factory. But one thing is for sure: Her publisher, Penguin Books, is just a little bit off when it calls Kamal’s novel a “one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 3 2018 02:00PM

At this point in Jane Austen’s career of pop-culture celebrity, it’s no surprise that every place with even a tangential connection to her life or work wants to publicize said linkage. And thus it is that two tidbits of news crossed my desk in recent weeks:


* The Vyne, a stately sixteenth-century home near Basingstoke, recently unveiled an exhibition about the life of the Victorian-era owner who devoted his entire fortune to saving the house from dereliction, thereby leaving his four daughters dowerless and unmarried.


Austen knew the Chute family, which owned the house for three centuries, until they turned it over to Britain’s National Trust in 1956. (And breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding the monstrous bills associated with its upkeep, according to the family’s current representative, seventy-one-year-old Robin Chute, who remembers sword-fighting with his brother in the Oak Gallery during Christmas visits to the ancestral manse.)


Austen mentions members of the Chute family in her letters, and she attended parties at The Vyne. But is it really the case, as a recent story in the Telegraph asserts, that “it’s thought that she may have based her Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price on Caroline Wiggett, who came to live at The Vyne in 1803 aged three, having been plucked from a pool of poor distant relations and adopted by the childless couple who lived there”?


Could be – Austen biographer Claire Tomalin notes some parallels – but Austen had a closer-to-home model for Fanny in her brother Edward, adopted by the childless Knights in 1783, when Jane was about seven. My antennae always rise at squirrelly attributions like “it’s thought,” which always suggest to me wishful thinking by publicists eager to milk an Austen connection.


Still, judging from the photos accompanying the Telegraph story, the Vyne is a splendid and beautifully restored home. (That library: to die for.) The participants in last summer’s Jane Austen Society of North America tour of Austen’s England visited; alas, my own JASNA tour in 2011 did not.


* Southampton, England, where Austen lived from 1806 until 1809, has installed a bas-relief plaque in her honor in a theater building in the city’s cultural district. An earlier version of the plaque, which was installed in the public library in1917 to commemorate the centennial of Austen’s death, was destroyed by bombing during World War II.


The new plaque features a sculpted adaptation of an 1804 watercolor her sister, Cassandra, made of Austen: not the famous head-and-shoulders portrait of a seemingly irritated Austen in a frilly turban, but a lesser-known representation of a seated Austen, seen from the back. (See both images here.)


For a Janeite, there’s a certain oddity to the plaque’s very existence. Although the Austen sisters indubitably lived in Southampton, sharing a home with their mother, their brother Francis – often away at sea -- and his wife and baby, Austen’s residence there marked a low point in her literary career. She seems to have written nothing during the Southampton years; it was the move to Chawton cottage in 1809 that finally gave her the time, space, and mental breathing-room to write or revise all six of her completed novels.


But you wouldn’t know that from Southampton’s plaque, which features the first line of Pride and Prejudice and a list of Austen’s novels -- right above the name of the Southampton street where she lived when she wasn’t writing any of them.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 29 2018 02:00PM

Thirty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Talk about burying the lead.


The letter that Jane Austen began writing to her friend Martha Lloyd exactly 206 years ago today (#77 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) covers a multitude of topics: Martha’s ongoing visit to a dying friend, the purchase of a grey cloak and some calico, the comings and goings of assorted relatives and acquaintances.


And then, more than halfway through, we arrive at this passage: “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”


Yes, thus it is that Jane Austen announces the impending publication of one of the world’s most popular and enduring works of fiction – for which the author received only a single modest payment from publisher Thomas Egerton.


In the notoriously imprecise game of historical currency conversions, her take was the equivalent of somewhere between $6,500 and $8,500 today, depending on which online calculator you use. (Three can be found here, here, and here.) Today, it’s estimated that the novel has sold more than twenty million copies. No wonder that when novelist Michael Thomas Ford turned Austen into a vampire running a bookshop in upstate New York, he imagined her undead ruminations returning repeatedly to the theme of uncollectable royalties.


In retrospect, of course, the Pride and Prejudice deal looks like a financial mistake, but at the time it made sense. In the early nineteenth century, much book-publishing operated on a vanity press model: Authors paid the costs of publication and collected the majority of the profits – or absorbed the losses.


Although Sense and Sensibility, published on these terms in 1811, eventually sold out its first edition and made Austen a modest profit, that outcome was not yet certain in late 1812, when Austen was deciding what to do about P&P. By selling Egerton the copyright of her second novel outright, Austen ensured that her financially strapped family would lose no money.


Further, the deal ensured that Egerton would handle the printing and advertising, which Austen's brother and de facto literary agent Henry would otherwise have had to manage. “Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be most welcome to me,” Austen explains in her letter to Martha Lloyd.


If the gender expectations of 1812 had not left Austen apologetically dependent on male relatives to manage her business affairs, would she have felt empowered to hold out for a better deal? It’s impossible to say. No sooner has she passed on the publication news than she’s on to other matters: the purchase of a shawl for their impoverished spinster friend Miss Benn, the allocation of charitable donations at Christmas, the rain. The event that would still seem newsworthy two centuries later is just one more miscellaneous piece of information.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 26 2018 02:00PM

Last summer, when I learned that the Hallmark Channel would celebrate Christmas by broadcasting a movie based on a Jane Austen fanfic titled Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, I snapped up the Kindle edition of the book and started reading:


A Taylor Swift cover of “Last Christmas,” originally recorded by Wham! in 1986, strummed from the stereo of the sleek, black town car, where Darcy was sitting in the back seat.


It is never a good sign when you crack open a new book and your inner copy editor begins screaming at the very first sentence – pointing out, for example, that “strummed” is a verb that requires a direct object, or that the recording history of “Last Christmas” is a topic best left to the liner notes of the CD.


Such, however, are the joys of Melissa de la Cruz’s extraordinarily terrible P&P spinoff, which updates the story to the contemporary Midwest and swaps the genders of the protagonists. Darcy Fitzwilliam, the daughter of the richest family in Pemberley, Ohio, has left her hometown to make it big at a New York hedge fund. Local carpenter Luke Bennet was once her high school nemesis. Darcy comes home when her mother gets sick, locks lips with Luke under the mistletoe at her family Christmas party, and . . . oh, you know the drill. Her best friend and his brother – a same-sex couple, in this version – fall in love; the arrogant-but-secretly-insecure Darcy suggests romance, but Luke turns her down; she rescues his younger siblings from the consequences of their misbehavior; he acknowledges his love for her, and everyone lives happily ever after.


The story is limp and poorly paced, hitting the major beats of Jane Austen’s plot without a shred of wit, playfulness, or originality. And at times the prose rises (falls?) to an awe-inspiring level of badness. (My personal favorite: “She would barely be able to eat anyway, she knew, with the storm of knots and butterflies brewing in the pit of her stomach.”)


So my expectations were low when I tuned in Friday night for Hallmark’s filmed adaptation, the second P&P-inspired movie in the channel’s ongoing Countdown to Christmas series.


Blog readers will recall that Hallmark began venturing into Janeite territory nearly three years ago, with the airing of Unleashing Mr. Darcy, still the gold standard – or perhaps the dross standard – of Bad Austen-Themed Filmmaking.


Less than a month ago, the channel brought us its first holiday-themed Austen movie, Christmas at Pemberley Manor, which gave new meaning to the term “loosely,” as in “loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” In fact, except for the names of its characters, Pemberley Manor bears virtually no relation to Austen’s original: instead, it is the story of a driven workaholic named Darcy who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.


But given its roots in Austen fanfic, Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe – Hallmark has dispensed with the extra “and” – seemed likely to hew more closely to the original. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that de la Cruz’s by-way-of-Austen plot had been largely discarded in favor of a story about a driven workaholic named Darcy who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.


In this version, Luke (Brendan Penny) is a restaurateur who agrees to cater the annual benefit for the local youth center, which Darcy (Lacey Chabert) and her mother have agreed to organize at short notice. Gone are the rejected proposal and the troubled-sibling rescue, while the same-sex romance has been replaced by a heterosexual one: presumably, Hallmark wanted to avoid offending its most conservative viewers. (Meanwhile, Darcy's duplicitous business partner is a woman named -- in what I can only conclude is a spirit of gratuitous anti-Janeite insult -- Austin.)


It’s hard to know how to feel about the semi-radical transformation on display here. (Except for the craven gay-to-straight move; I know just how to feel about that.) On the one hand, I cannot lament the loss of de la Cruz’s plot, because it is terrible.


But on the other hand, the bait-and-switch is breathtaking: You lure viewers with the promise of P&P, and instead they get a generically written and tepidly acted Enemies-to-Lovers rom-com in which Girl and Boy trade a few vaguely hostile witticisms before settling into an exchange of soulful glances and heartfelt platitudes (“You’re every ounce the man your dad was”), garnished with holiday-flavored saccharine (“Christmas isn’t just a day or a season – it’s a state of mind.”).


I suppose it could be said that by repeatedly tuning in to these mediocre-at-best Austen spinoffs, we Janeites – and by “we” I mean “I” – deserve whatever we get. Like the “fond mother. . . in pursuit of praise for her children” whom Austen describes in chapter 21 of Sense and Sensibility, we may perhaps be “though . . . the most rapacious of human beings . . . likewise the most credulous; [our] demands are exorbitant; but [we] will swallow anything.”


Because you know that if next year’s Countdown to Christmas includes Holiday at Hartfield or Yuletide Abbey, I’ll be there.


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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