Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 12 2017 01:00PM

Austen adaptations, whether on stage, screen or fanfic page, all too often fall victim to an excess of earnestness – the bonnets, the hushed voices, the leisurely strolls through manicured gardens. It’s the disease of costume drama, but in Austen’s case, it’s especially jarring, since the original source material is laced with energy and subversive wit.


Whatever you might have thought of actress/playwright Kate Hamill’s version of Sense and Sensibility, you couldn’t accuse it of lacking energy: As blog readers may recall, this is the version in which furniture careened around the stage on wheels and actors played multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene.


The whole thing was a lot of fun, so I was excited to learn that Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice, which premiered last summer in New York’s Hudson Valley, will be produced in New York City this fall. (My family already has tickets for December. We’re calling it my birthday present.)


And now comes an entertaining interview with Hamill, coinciding with a Dallas-area production of her new P&P. In adapting the book, Hamill says, she set out to break the costume drama mold. “There are several good, straightforward [stage] versions of it out there, along with those on film and television,” she says. “So I wanted to do something very theatrical and surprising, not the typical Pride and Prejudice.”


The company putting on the show has produced a fun promotional video featuring a two-on-two basketball game between Elizabeth and Jane Bennet and Messrs. Darcy and Bingley, all four clad in Regency attire and tennis shoes. Apparently, this picks up on game imagery embedded in Hamill’s script.


“I’m really interested in the way we codify love as a game,” she tells her interviewer. “Love is very serious, yet inherently a little bit silly—and we do tend to play it as something with rules, strategies, wins, losses. . . And the way we treat love as a game does tend to pit people against each other in a way that’s often broken down by gender.”


Looking forward to my birthday. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 10 2017 01:00PM

During World War I, historians tell us, Jane Austen’s novels were sometimes prescribed to traumatized British soldiers as a remedy for shell-shock, anxiety and despair. And now, it seems, the benefits of the Austen Cure are about to become available to another jumpy, unsettled demographic: lonely dogs and their guilt-ridden owners.


Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon, has just announced a new program, Audible for Dogs, whose spokesman is dog whisperer Cesar Millan. And among the titles Millan recommends for canine consumption (figuratively speaking, I hasten to add) is a 2015 recording of Pride and Prejudice, read by British actress Rosamund Pike, who played Jane Bennet in the 2005 P&P film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.


The idea of Audible for Dogs is to give man’s best friend a soothing substitute for His Master’s Voice when said master is out of the house for long periods of time. Just set up a digital speaker, crank up an audiobook featuring the calm, consistent tones of someone whose voice resembles that of the primary dog-owner, and voila: no more guilty worries that lonely, neurotic Fido will spend your absence peeing on the carpet, chewing your Manolos, or annoying the neighbors with incessant barking.


Such is the idea, anyway. Millan and Audible claim to have backed up their hunch with a month-long study featuring one hundred volunteer dog-human pairs, but forgive me for a teensy bit of skepticism about the objectivity and scientific rigor of this experiment.


For Janeites, the key question is clear: Although Pride and Prejudice is often suggested as a good introduction to Austen for human readers, is the same true for canine ones? I’m concerned that Millan may have set these four-legged neophytes up for failure by choosing a book that, as far as I can recall, contains no mention of dogs at all.


Given that omission, it hardly seems fair to stack P&P up against some of the more canine-centric titles on Millan’s list, including Soldier Dogs, A Dog’s Purpose, and The Art of Racing in the Rain. Wouldn’t he have been better off choosing Northanger Abbey, whose hero greets visitors accompanied by “the friends of his solitude, a large Newfoundland puppy and two or three terriers”? Or Sense and Sensibility, whose anti-hero Willougby, though lacking in moral fiber, at least has the good taste to own “the nicest little black bitch of a pointer” that Sir John Middleton has ever seen?


But really, the answer is obvious: Dogs are clearly the only readers who should be introduced to Jane Austen by way of Mansfield Park. To human readers, Fanny Price may seem insipid, and Edmund Bertram's cluelessness may cry out for a slap upside the head. But what canine companion, nursing feelings of neglect and abandonment as its owner departs for a long day at the office, won’t be charmed by Lady Bertram’s excellent judgment in “thinking more of her pug than her children”?


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 3 2017 01:00PM

Twenty-fifth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen wrote for money.


Not only for money, of course – she began writing as an adolescent, long before she had a chance of getting published, and kept going despite rejection and disappointment that must have sometimes made her wonder if anyone besides her family would ever read a word of her books.


But make no mistake about it: She wanted to be paid for her work, and she liked it very, very much when she was. Although her relations, with their genteel squeamishness about women and work, sometimes tried to pretend she gave no thought to pecuniary considerations, her letters make clear that she did. And who can blame her? It’s satisfying to earn a small measure of independence and self-sufficiency through hard work well done.


That sense of satisfaction comes through loud and clear in the postscript to the letter that Jane Austen began writing to her older sailor brother, Frank, exactly 204 years ago today (#86 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).*


“You will be glad to hear that every copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value,” Jane writes to Frank. “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


What would Austen have thought if she could have known how valuable the copyright of Sense and Sensibility would indeed become? On the strength of this letter, I’d guess she would have kicked herself for dying too soon to get a piece of that action.



* It’s one of only a handful of surviving letters to Frank: Although he kept his sister’s letters throughout his long life, preserving them even as he captained ships and participated in naval battles, his youngest daughter destroyed them soon after his death in 1865, at the age of ninety-one. So while we’re hating on Cassandra Austen for burning or censoring her letters from her sister, let’s spare a little vitriol for Frances Sophia Austen, who never even knew her Aunt Jane but nevertheless took it upon herself to destroy a priceless part of our cultural heritage.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 6 2017 02:00PM

Say what you will of Isabelle de Montolieu: The woman had chutzpah.


In 1816, de Montolieu, a successful Swiss novelist, published her translation of Sense and Sensibility, the first full-length French translation of an Austen novel. In a diverting recent blog post, the British Library – which owns a first edition of Montolieu’s work – describes the results. As the blog’s headline puts it, de Montolieu, along with the early French translators of three other Austen novels, turned our favorite writer into “an irony-free zone.”


In a preface, de Montolieu, who the blog tells us was at the time more famous than Austen, promised the reader that her translation was "reasonably faithful until the end, where I have allowed myself, as is my custom, a few slight changes which I have deemed necessary." Yes, you're quite right to be alarmed: de Montolieu deemed it necessary that Willoughby’s wife should die and that he should repent of his evil deeds and marry the seduced-and-abandoned Eliza, saving her from the fires of hell.


Now don’t you wish Jane Austen had thought of that? Thank goodness de Montolieu came along to turn her into an altogether more conventional and less interesting writer!


As the British Library succinctly puts it, “This early French Jane Austen is a somewhat formulaic novelist of sensibility devoid of her trademark sense of irony and social satire.” Talk about lost in translation.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 12 2017 02:00PM

These days, the quintessentially English Jane Austen is, as I recently found occasion to note, a citizen of the world. And she seems to have a special affinity for one particular part of that world: the Indian subcontinent, where some of her recurrent themes -- family pressure, gender inequity, and the tension between love and economics -- have especially strong contemporary resonance.


As far as I’m aware, India is the only country outside the Anglo-American sphere whose film industry has adapted three different Austen novels for the screen: Sense and Sensibility (reborn as 2000’s interesting and moving Kandukondain Kandukondain, or I Have Found It); Pride and Prejudice (2004’s slight but fun Bride and Prejudice); and Emma (2010’s execrable Aisha).


A blog called The Ladies Finger recently reported on the growth of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. (And I’m not calling your attention to this post merely because it includes a complimentary shout-out to Among the Janeites. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)


The latest evidence of the southeast Asian Austen affinity is a roundup earlier this month, in the online version of the Indian business newspaper Mint, pegged to this year’s commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death.


The piece strings together an array of short-ish responses to Austen’s work, some clever and some less so, contributed by various literary types: authors, journalists, publishers, the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. My favorite is the account by writer, critic and translator Rakhshanda Jalil of first reading Pride and Prejudice at the urging of her mother and then, years later, giving her daughter the same book.


Along the way, Jalil found Austenian resonances in the Urdu literature she read, despite the differences of language, culture and context.


“That an 18th century English writer should cast such a long shadow and find echoes in such a disparate literary culture,” Jalil writes, “is a reminder that fine writing rises above its time and circumstance and has the enduring ability to merge the small and the personal with the larger and the universal.”


Jalil’s words go a long way toward explaining why Austen has fans across the globe. Indeed, her formulation could serve as a definition of what it means to call a work of literature a classic.


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