Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Among the Janeites

Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom
Deborah Yaffe (2013, Mariner Books)

   The idea that lovers of Jane Austen were a breed apart was already current in the late nineteenth century, when literary critic George Saintsbury coined the term ‘Janeites’. There were already people who read all six novels every year, and gossiped about the characters as though they were real people; and they were already thought a little odd. But this was a phenomenon mainly among the compulsively literate.

    Now, in the internet age, we have a whole range of other ways to love Austen. The conversation has spread to internet discussion groups and fan pages (the Jane Austen Facebook page has 800,000 fans); her novels have been adapted for movies and television; and the bookstores are full of mugs and t-shirts bearing pithy Austen quotes. Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites takes in the full spectrum of Austen’s presence in “the solemn pantheon of classic English literature and the exuberantly commercial realm of pop culture.”

    Austen fanatics, especially the bookish ones, can be marvelously eccentric. Some have elaborate psychological theories: Is Mr. Darcy’s distaste for small talk a symptom of an autism-spectrum disorder? (Never mind that he is fictional, or that autism wouldn’t be named for a century after his appearance.) Did Austen’s mother have a borderline personality, and do the novels’ cast of matronly characters reflect it? More than a few people think so. There’s a fellow in Florida who has even darker notions of the intentions behind it all; he’s been kicked off many of the internet chat boards for contentiousness.

    Austen serves for some people as a focus for travel. The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) offers tours on which the travelers visit Jane's portable writing desk at the British Museum, and go to Lyme to see the stairs that the foolish Louise Musgrove falls from, in Persuasion. At Chawton, where Austen lived in her last days, the gift shop “seems to crystallize the tensions implicit in the whole project of our tour, which at times seems like a wrestling match between the real Austen and her fabricated everything-for-sale brand.”

    Inspired by visions of Gwyneth Paltrow, others like the fancy-dress aspect: JASNA’s annual meeting features a costumed ball, for which Yaffe commissions a dress, and orders a corset (but who knows how to fasten her into it?) This is more or less the literary equivalent of Civil War reenacting, with a similar competitive urge to be more-authentic-than-thou, though the whole enterprise is delightfully fake. You can’t really light a hotel function room with candlelight nowadays.

    Many of the fancy-dress crowd came to the books by way of filmed adaptations, especially the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries in which Colin Firth goes for a dip in a pond, emerging with a dripping wet shirt – a scene, of course, that was never envisaged by Jane Austen. It was conjured by a screenwriter who felt the need to give the whole thing a bit of sizzle for the modern audience. This was a wildly successful scheme, if the “mugs, coasters, key chains, fridge magnets and notepads” bearing his alluring face are any indication.

    It’s not only filmmakers who feel the urge to revise and extend Austen’s remarks; there’s a sizable cottage industry in fan fiction, published on websites and e-books. Yaffe duly read dozens of these works. “The writing varied from excellent to execrable, the pacing and plotting were frequently amateurish, the temptation to substitute melodrama (war! murder! international drug smuggling!) for Austen’s psychological nuance seemed ever-present, but the exuberant silliness was irresistible.” (My experience: The P.D. James mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, is disappointing; Shannon Hale’s Austenland is terrible.)*

    I’m not doing justice to the many pleasurable details of Yaffe’s journalistic adventure, but you can trust her conclusion: “Beyond our passion for Austen, what most obviously unites our disparate group is something we have in common with the members of every subculture–of every culture, really: the desire to share with other human beings the things that bring us joy.”

Email edition October 2013