Summer Reading 2016: Definitely Not Your Mother’s Jane Austen

Zombies, handsome British hunks in breeches, successful movies, piles of DVDs — why is this 19th century British author ‘equally welcome at Yale and on YouTube’?

2016 Summer Yaffe
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.

Deborah Yaffe, a longtime New Jersey journalist and author, in 2013 opened a window onto an unusual literary community that spans the globe: the devotees of 19th-century British author Jane Austen.

Diving deep into a fan kinship known simply as Janeites, “Among the Janeites: A Journey Through The World of Jane Austen Fandom” moves from New Jersey to Europe and beyond to describe an adoration that equals few others.

Now living in West Windsor, Yaffe is also author of “Other People’s Children: The Battle for Justice and Equality in New Jersey’s Schools.” She continues to blog about Jane Austen.


… In 1894, the British literary critic George Saintsbury coined a new term to describe Jane Austen’s adoring fans, and ever since — sometimes affectionately, sometimes derisively —we’ve been called “Janeites.” New Janeites are born all the time. Some, like me, fall in love young. One summer in the early 1990s, nearly a generation after I first cracked open “Pride and Prejudice,” a bookish teenager named Darrell Sampson finally gave in to his mother’s urging and read the novel during a family road trip from Decatur, Illinois, to Washington D.C. The witty, self-assured Elizabeth Bennet captivated him; in his thirties, as a gay high school guidance counselor in northern Virginia, he joked to a local newspaper that, if his life were a book, its title would be “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict: My Eternal Search for Mr. Darcy.” He kept a Jane Austen Action Figure, still in its original packaging, on his desk at work and reread two or three of the novels every year. And the day he flew home to say goodbye to his dying mother, he took a copy of “Emma” to read as he sat by her hospital bed. “I knew it would be a comfort to me,” he said, “but I also wonder if I grabbed it because I will always associate Austen with my mother, as she was the one who introduced the novels to me.”

Other Janeites come to their obsession later in life. Around the time I was corralling my neighbors into reading Jane Austen with me, seventy-three-year-old Mary Previte was wrapping up a distinguished career that had taken her from running a juvenile detention center in the impoverished city of Camden, New Jersey, to serving four terms in the state legislature. Casting around for something to do in retirement, she borrowed her daughter Alice’s copy of “Pride and Prejudice.” Alice is still waiting to get her book back. Then Mary borrowed Alice’s DVD of “Pride and Prejudice,” wet-shirt version. Alice never got the DVD back, either. In the years that followed, the two women traveled together to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, where, in 2009, dressed in homemade gowns of purple Dupioni silk (Alice) and blue cotton velveteen (Mary), they helped the festival set a Guinness Book record for the largest gathering of people in Regency attire. (Austen’s novels were published during the period known as the Regency, the nine years from 1811 to 1820 that the future George IV served as acting king, or regent, during his father’s disabling illness.) When I visited the Prevites in late summer 2010, they were busy preparing for a return trip to Bath, shuffling through pictures of the previous year’s festival, reminiscing about the friends they had made. Here, for example, was Edwin, from Holland.

“He had his boots handmade, because he couldn’t find boots that he liked,” Alice said. Mary peered at the photo. “They look exactly like the ones that Darcy takes off when he jumps into the water,” she said.

Alice had kept in touch with one woman from northern England who was sewing not only her own Regency gown but also outfits for her brother, her daughter, and her husband, a police officer. A British cop who’s into Jane Austen?

“Well, no,” Alice said. “He’s into her. She’s into Jane Austen. He’s into rescuing bats.”

The Prevites’ story points up the big difference between my journey and those of today’s Janeites. Back when I was discovering Jane Austen, it wasn’t so easy to find other fans. Without Twitter accounts and online communities, Austen-obsession was more likely to remain a solitary pursuit, or one shared with, at most, a few relatives or close friends. Today, no junior Janeite need curl up alone with her book in a darkened corner. She can start a blog, join the online Janeites discussion group, or hang out at the Republic of Pemberley. She won’t feel isolated in her love, because, today, Jane Austen is everywhere. Sequels to Austen’s six novels stack up in bookstores; filmed adaptations of her work fill the DVD racks; pithy, out-of-context quotations from her books adorn coffee mugs, T-shirts, and engagement calendars; and blogs, web communities, and Facebook pages devoted to her worship proliferate in cyberspace. One year, a small publisher struck it rich by adding zombie scenes to the text of “Pride and Prejudice.” The following summer, the Internet made a viral hit out of “Jane Austen’s Fight Club,” a short, hilarious video featuring women in Empire-line dresses doing needlework, practicing the piano, and slugging each other silly.

Austen’s commercial potential is so compelling that even those who barely know her books fearlessly appropriate her long-out-of-copyright brand. In 2009, in upstate New York, classical singer Joanna Manring, who supported herself by teaching voice, was looking for ways to stay afloat in the midst of economic collapse. She decided to expand her group lessons by preparing teenage girls to perform the music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Jane Austen Singing School for Young Ladies was born. During breaks in their rehearsals, the students drank tea and watched movie adaptations of Austen’s novels; at their concerts, they performed wearing high-waisted gowns. Was Manring an Austen fan? “This is a secret: I have not read any Austen books,” she admitted. “I do have a book of her complete works, so that is waiting for me. That is on my cosmic to-do list.”

Of course, other artists have ardent admirers; other fan clubs run wild on the Internet; other subcultures have clubby conventions where grownups play dress-up. But, still, there’s something about Jane. For, while hip college professors may lecture on “Star Trek” and edit collections of essays on “The Big Lebowski,” no one confuses those works with artifacts of high culture. By contrast, nearly two centuries after her death, Jane Austen has a secure home in two very different worlds: the solemn pantheon of classic English literature and the exuberantly commercial realm of pop culture. She is the ultimate cross-over artist, equally welcome at Yale and on YouTube.

Welcome to the party, Janeites! Fandom loves company. After all, what could be more fun than spending an hour, or a weekend, with fellow devotees, hashing over the age-old question of whether Elizabeth Bennet is subconsciously attracted to Mr. Darcy even while claiming to dislike him? What a relief to be among people who know without being told who Tom Lefroy, Martha Lloyd, and Harris Bigg-Wither were! (Jane Austen’s youthful crush, lifelong friend, and rejected suitor, respectively.) Who wants to love in solitude? Literature nerd can be a lonely way to spend an adolescence.

And yet. . .

Truth be told, I didn’t mind my teenage isolation all that much. I cherished my solitary passions as marks of individuality, even of distinction. That tug of surprise I felt at my first JASNA convention, when I realized that Austen-love was hardly an esoteric taste, wasn’t entirely pleasant. Part of me didn’t want to share Jane Austen–or, at least, not with too many other people. And other Janeites seem to feel the same way. “To this day, Jane Austen will, most likely, remain an enigma,” wrote one participant in the online Janeites discussion list, “and, ironically, who is also imagined to be only-truly-known by each of us reading her.” This tension between the desire for community and the desire for exclusivity probably lies at the heart of any fandom, but, because of Austen’s unique standing in both high culture and popular culture, that tension has a sharper edge among Janeites. It’s not just the tension between privacy and community, self and other; it’s the tension between people who truly understand Jane Austen–people like me!–and those other, lesser fans who like her for all the wrong reasons, because of the movies, or the zombies.

Perhaps because Jane Austen is one of the most accessible of great writers–easy to read, easy to love–the drawing of such distinctions has a long history. Henry James sneered at sentimental, commercialized Austen-love as far back as 1905. “Are there any other writers who have seemed so vulnerable to being loved by so many in so wrongheaded a way?” the English-literature scholar Deidre Lynch wrote in 2000. Still, those tensions have come into clearer focus since a wave of Austen movies hit screens in the 1990s, propelling the globalization of Austen’s brand. Once, calling yourself a Jane Austen fan seemed to signify a truly refined taste, the ability to appreciate biting irony and subtle characterization. Today, it’s just as likely to signify a healthy lust for handsome Brits in tight breeches. Merely calling yourself a Janeite is no longer enough to mark your superior powers of discrimination. Now you have to spell out what kind of Janeite you are.

Although they are often caricatured as middle-aged, tea-drinking spinster librarians who knit sweaters and keep cats, Janeites are in some ways a rather diverse bunch. A 2008 survey of 4,500 Austen fans found an air traffic controller, a zoo keeper, and a Dominican friar among the ranks, as well as a fair number of teachers and, yes, librarians. The vast majority of survey respondents were female–though presumably not the Dominican friar–and most were also college-educated, with ages ranged across the spectrum. (Respondents weren’t asked about their race or ethnicity, but at the JASNA events I’ve attended, most of the participants have been white.) Despite these commonalities of gender, educational attainment, and perhaps racial background, the survey results showed what any attendee at a JASNA conference already knew: Janeites are college students and grandparents, evangelical Christians and secular feminists, academics who condescend to bonnet-wearing enthusiasts and unabashed swooners who love ogling Colin Firth in a wet shirt at least as much as they love rereading “Pride and Prejudice.”

What all these diverse enthusiasts share is a quality of engagement with Austen and her works that goes beyond mere admiration. For as long as Austen fans have been called Janeites, the word has signified more than a simple fondness for the six great novels. A Janeite is someone who feels an intensely personal affection for the writer and her books. Janeites love Austen’s novels, but they also feel close to the author herself, whom they often call “Jane,” as if she were a neighbor whose kitchen door they could knock on to borrow a cup of sugar.

Retired New Jersey legislator Mary Previte is a Janeite like that. She spent part of her childhood in a Japanese prison camp, lost a hand in a buzz-saw accident as a teenager, and faced down bureaucrats and lobbyists during her public service career, but, when we talked over green tea and zucchini bread, a Jane Austen biography lying open on the stack of books at her feet, what really got her angry were Austen’s early experiences in the publishing world. “Every biography, when I get to that part”―the decibel level of Mary’s clipped, emphatic voice began to rise above the ladylike―“that she can’t get anyone to publish her books, and one publisher takes it, and it sits for, what, ten years, and she has to buy it back―I just want to weep with rage at the disrespect for such talent!” Separated from her husband in the 1970s, with a teenage daughter to support, Previte had gone back to work after years as a stay-at-home mother. She never remarried, and now, immersed in her late-life passion, she thought a lot about Austen’s own life, as a single woman in a culture that made little provision for the support of women without husbands. “You sort of see some of your own issues in her life, playing out still,” Mary said …