I love Jane Austen’s books, but I don’t know that I’d consider myself a Janeite. I’ve not read any of her books more than twice, and the only piece of Austen paraphernalia I own is a Pride and Prejudice T-shirt. I have trouble remembering the names of any but the main characters of her books, unless I’ve seen the film versions innumerable times (which is true of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility), and I can hardly remember anything about Mansfield Park, other than that I liked it and couldn’t understand all the Fanny Price hate out there when I read it.
So I’m not sure how well I’d fit it at a Jane Austen conference. I think I love too many different authors to develop an all-consuming passion for a single one. But Deborah Yaffe certainly makes me wish I could go to a JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) meeting because it sounds like fun. And it turns out the 2016 meeting will be in Washington, DC, and will focus on Emma. Surely I can find time to reread it by then?
Yaffe is herself a Janeite, having been given a copy of Pride and Prejudice in 1976, when she was ten. After graduating college, she attended a JASNA conference and watched various movie versions and miniseries as they came out. But like a lot of fans (fans of anything), she wasn’t able to be part of a wider community of fans until the Internet provided a space. For Yaffe, that place was the Republic of Pemberley.
But this book isn’t exactly about Yaffe. It’s about Jane Austen fandom, and Yaffe offers an insider/outsider sort of perspective. She writes about her own experiences as a fan, but she also talks to other fans and delves into parts of the fandom that she hadn’t previously explored, such as the many Austen spinoffs and dressing in costume for the JASNA ball. She’s close enough to the topic to understand and sympathize it, but distant enough from aspects of it to be able to speak to outsiders—and to recognize why some aspects of the fandom aren’t for everyone.
One of the things I especially enjoyed about this book was how it illustrated the diversity within Austen fandom—or diversity of a certain sort, as most fans are white women. The diversity is in the many different ways people come to and appreciate Austen. There are those who love the books above all and scoff at those who came to Austen through films. There are those who get weak at the knees at the image of Colin Firth in a wet shirt and those whose Lizzie and Darcy will forever be Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. Austen spinoff authors might focus on the moments that happen behind closed doors or they might focus on Darcy’s internal transformation. Conference attendees and presenters include academics, costumers who’ve scarcely read any Austen, and teenagers. There’s no typical Austen fan or typical way to love Austen.
Although I’ve never been part of a fan community devoted to a single author, beyond lurking on a Laurie King e-mail list, a lot of what Yaffe observes about Austen fandom could apply to other fandoms—and even to book blogging. I’ve talked before about how one of the things I love about blogging is the fact that it’s available to anyone with an Internet connection and the ability to write. You don’t have to have a PhD or live in New York to be part of it, and there’s no one right way to do it. What Yaffe says about Austen fandom jibes with my own feelings about book blogging:
Like the members of any tribe, we Janeites don’t always see eye to eye, whether it’s about zombie mash-up or Regency dress-up. But maybe the diversity of the fandom suggests something hopeful about the possibility of human connection. Beyond our passion for Austen, what most obviously unites our disparate group in 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. Until the day he joined an Internet discussion group, “it never dawned on me how amazing it would feel to talk about the books with other people,” Arnie Perlstein once told me. And despite the vitriolic responses his ideas sometimes draw, he keeps coming back. “It would be horrible to be all by myself with it,” Arnie said. ‘I want to connect to those who feel the same way about this.” As we turn the well-thumbed pages of our Pride and Prejudice paperbacks, perhaps unconsciously, we Janeites are looking for ourselves. But in the community of fandom, we find each other.