Among the Janeites

Among the JaneitesI 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.

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10 Responses to Among the Janeites

  1. Michael says:

    Oh, dear, Teresa: “not read any of her books more than twice”? I fear it would take a Janeite more charitable than some even to consider you a potential apprentice Janeite.

    Do you know, off-hand, what Sanditon was first called?

    Well then.

    ;)

    • Teresa says:

      I am sure that’s true, but lucky for me I don’t aspire to such standards. :)

      I should also confess that when I say I’ve read all her books, I mean her completed novels. So no Sanditon (or whatever else it was called) or The Watsons or any of the juvenilia. Perhaps I should get to studying now if I want to go to the JASNA AGM in 2016!

      • Karen K. says:

        I haven’t read any of the Juvenilia either, and I’m a life member of JASNA! I have read The Watsons, Sanditon, and Lady Susan (Lady Susan’s great). And there’s no studying required to go to the AGM, though they’re very informative — this year I learned what was really wrong with Anne de Bourgh (possibly); who may have been the model for Bingley’s character; what Jane Austen really ate; and what it was really like for servants.

  2. Lisa says:

    I enjoyed this as well, and it was good to be reminded (more than once) that there are different ways to enjoy Jane Austen’s books – though I did appreciate Yaffe’s slightly irritable blog post the other day about people who cluelessly confuse the books with the films. I do want to attend at least one AGM!

    • Teresa says:

      Just looked up that post, and yes, I too get annoyed at how the movies and books get conflated (although I have some sympathy for people misremembering things–I am horrid at character names).

      And you should come to the AGM in DC!

  3. I always think conferences like this sound fun, but I remain too shy to go to one. :p Do they have panels and things? Lovely panels about various Jane Austen topics?

    Reading about fandoms is always strange and interesting, I think. What I love is reading about factions — the way people set themselves apart from each other even within a fairly narrow framework (like loving Jane Austen).

    • Karen K. says:

      The AGMs are wonderful! They have all kinds of lectures and activities, and you can participate or not if you wish. If you’re interested, look at the JASNA website under “AGMs.” There are links to all the websites and you can see what kind of activities they typically have. The AGM usually includes general lectures, several breakout sessions, a ball, a breakfast, and lots of optional activities, like dancing classes and tours. And you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to!

    • Teresa says:

      She definitely made the JASNA conferences sound like good fun, with lots of interesting topics at the various sessions–and Karen’s comment backs that up!

      And this book was really great at looking at different aspects of the Austen fandom–academics, spinoff authors, costumers, and on and on. It makes it clear that there are so many ways to love Austen, and that’s something that seems to be true about anything well-loved by lots of people.

  4. Karen K. says:

    This year I attended the JASNA AGM in Minneapolis — my fourth in five years! The first was just an excuse to get away on a girl trip with my mother, but I had such a wonderful time, I’ve gone back as often as possible. The great thing is that there’s something for everyone, whether you’re an academic or a casual lover. Everyone is so friendly and united by their love of Jane Austen — you can walk up to strangers and start a conversation if you want, or not. This year I went by myself, without a roommate or plans to meet up with anyone from my local region, and I still had a wonderful time.

    This year I did have a period costume which is really fun, especially at the ball. I think you really get into the spirit of the English country dancing if you’re in costume.

    If you go to the DC AGM we’ll have to meet up! I’m definitely planning on going.

    • Teresa says:

      You’ve certainly convinced me that I want to go to an AGM. It sounds wonderful, and if it’s right in my backyard, it would be silly not to go! And getting to meet you and any other blogging friends who come will make it even better!

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