Janeites Unite: Deborah Yaffe, Austenmania, and Me

2013 was a banner year for me as a Janeite, and not just because it marked the bicentennial year of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I finally read Sense and SensibilityNorthanger Abbey, and Emma for the first time, cementing my own personal baseline of Janeite cred. I wrote an article about my love for Jane Austen at Renegade Word and purchased my first piece of Austen fan art. I went to my first JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America for those not in the know) event: a series of lectures featuring Claudia L. Johnson, Susan Celia Greenfield, and Sandy Lerner. I transcribed an 1815 novel for Chawton House Library’s Novels On-Line Project (founded by Sandy Lerner). I saw Austenland in theaters (spoiler alert: hated it). I joined JASNA officially and went to my chapter’s annual Jane Austen birthday tea. On a trip to England, I went to Chawton to see the Jane Austen House Museum, saw Jane Austen’s writing desk in the British LIbrary, and on my twenty-fifth birthday I got to see the only known portrait of Austen in the flesh in London’s National Portrait Gallery. I received two books on Jane Austen for Christmas. One of these books was Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe.

Before I talk about the book, here’s my own Janeite tale, with apologies for the long intro:

While I was a lonely young nerd, I came to Austen later than many. I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time until I was sixteen or seventeen, an assignment for eleventh grade Advanced Placement English. I don’t remember my preconceived notions of Austen beforehand—they were probably of the erroneous “the nineteenth century is hard you guys” variety. I may very well have repressed them because they would embarrass me now. I had seen the Wishbone version, but that was about it. I laughed out loud at the first sentence, and a love affair began slowly.

My junior year of high school happened to be in 2005, and we finished Pride and Prejudice about a month before the Keira Knightley version hit theaters. We went to see it as extra credit as a class. I saw it a second time. I didn’t really care a fig for Mr. Darcy and his unflattering pants scared me a little. I loved the film visually and I liked that it was funny. But the book was better. I distinctly remember our class discussions being among those that really illuminated the world of literary analysis for me, the this-description-of-Pemberley-is-pretty-reflective-of-Mr.-Darcy discussion.

In college, I read Persuasion in my first English class and Mansfield Park in my last. Persuasion was simply amazing. I did a video presentation highlighting Patricia Rozema’s postcolonial treatment of Austen’s text in her 1999 adaptation of MP—a controversial topic among Janeites (a tangential dimension to the famed Fanny Price wars). I confess that in between finishing and defending a thesis, worrying that a Shakespeare paper would blow up in my face, and the fact that I was about to pack up my earthly possessions, clean out a rental house, and leave all my friends to move back in with my parents to enter the so-called “Real World,” I could have given Mansfield Park and the paper I wrote on it a little more attention.

The Janeite facet of myself became more or less dormant in practice. I watched the movies, but I didn’t read much of anything after graduation. And then I wanted to save face for a day of Jane Austen lectures put on by two nearby JASNA chapters and the rest is history. Well, one year of history. But a banner year.

I’ve had the pleasure of reflecting on my own identity as a Janeite in part due to Deborah Yaffe’s excellent new book, Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom. Here’s a great summary from the book’s purpose from the introduction (sorry for the long quote):

…I set out to examine Janeite obsessiveness from the inside, and maybe to figure out along the way what kind of Janeite I was myself. I didn’t go looking for a single Big Theory that would make sense of Jane Austen’s appeal; I wasn’t planning to collect quantifiable data and fashion it into an explanation rigorous enough to satisfy a social scientist. My task was more impressionistic: to explore what Austen obsession looks like and feels like for people who are living with it, and perhaps to tease out some of the common threads that weave this diverse array of individuals into a community. I’d spent enough time immersed in online Austen discussions to know how differently her works could be read by people who all considered themselves Janeites. Were all of us just seeing what we wanted to see, finding ourselves relfeted in an Austen-shaped mirror? Or did our divergent interpretations reflect something real about Austen herself? (xxv)

I think two things really make this book work: 1) Yaffe’s training as a journalist is apparent and she does a great job of conveying facts while painting a compelling portrait; and, 2) Yaffe has been a Janeite for most of her life. Her affinity for Jane Austen gives her a good baseline: she gets it because she’s one of us (gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble). Austen fandom is so widespread (especially in this Information Age we’re all talking about), but it’s also a very private thing. Everyone’s love for Austen presents in a different way, but we all feel like she speaks to every one of us.

This is a task best handled by a Janeite, and Yaffe does a wonderful job. There’s a great balance of humor and affection throughout the book. I think Yaffe and I have similar Janeite styles: pretty middle-of-the-road, tending on the side of Austen purists (i.e., preferring Austen’s work to the myriad of sequels, adaptations, fan fictions, etc.), and not really into costuming or conspiracy theories. There is an overarching narrative of Yaffe’s exploring another dimension of Janeite-ism by buying a period dress for the ball at JASNA’s Annual General Meeting.

Yaffe’s book starts on a Jane Austen tour of England and ends at a JASNA AGM. The bulk of her book tells about the subjects she meets along the way and they are fascinating: they are the costumers and the conspiracy theorists. They’re also the fan fiction writers, the academics, the speech pathologists (yes! Austen is used therapeutically), the roller derby academics, and on and on. Sandy Lerner makes an appearance. I loved reading about how each person carved out her or his respective Janeites paths and the places their Austenmania has taken them. (And, let’s be honest, it made me feel pretty normal, which was good or bad depending on the chapter.)

I also got the pleasure of seeing Yaffe speak to my local JASNA chapter this weekend. I wish I’d taken more notes during her talk, but a) I was spellbound, and b) I couldn’t write due to having an injured thumb and a plate full of cookies. The talk was a great supplement to the book. One illustrative example in particular has stuck with me: Austen leaves a lot open to interpretation in her novels. Yaffe brought up the end of Sense and Sensibility: in the film versions from 1995 and 2008, Edward Ferrars comes to confess his love to Elinor Dashwood and asks if she’ll still have him after his missteps. Poor, repressed Elinor loses her shit on the spot, assents, and they live happily ever after. But in Austen’s actual words, it’s hardly the romantic scene the films make it out to be. Austen’s blend of romantic plots with dry wit is widely open to interpretation and appeals to lovers of romance and satire alike. Basically, you get Jane Austen or you don’t, but there are also as many different ways to get Austen as there are Janeites.

Through all these experiences and Yaffe’s book, I’ve gotten to know myself as a Janeite: I don’t think I could ever dress up, I might buy some Austen fan art here and there, my adaptations must take place in the period, and I have no stomach at all for the fan fiction (except, for some reason, the movie version of The Jane Austen Book Club, which I will talk about at a later date). My Austen is the feminist satirist, and okay, some of the romantic interests are pretty alright, too. I look forward to really growing into myself as a Janeite: re-read more, plumb the literary depths deeper, and maybe even take a strong stance in the Fanny Price Wars.

1 thought on “Janeites Unite: Deborah Yaffe, Austenmania, and Me

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: There Is Nothing Like Austen for Real Comfort (#AustenInAugustLGR) | Lost Generation Reader

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