Among the Janeites, Austenblog, Austenprose, books, Christine Shih, Deborah Yaffe, fan fiction, Fiction, Jane Austen, Jane Austen's World, Janeites, JASNA, JASNA AGM 2013, literature, Maggie Sullivan, Persuasions, Persuasions On-Line
What are Janeites, and who wants to be one of them, or spend time among them? George Saintsbury invented the word to describe Jane Austen’s fans in 1894, and in the decades since, the word has been both embraced and rejected by Austen’s readers. In Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, Deborah Yaffe explores what it means to be a reader so devoted to Austen that the experience is transformative. Focusing on the North American Janeite and the history of the Jane Austen Society of North America, she profiles members who dress in period costume, make pilgrimages to Austen-related sites in England, read Austen’s novels for therapeutic reasons and debate ways of interpreting them, and blog about the diverse contemporary manifestations of a fascination with Austen’s works and her world.
It’s especially interesting to read about the creativity that Austen has inspired. What is it about Austen, Yaffe asks, that makes her readers think they can be writers, too? She speculates that the proliferation of prequels, sequels, and other variations on Austen’s works may have something to do with the idea that Austen “seems at first glance an unintimidating figure — the country clergyman’s daughter, without much money or formal education, who traveled little, socialized mostly with relatives and neighbors, and wrote about the stuff of ordinary life, the family conflicts and love stories that we’ve all lived through ourselves.” She imagines Janeites thinking, “If she could write like that, surely we can too!”
Jane Austen inspires people to write, to interpret and reimagine her novels, and to research the Regency period. She inspires people to recreate the clothing, accessories, customs, and food of the time, but she also inspires them to change their lives. Yaffe’s story of Christine Shih’s discovery of Austen’s powerful heroines, in a chapter on “Austen Therapy,” is particularly moving: it was from Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price that Shih absorbed the confidence and strength she needed to survive a difficult childhood. If Austen’s heroines can be courageous and confident, surely we can too.
Not all readers of Jane Austen are happy to identify with the term “Janeite,” because it can imply a kind of uncritical adoration and a familiarity with a great writer so removed from us in time and literary achievement that we can never quite justify being on a first-name basis. But if being a Janeite means being inspired by the strong women Austen wrote about, and being inspired to write, research, and create, then the experience promises to be a rewarding one. As Maggie Sullivan of Austenblog says in Yaffe’s chapter on “Jane.net,” “Janeite-ville is a big tent,” with room for many different kinds of Austen readers.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to attend a JASNA AGM, reading Among the Janeites will give you a good introduction to the experience, minus the details of the academic papers. Yaffe talks about some aspects of the academic side of things in a chapter on “The Knowledge Business,” but sometimes the conference papers seem to get in the way of her story, as when she attends “one last breakout session” featuring “yet another college professor” before heading for her hotel room to get ready for the banquet and ball. Leaving out what the critics and scholars say is a big omission, because serious academic work is always central to the conferences, but it’s one easily remedied if you read JASNA’s two peer-reviewed journals, Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line, alongside Yaffe’s book. Both journals include many of the papers presented at every AGM.
If you often attend the AGMs and sometimes miss one, as I did this year — much to my regret, because this year’s focus was 200 years of Pride and Prejudice — then reading this book will re-introduce you to old friends and acquaintances, tell you their stories with wit, humour, and respect, and give you the illusion that, for a few hours at least, you’re back among the Janeites. I can’t wait to read the conference papers on Pride and Prejudice, so I can hear what my fellow Janeites were saying this year in Minneapolis.
I’m grateful to Deborah Yaffe for telling the fascinating, often very touching stories of some of Austen’s most devoted readers, and I’m grateful to her for what she says about Austen’s own life story. She reminds us that while the country clergyman’s daughter may seem unintimidating, “it’s the very ordinariness of Austen’s life that is the most intimidating thing about her: nothing explains her achievement except the ineffable quality of her mind, and who among us can lay claim to that?” Whether we think of her as “Jane” or as “Austen,” we need to remember just how extraordinary her achievement is.