Janeites: The curious American cult of Jane Austen

Scene from the film Austenland The film Austenland explores the world of Janeites

Two centuries after her most famous work, Jane Austen inspires huge devotion in the US. What makes this most English of writers so appealing to Americans?

She wrote it herself in 1813: "How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book."

Jane Austen's own work is a case in point. It may be 200 years since her most celebrated novel, Pride and Prejudice, was published, but in the US she is the subject of more wildly devotional fan-worship than ever.

With their conventions, Regency costumes and self-written "sequels" to their heroine's novels, Austen's most dedicated adherents display a fervency easily rivalling that of the subcultures around Star Trek or Harry Potter.

Some Janeites, as they call themselves, write their own fiction imagining the marital exploits of Mr and Mrs Darcy. Others don elaborate period dress and throw Jane Austen-themed tea parties and balls.

Janeite sense and sensibility

South Carolina chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America

Retired teacher Joanne Lannie (second from left), 65, is regional co-ordinator of the South Carolina chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America

Every year we celebrate Jane Austen's birthday with a formal high tea. We have English tea and sandwiches, and we have quizzes and games too.

Members can wear their best Regency dresses. I had a Regency-style gown made with a 2ft ostrich feather.

It's all about celebrating a great author. It's like Star Trek fans having a convention.

We have about 60 members in our chapter and we meet nine times a year. We hold talks and lectures about Jane Austen at Charleston Library.

I love her fabulous dialogue, her dry sense of humour and her wit. Her stories are universal.

Blogs and forums dedicated to Austen and Austen-style fan fiction abound across the internet. The Jane Austen Society of North America (Jasna) boasts 4,500 members and no fewer than 65 branches.

In October 2012, more than 700 Janeites - many attired in bonnets and early 19th Century-style dresses - gathered in Brooklyn, New York for a Jasna event that incorporated three days of lectures, dance workshops, antique exhibitions, a banquet and a ball.

It's a curious phenomenon when one considers that Austen won little fame in her own lifetime, dying aged 41 in 1817 with only six novels to her name.

While she may be regarded as one of the greatest writers in English literature, it's difficult to imagine a similar level of fandom emerging around a novelist like, say, Charles Dickens.

For all that her stories can be by turns bleak and waspish, however, it's the romance of Austen's world that many Janeites say drew them in.

"There's a longing for the elegance of the time," says Myretta Robens, who manages one of the most popular US Austen fan sites, The Republic of Pemberley. "It's an escape."

Screen versions such as Andrew Davies's 1995 BBC adaptation Pride and Prejudice - famously featuring Colin Firth in wet breeches as Mr Darcy - and the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, contributed to an upswing of interest in all things Austen.

Colin Firth as MrDarcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle did much to popularise Austen

But this alone does not explain why so many Janeites want to inhabit their favourite writer's world, whether by dressing up in the fashions of the era or writing their own Regency fiction.

"I think it's to do with the fact that we only have six novels and she died fairly young," says Laurel Ann Nattress, who runs the Austenprose blog and edited Jane Austen Made Me Do It, a collection of short stories inspired by the author.

"People just love her characters and they don't want to give them up."

It's all about Mr Darcy - Austen fan Jane Odiwe on her obsession

Robens, however, believes there is a more straightforward reason why readers feel compelled to compose their own versions.

"Quite frankly, I think a lot of people want more sex, particularly with Elizabeth and Darcy," she says.

A perusal of Austen fan sites reveals an abundance of stories with titles like Darcy Meets His Match and The Education of Miss Bennet.

It is not only online amateurs who have attempted to re-imagine these characters, however. Linda Berdoll's 2004 Pride and Prejudice "sequel", Mr Darcy Takes A Wife, was a bestseller.

Helen Fielding has stated her own Bridget Jones's Diary was loosely based on the original Austen plotline - hence the presence of a character named Darcy, played in the film version by Firth. The 1995 comedy Clueless was inspired by Austen's Emma.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen
  • Born 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire
  • First novel, Sense and Sensibility - about rational Elinor Dashwood and her impulsive sister Marianne - appeared in 1811
  • Followed by Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816)
  • Died in Winchester in 1817
  • Two further novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, were published posthumously and a final novel was left incomplete

Nor is all ersatz Austen concerned with affairs of the heart. PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley involves the married Darcys in a murder mystery. Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies re-casts the original novel in an alternate version of Regency England populated by hordes of undead.

The Janeite subculture was itself the subject of a popular comic novel, Shannon Hale's Austenland, a movie version of which premiered at the 2013 Sundance film festival.

Nonetheless, it might be seen as incongruous that Austen's fandom is so extensive in the US, a nation founded on the rejection of aristocracy and old world manners and traditions.

Indeed, when Pride and Prejudice was first published, the UK and US were at war. Nattress, who lives in Snohomish, Washington state, believes US Janeism is an expression of a persistent Anglophile streak in American society.

"I think that we look back to the motherland in many respects," she says.

"Look at the incredible impact Downton Abbey has had over here. It's a perfect example of how America is fascinated by British culture."

But while Austen's sharp prose, ironic wit and vivid characterisation are all key to her appeal, Robens believes that it is the romantic entanglements of her strong-willed heroines that draw so many to the books.

"It's women, in general, who fall in love with them," says Robens. "It's a truth universally acknowledged that women want to read about relationships."

Start Quote

Every dam' thing about Jane is remarkable to a pukka Janeite!”

End Quote From The Janeites by Rudyard Kipling

It was not always the case that Austen's fanbase was seen in these terms, however.

Indeed, the term Janeite was initially coined by the male literary critic George Saintsbury. Rudyard Kipling's 1926 short story The Janeites describes a group of soldiers brought together by their passion for the works of Austen.

According to Claudia L Johnson, an Austen expert and professor of English literature at Princeton University, the author was widely regarded well into the 20th Century not as a romantic novelist but as a steely, tough-minded, sardonic social critic.

"Now, alas, Austen is typically seen (by my students and others) as chick lit and she is beloved for her love stories," laments Johnson, author of Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. "I think this is a real loss."

Previously in the Magazine

The US cult of Downton Abbey

It is hard to open a newspaper or click on a news website in America at the moment without reading something about ITV's Downton Abbey.

American Downton fans organise Sunday night viewing parties, shell out on themed merchandise and chat endlessly about the latest plot twists on Twitter and Facebook.

Johnson draws a distinction between the extravagant, amateur Janeites and their more academic counterparts, whom she terms Austenites. They are not categorisations which meet with much approval among most fans.

Nonetheless, Johnson acknowledges that attempting to remake Austen in the reader's own image is a valid exercise.

"Janeites - at least in the US - regard their excesses with a curious mixture of irony and seriousness," she says.

"They know it's absurd to throw tea parties, but the fundamental drive here - to try to be somehow connected with the world and life of a beloved author - isn't absurd."

It's likely Austen would agree. In her early writing she pastiched the 18th Century's so-called novels of sensibility and parodied historical tomes.

As the author herself put it in Pride and Prejudice: "A person who can write a long letter, with ease, cannot write ill."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    14. ziggyboy
    "I love her work and P&P is my favourite....

    I didn't know Jane Austen wrote a novel called POST & PACKING. I know she was fond of this type of title. e.g. Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    I sometimes wonder, If a television drama is faithfully based on a classic novel, or any writings, why does it have to be remade in modern times. For the ego of the actors?, or any of those involved in its production. Are they not saying, here is the definitive television adaption, better than what has gone before. How so, if the story is faithful, surely not through special effects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I'm going to pick this moment to rave about the Lizzie Bennet diaries, a professional adaptation series broadcast on youtube and social media. It's one of the most enjoyable adaptations and has a seriously involved fanbase. I love it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    If people want more sex then write a new one under your own name,don't mess with a classic it shows lack of talent. Jane Austin's were written in an era of genteel behaviour, they were not meant to be a "history" book. TV has already,with Agatha Christie destroyed wonderful stories to putting in gays, lesbians and a great many people who were not in them to begin with. Total rubbish they are

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Was Mr Darcy an Alpha Male? He seemed a bit awkward and socially inept to me. He went to parties and wouldn't talk to anyone or dance.

    "Mr. Darcy: I... do not have the talent of conversing easily with people I have never met before.
    Elizabeth Bennet: Perhaps you should take your aunt's advice and practice?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    to those who hate P&P because you were made to read it -- that happens with any book/author where the teacher/professor doesn't know how to teach the books time in history. As to Jane Austen her time was prior to the industrial revolution and she is writing about small farming towns with estates as opposed to London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Woundedpride, Austen obviously did not tackle issues like poverty. "...sardonic social critic" does apply to her own social class, though. By the way, I'm guessing you are a man, because she CERTAINLY tackled the issues of being a woman (although rich and middle-class) in her day. Emma and P&P, for example, address what becomes of women who do not marry well (and how the system must be "worked.")

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    This is what wealthy decadent societies do to amuse themselves as seen in Science fiction for decades. We join a set who pretend to live in an earlier age with all the excitement of the clothing the manners, the wooing the food - Its just that we can do it safely with modern sanitation and health care. Is it wrong? oh undoubtedly. Is it fun? - how can you ask that leading the dull life you do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    If Emma were real you could love her whilst also wanting to wring her neck.

    Anyone who uses 'whilst' should suffer the latter of those fates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    57 "where in Austen do you find even a glimmer of interest in the themes of poverty, hopelessness, economic dependence" - Does everything have to be about these themes to be valid? Incidently, there is quite a bit of economic dependence of women, maybe you missed it? You could relate it to "right on" modern themes such as gender politics and then maybe it would be gritty and valid for you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    @tal202: Surely great authors create meaningful worlds in fiction? Austen's world in one in which to be poor or disadvantaged or to lack opportunity means the lack of a new bonnet. Austen's world is untrue and insipid - as it was when these awful books were written.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle did the difinitive Pride & Prejudice. Excellent.

    But lets forget the heart of the story:

    'Ooh Mr D'Arcy, you boring cad'.

    'Whatever Ms Bennet. Come to my country house'

    'Ooh Mr D'Arcy what a MASSIVE house you have! Marry me immediately'.

    Perhaps thats why the Americans like it? It's the American 'get rich quick' Dream?

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    It's clear from the comments on here that Austen is one of those 'Marmite' authors, and the division is purely along gender lines (I'm generalising, I'm sure there are exceptions).

    I also find it interesting that Austen herself married for money, and not for love - but they do say write about what you know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    If they are having fun and not hurting anyone who cares? Worse things that dressing up for a laugh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I would recommend Patrick O'Brien instead. Your Austen-loving teacher would probably have liked it too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The important thing about the novels is not the romance, but the conservatism. Mr Bennet and Sir Walter Eliot risk their estates with poor management, Darcy, Knightley etc. are good managers, and worthy of the heroines They also look after the less unfortunate in their communities. I don't know what costumes Americans would wear to celebrate this aspect of Austen's novels!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I was forced to read Sense and Sensibility at high school. I was not a fan and I recall being marked down by my Austen-loving English teacher for criticising her lack of attention to the politics of the day and recommending Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series as a far better read.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    As 'sex' is a part of normal life the question is why would you take it out ?
    Of course how it is depicted is important....in the case of Jane Austin it is probably best to keep it mostly as passionate kisses, heros emerging from ponds and suggestion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @ 34.Woundedpride

    Jane Austen documented the social life of those born into a world of priviledge as that is what she was surrounded by. That she didn't mention the lower classes doesn't make her any less of a social critic. In particular her novels reflect the lack of freedom women had during this period. This is just as truthful, and no less valuable, than the workhouse stories of Dickens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    So the Middleton family, consisting of the bookish Mr Middleton, his wife, a woman somewhat lacking in social graces and primarily concerned with her family's fortunes, and their two daughters (Kate & Pippa) meet Harry, a wealthy, charismatic and social young bachelor, while his brother William makes a less favourable first impression by appearing proud and condescending...


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