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
    +8

    Comment number 47.

    21.Graphis


    Speaking for myself and the many other Austen fans that I know not one of us kids ourselves that life was a bed of roses in that era.

    To claim that somehow invalidates the litetary quality of her books or the great humoured escapism of the books is utter nonsese I'm afraid.

    To claim that the Mss Bennett/Mr Darcy was only about money is to utterly misrespresent the book....

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 46.

    "There's a longing for the elegance of the time," Hmmm - well that may be the case for a very small number of people alive then, but most people were living in fairly squalid conditions.

    Those were the same people not touched upon by the "steely, tough-minded, sardonic social critic" - so not really a social critic at all then unless you consider society to only consist of the top 1% or so.

  • rate this
    +27

    Comment number 45.

    Austen is popular the world over not just in the US. There are few novels which stand the test of time and can be read when one is young through to old age again and again.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 44.

    US interest in the writers of another country should be praised, and we by the same token should make effort to try works by foreign authors. The BBC should dramatise some of these. I agree with #15 that the BBC is too obsessed with the USA. #32 is wrong about a British inferiority complex - it probably the opposite. #34 Austen does make reference to poverty - and she herself was never rich.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 43.

    RonC@40,...I think we will always affect the past, to reflect the present, perhaps like music, there are only so many chords, so many stories to tell, and much has been done before. Originality, is rare, that is why it is appreciated.

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 42.

    Why do the Americans have to take the likes of Austen and want to spice it up. There is enough literary nonsense which accommodates this type of writer and indeed reader. Fifty Shades comes to mind.

    Please leave Jane's work alone unless you are going to stick to the stories as they were written as they are loved the world over.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 41.

    38

    Same story, inflicted on us for 'O'level. I could only stomach the first 40 pages and spent the rest of the lessons staring out of the window.

    However, I can recommend the "& Zombies" version as a form of therapy as it replaces the awful memory of this book with something entertaining.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 40.

    Why is it people see the need to change classics that work. Even Christmas carols in schools have been changed why leave them alone they work just fine as they are!

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 39.

    #19 "Why does fan-fic always seem to end up as soft porn?"

    Because the people who write it aren't very intelligent. Harsh but true.

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 38.

    Caused me to fail English Lit. O'level. As a young male teenager I found it impenetratable, gossiping nonsense. I hated it and preferred to fail the O'level rather than having to finish reading it. These were before the days study notes were available.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 37.

    Might it not be true to say that the Amercans are affected by our past, while we are affected by their present?. And of course, we share a language, although much may still be lost in translation.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 36.

    I suppose its all to do with ratings.

    Recent tv shows such as Game of Thrones & The Borgias featured a lot of violence and quite graffic sex scenes.

    Whatever happened to imagination?

    I'm dreading the film versions of the Shades of Grey novels.

  • rate this
    +15

    Comment number 35.

    Oh dear. 21st people are so obvious. Miss Jane Austen had razor wit, killer prose and sex. Who cares what these unsubtle fan writer dullards do? No one will read them in 200 years time, but in 2213 we'll still be holding on to the utter joy that is the novel, Pride and Prejudice!

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 34.

    Jane Austen is a "steely, tough-minded, sardonic social critic"? Tell me, where in Austen do you find even a glimmer of interest in the themes of poverty, hopelessness, economic dependence and the random chance of a rural world of scarcity and dearth which shaped the lives of those who touched the forelock to the oh-so-fashionable Ms Austen?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 33.

    Ohh Mr Darcey !! It is hardly Jacki Collins. The English have enough hang ups about sex without Jane Austin.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 32.

    Why are British people so fiendishly obsessed with Americans?

    Comment sections shouldn't even be allowed for these types of articles because it just becomes a contest over who can belittle the US and get the most upvotes. In fact, the top comment right now does just that. Brits have a monstrous inferiority complex. What if Americans started bragging about Brits consuming American culture?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 31.

    National Association of Scholars showed that in 1964–1965 academic year, 25 liberal arts colleges surveyed in US had NO courses re Jane Austen.
    1997–1998 academic year had moved Austen into 3rd place, behind Shakespeare & Chaucer. How come? Women's Movement? Along with Austen were Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, & Zora Neale Hurston.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 30.

    In answer to the question, Is it right to add sex to Jane Austin novels, I would say fine if you read in bed. As for the Amercans like of Austin, think of, Dallas, the Colby,s, and Dynasty and you may understand their longing for classic litrature.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 29.

    Not my cup of tea, but still appears on recommended reading lists for many English literature courses. Interesting that the 'Twilight' themed cover gave rise to a new interest in the book among teenaged girls. Personally, I preferred the version with added zombies, never mind intimate scenes! :-)

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 28.

    "A prowling and aggressive alpha-male, but soft and caring"

    And when males see this portrayal, they let out an internal sigh and try to find something less annoying to do with their mind. For women it's sexy dynamite, for most males it's a trial to not comment derisively and ruin it for others; the correct posture is to maintain a noble silence or comment on how good the costumes are.

 

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