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 87.


    Mea Culpa.
    I didn't know that she withdrew her acceptance of marriage.

    Terrible that no-one else spotted that considering there are (obviously) JA fans commenting on here!

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Chick Lit at its best

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    @ 46. Chocolate Starfish and @ 34. Wounded Pride - To say that she is not a social critic because she does not mention or comment on the fate of the working class misses the point. Britain had a class system and Jane Austen commented on things of which she had actual experience - her social class.This is far more useful than if she had made inane comments on subjects of which she had no knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Dr_Ads - check your history! Jane Austen never married.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    47. Little_Old_Me

    There you go again, putting words in my mouth. What's wrong with you? I didn't mention anything about literary quality! I'm beginning to suspect you're incapable of reading. When you read JA, do you read the words she wrote, or the words you imagine she wrote?

    I made a point about the world she wrote about, and how detestable it was. Nothing about the quality of her writing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    If americans love this stuff - then good luck to them, we are fed their awful low-brow 'movies' and television series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I have to completely agree with 49 @tal202. Jane Austen was a brilliant social commentator reflecting on the social norms and restrictions placed on a woman in that sphere in those times. It is a valuable social history that gives us a wealth of knowledge about people in her position - the fact that her writing is so witty and entertaining is a bonus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    @ Dr_Ads
    Comment number 55 is an Editors' Pick
    45 Minutes ago

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

    Austen never married.


  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    No, it's not okay to add sex to Jane Austen novels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I think people shold remember, or realise, it's fiction, now and then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Try the following for "poverty, hopelessness, economic dependence":
    Persuasion- Mrs Smith- a poor & ill widow, whose husband gambled her money.
    Mansfield Park- Fanny- one of 9 children to a disabled & alcoholic father
    Emma- Harriet- illegitimate daughter of a tradesman.
    Not exactly rosy lives. She may not have been Dickens, but she was writing for a VERY different audience!

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    #67.outhousemouse. Grow up please. I'm sorry if it upsets you that we refer to Pride and Prejudice as P&P in our house but there you have it!! We have such great affection for the story therefore, my dear you should be mindful of peoples feelings when being critical as I'm sure you are not a perfect specimen youself. I shall keep you in mind when I write Perfect and Perfection.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    "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." - a silly generalisation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.


    If you read JA you'd realise that she spends much of her time railing against the pimping of girls by their parents for social advantage. There's plenty more on the plight of women in general and the fate of people who fall foul of society.

    You just have to ignore the silly romance to see what she's getting at ... something that I fear many of these JA fan's have ironically missed.

  • Comment number 73.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Don't be too prudish about the sexed up sequels of Pride and Prejudice. I'm a P&P nut, but I get why fans like to 'fill in the blanks'. It doesn't matter to me if it's the bawdy bits or whatever. I could read a chapter on Wickham and Darcy at University, or how Mr Collins and Charlotte and Lady C de B spent their days.

    It's how the book tantalises ... If you're a P&P nut you'll know what I mean

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I treat Austen romance with same disdain I treat the Ken Barlow - Mike Baldwin - Deidree love triangle in Coronation Street. Weak plots aimed at lowest common denominator audience, designed to offer them everything their relationship (or lack therefore of) doesn't. Americans like it because their TV is aimed at the same level, whether its Ross and Rachel in Friends or Daphne and Niles in Frasier

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Good idea. Let's paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.


  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    @helenahandbasket - it isn't about class, it's about reality. A social world in which disaster results from ill-framed legacy entails and triumphs from a new dress are puerile. Austen wrote fictions corresponding to the mental fictions of minor gentry women of her day. There is no truth there, only vain pipe dreams and masquerades.


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