Among the Janeites, Deborah Yaffe
Our Houston-area chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) is discussing this book at our monthly meeting on Saturday. The author will even join us for a brief chat via Skype. When the book was first suggested, there was some talk of a chapter focusing on a well-known Texas Janeite, who attends the annual conferences in elaborate Regency outfits. In fact, she travels to and from the conferences in costume, even on airplanes. From that, and from the cover of the book (which you can see here), I thought it might be a satirical look at the eccentricities and excesses of Jane Austen's fans.
Instead, from the first page Deborah Yaffe establishes herself as one of us. And not just as a Janeite; she was from a child the kind of compulsive reader that I think many of us were and still are, though she was reading Trollope and Thackeray when I was still reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and Nancy Drew. She was a Janeite long before Colin Firth and his wet shirt in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice created legions of new fans almost overnight. (I may be the only Jane Austen fan on the planet who has not seen that Pride and Prejudice, and I admit to a slight prejudice against the "wet-shirt Darcy" obsessives. I have gotten some nasty looks when I point out that the scene doesn't actually take place in the story Austen wrote.)
Recognizing the global "Austen phenomenon" that took off in the mid-1990s, Yaffe "set out to examine Janeite obsessiveness from the inside, and maybe to figure out along the way what kind of Janeite I was myself." She states that her book is "a work of journalism, not a scholarly study of Jane Austen appreciation . . ." It is based on interviews with a range of Austenites, primarily in North America, but also on her own experiences as a fan. In the interests of research, she ordered a custom-made Regency gown, and a corset to go under it. She traveled to England with a JASNA tour, and she attended the 2011 annual general meeting in Fort Worth. She immersed herself in fan fiction, modern continuations and sequels (something that has never, ever appealed to me). One chapter focuses on Sandy Lerner, the American millionaire, co-founder of Cisco, who funded the restoration of Chawton House and the establishment of a research library focused on women writers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Other chapters discuss Janeites on-line, the founding of JASNA, and teaching Austen in colleges and universities, among other topics.
Yaffe defines a Janeite as someone who enjoys and engages with Jane Austen's work. As she points out more than once, there are many different ways of appreciating and enjoying Austen. I count myself a Janeite of long-standing. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was introduced to Austen's work by the 1980 BBC Pride and Prejudice. I've read and re-read her novels for many years, and I've gone on to read about her life and the world in which she lived. I now have about three times as many books about Austen as by Austen. I've visited Bath and Chawton and Winchester. I've enjoyed meeting other Janeites through JASNA, as well as through the Yahoo Janeites group (which features in Yaffe's book). I'd like to attend the annual meeting one day. But I am a book-based Janeite, who prefers not to see the films. (I made an exception for the Ciaran Hinds-Amanda Root Persuasion; the book is still better). And I don't think I'll be buying a Regency dress.
This was an interesting and entertaining exploration of "the world of Jane Austen fandom," as the subtitle says, and I am looking forward to discussing it with the Houston Janeites.