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Janeites: The curious American cult of Jane Austen

  • 28 January 2013
  • From the section Magazine
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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.

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."

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.

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."

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."

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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