Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe
Among the Janeites’ title is a bit misleading. It suggests a non-Janeite journeying forth to explore the alien world of the Janeites, recalling both the microgenre of year-long experiments and mainstream media rubbernecking at the strange habits of fans. Neither are particularly my cup of tea. Much to my relief, when author Deborah Yaffe says she is among the Janeites, she’s simply counting herself as one of them. She’s a literally card-carrying Janeite, having a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (or JASNA) since 1974. In her almost forty years in the fandom, she’s seen Austen go from obscure but beloved writer to a commercialized pop cultural touchpoint.
How is fairly obvious, according to Yaffe—she describes “Austenmania’s Big Bang” as “the shot of a wet white shirt clinging seductively to the chest of the British actor Colin Firth, in the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice” (xiii). The nineties saw a spate of successful Austen adaptations—Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Clueless—that resulted an upsurge in Austen interest and JASNA membership. This is nothing new for more long-lived fandoms. In 2009, Star Trek’s old guard found themselves flooded with fans who adored the J. J. Abrams reboot, which resulted in a few skirmishes. Every time there’s a new adaptation or a reboot that’s high-profile enough, there’s a renewed interest, bringing with it fans who may or may not go the distance.
But Austen fandom is not like other fandoms, and not just because it’s based around an author and not a specific text. As Yaffe explains, “By contrast, nearly two centuries after her death, Jane Austen has a secure home in two very different worlds: the solemn pantheon of classic English literature and the exuberantly commercial realm of pop culture. She is the ultimate crossover artist, equally welcome at Yale and on Youtube” (xvii). The split isn’t just between the old guard and the new fans—it’s between high culture and low culture, between academics and fans.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the union of Arizona State’s Professor Devoney Looser and Dean George Justice, enormous Janeites and rigorous academics. Looser, who plays roller derby under the handle Stone Cold Jane Austen, is comfortable enough with more traditional fan practices, but is turned off by discussions that focus on emotional responses to literature. She sees emotion and analysis as opposed. Justice challenges her directly, stating that the emotional response is the stepping stone for analysis—“I hate this character!” is the first step towards asking “Why do I hate this character?”. Naturally, as a reader response theorist, I’m firmly on Justice’s side, but this example shows the variety of approaches fans—be they academics, acafans, or fans—can take to Jane Austen.
Married couples crop up a lot in Among the Janeites, and I don’t just mean the Darcys or the Knightleys. As Yaffe points out in her introduction, the Austen fandom she knows is almost uniformly white, female, and middle-class, although the occupations vary more than the stereotype of “cat lady.” At first, the male contingent of the Austen fandom seems like it’ll be ignored entirely—the first husband we meet isn’t interested in Austen himself, but cheerfully squires his wife around on an Austen-themed tour of England, taking clear delight in her joy. (ADORABLE.) But soon, we meet couples who met through Austen, including the harrowing tale of Pamela Aidan, who eventually found the courage to leave her abusive husband through Austen fandom and the friendship of the Austen fan she would later marry. (Her ex-husband blames their divorce on Jane Austen giving her unrealistic expectations of men. Yurgh.)
On the one hand, this can be seen as trying to prove Austen fans aren’t weird by pointing out instances where fans have successfully achieved the supposed pinnacle of human existence—a heterosexual love match. But, ultimately, each comes off as a story of two kindred spirits finding themselves through Austen, similar to when Yaffe remembers her joy at finding the Republic of Pemberly or witnesses two teenage girls at their first JASNA conference shyly strike up a friendship. Oh, fandom!
But Among the Janeites includes other tributes to Jane Austen, from the elaborate costumes of Baronda Bradley to, of course, all the Jane Austen fanfiction, which started off with a bang in 1913. (Yaffe is skittish when it comes to more traditionally fannish tributes; she accepts that there’s good fanfiction out there, but still thinks of them as “Twinkies.”) They’re all sweet and worthwhile, but my absolute favorite is the work of Sandy Lerner, one of the founders of Cisco Systems and Urban Decay, whose Austen fandom exploded when she read Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel. It made her realize that Austen wasn’t just an isolated woman in the Western canon; instead, she was part of a larger tradition of female novelists. She began using her considerable wealth to collect those novels, and ultimately bought Chawton House in order to turn its library into The Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing. I repeat, she turned the library of Chawton House into a feminist library. I have got to go. I mean, they’ve got some of Frances Burney’s original manuscripts!
Bottom line: Despite what the title may suggest, literally card-carrying Janeite Deborah Yaffe gently guides the reader through the Jane Austen fandom, with a particular focus on the split between academics and fans. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to be charmed at. Well worth a read for all fans, not just Janeites.
I rented this book from the public library.