Stone Cold Jane Austen: Diving into “Janeite” Fandom with Deborah Yaffe

by Alexis Coe

Over a hundred years before Jane Austen became a pop-culture phenomenon, a literary critic dubbed her legions of devoted readers “Janeites.” Now her characters are inspiring movies like Clueless, fighting zombies, and appearing on t-shirts (Team Tilney). Austen’s own image adorns everything from tea towels to iPhone cases.

Journalist Deborah Yaffe set out to explore Jane Austen fandom from the inside out, and it did not disappoint. She visited the historic sites and read copious amounts of fan fiction, to be sure, but most of the readers she meets are taking their Jane Addiction to entirely different level. Yaffe meets a literature professor whose nom de skate is Stone Cold Jane Austen, attends “bibliotherapy,” learns English country dances, and cross-stitches a bookmark in the author’s likeness, all the while preparing for the main event: the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual conference, where — like Keri Russell in the forthcoming Austenland — she will attend the ball in full regalia.

Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, comes out today, and Yaffe was kind enough to chat with us about it.

You began to notice “Austenmania” about 20 years after you read Pride and Prejudice, and 184 years after Sense and Sensibility was published. Was Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, in his clingy wet shirt, the progenitor?

Well, while I’d say that Austenmania itself got going circa 1995–6, when the release of the Colin Firth adaptation of P&P and a number of other Austen films kicked off a lot of press attention, that wasn’t really when I started paying special attention to the phenomenon. (Though I did love that version of P&P.) I got interested about 10 years after that, when I started frequenting the Republic of Pemberley, the largest online Austen fan community. I’d been a Jane Austen fan for a long time by then, but this was the first time I got a sense of the community of fandom — not just a bunch of isolated people, but a real community.

And after your book group seemed uninterested in memorizing the letter Captain Wentworth sent to Anne Elliot in Persuasion, you were interested in expanding your own community.

I didn’t actually try to get them to memorize the letter — I just knew their level of insanity didn’t match mine!

I’m not sure I was precisely looking for a larger Jane Austen community — I mean, I have a family and friends; I’m not a total wacko, contrary to appearances — but it was delightful to stumble across all these people who also found it endlessly fascinating to discuss the doings of Austen’s characters. Outside of a college English department, you don’t generally find lots of people who want to spend hours minutely parsing what they read, and if you’re a person who does enjoy that, as I do, you’re always worried that you’re going to start boring other people with your obsession. Pemberley is filled with people who cannot be bored by that kind of thing.

No, on the contrary, they seem wildly creative in their interpretations and inspired activities. At what point did you realize that you wanted to write a book on modern day Janeites?

I was finishing up my first book, on a completely different topic, around the time I founded my local Jane Austen reading group and began hanging out at Pemberley. I was spending an inordinate amount of time there, and my husband frequently teased me about it. One day I was telling him about how fun this community was — about all the quirky people and obsessive discussions — and he said, “You should write a book about that.” I immediately thought it was a good idea and would be tremendously fun to research, but I hadn’t ever written something like that before, so it took me a while to decide that yes, this was something I could do. Also, I knew that Claire Harman was soon going to be publishing a book (Jane’s Fame) about the reception of Jane Austen’s work, and I wasn’t sure if Harman was already writing the book I had in mind. But when her book came out, I realized that it barely touched on the contemporary fandom, so the way seemed clear for me.

Your British husband [restrains self from making Mr. Darcy inquiries] is supportive throughout the book, but when you started researching corsets, he became quite enthusiastic.

Yes, that was highly entertaining. I had decided that, to do this Janeite research thing right, I needed to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual ball in Regency attire, even though I am so not the dress-up type. In the course of interviewing historical costumers, I learned that you really have to wear a corset if you want to create the proper Regency silhouette for your Empire-waist gown. One day at lunch, I was telling my husband about the Regency evening-wear look — basically, breasts pushed up practically to chin level and cleavage as low as it can go — and his sudden enthusiasm for my corset project was quite startling. “What about stockings?” he asked. “You know I’m a stickler for historical accuracy.”

And that corset was $260! Then you custom ordered a Regency gown, purchased tickets, and arranged for travel and accommodations. Being this kind of Janeite isn’t cheap.

Well, it’s definitely expensive to go to the JASNA conferences: registration is several hundred dollars, plus hotel and transportation. (As a result, I only went to two in the 20-some years before I started researching the book and could write it all off as a business expense). But you certainly aren’t required to wear Regency costume — plenty of attendees don’t — and some people do sew their own. Plus, the conferences are just one part of the fandom. A lot of the conversations take place online, which is virtually free.

Certainly, but you did meet some pretty comfortable Janeites, like Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco and founder of Urban Decay.

Sandy Lerner is definitely in a completely different economic stratosphere. But she earned it: she had a tough childhood and (along with her then-husband) built Cisco from the ground up purely on the strength of brains and hard work. She’s a Janeite heroine, too, because in the early 1990s, she swooped in to rescue Chawton House, a decaying country home in England that was once owned by Jane Austen’s older brother. At this point, Lerner has spent something like $20 million to renovate the property (beautifully — I highly recommend a visit to anyone making an Austen pilgrimage) and turn it into a library for the study of early English writing by women. She’s an example of where Janeite obsessiveness can take you if money and time are really no object.

Even if you take away the money, obsessiveness and time can lead to some interesting endeavors, no? I’m thinking of the speech pathologist who wrote a book asserting that Mr. Darcy’s has high-functioning autism, or possibly Aspergers.

I’m not sure Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, the Canadian speech-language pathologist who thinks that a number of characters in Austen’s novels are portraits of people on the autism spectrum, is obsessive, exactly: I see her more as an example of the way that we Janeites tend to find our own preoccupations reflected in Austen’s pages. Phyllis’ Jane Austen is an acute observer of communication patterns, which, of course, is what Phyllis herself is, as a therapist working with kids with a wide range of language problems.

Personally, I’m fairly skeptical of efforts to apply categories drawn from contemporary psychology or neurology to characters who were imagined in a completely different historical world, but Phyllis’ autistic-Mr.-Darcy really seems to resonate with a lot of people. I guess they find Asperger’s a convincing explanation for Darcy’s stiff, socially awkward behavior and foot-in-mouth tactlessness. Just goes to show, once again, that everyone reads Jane Austen differently. Which is one of the things I find so fascinating.

Are there misconceptions about the community?

Oh, definitely. You run across plenty of articles that suggest Janeites are a tea-sipping, cat-hugging group of middle-aged librarians who spend their spare time knitting afghans. (Not that there’s anything wrong with all that.) The dress-up side of the fandom, in particular, seems to call forth ridicule from the terminally ironic. The subliminal, or not-so-subliminal, message is that it’s all terribly cutesy and trivial.

There’s definitely a sexist aspect to all this, I think: Janeite fandom in the 21st-century U.S. is heavily female; the people with the money to attend those photogenic conferences are often middle-aged or older; and condescending to older women is a popular media pastime. And of course, that condescension mirrors the way that Jane Austen herself has sometimes been viewed, as a sexually frustrated spinster pouring her romantic fantasies into her books, or a sweet little auntie penning those charming courtship stories. All these stereotypes (many of them stoked by the Austen movies, I think) miss out on the tough, uncompromising side of her work.

And plenty of the Janeites I met respond to that side of Austen; not everyone sees her in those cozy, tea-sipping terms. In fact, my feeling is that Janeites are quite diverse — if not in their demographics, then at least in their responses to Austen. For some people, she’s a feminist; for others, she’s a conservative. Some believe she lived contentedly in the bosom of a supportive family, and others see her as angry and rebellious. Austen’s books are a lot edgier and more complicated than Austen movies, and so are the people who are drawn to them.

Your research involved immersing yourself in experiences you might otherwise resist. Are you the same kind of Janeite you were at the beginning?

I hope I’ve become more open-minded about different points of view on Jane Austen: for example, although dressing up is not something I’m planning to do again, I learned a lot about the historical research and attention to detail that goes into all that, and I think I’m therefore less likely than I might have been to dismiss dress-up Janeites as silly escapists. I realized that there’s a lot of joy to be found in concentrating on what we share, which is a love of these wonderful books, instead of obsessively parsing all the things that make me Not That Kind of Jane Austen Fan.

On the other hand, at heart I’m still the little girl who used to spend every recess curled up in a corner of the playground reading classic fiction while the normal kids played ball. I’m always going to be an introvert with a literature addiction; I’ve just found a community of fellow introverts to share that with.

Photos via obenson, jamiesrabbits / flickr

Alexis Coe writes Hammer Time at The Awl, and is the history correspondent at The Toast. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, and other publications. Follow her.