No one who saw Jane Austen in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a literary giant, one of those rare artistic luminaries whose global brand is booming almost two centuries after her passing. The seventh child of an Anglican rector—a member of the lower ranks of the landed gentry, whose death threw the family into dire financial straits—Austen spent the majority of her life in the rural hamlets of Hampshire and the Somerset spa town of Bath, penning a handful of novels under the pseudonym “A Lady” and dying from a mysterious illness at the age of 41. Her books, though admired by a few prominent contemporaries (Sir Walter Scott praised her “finely written” works and lamented, “What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”) generated a scant dozen reviews in her lifetime.
And yet, this year, on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen is everywhere. Here she is as the subject of Austenland, opening in theaters this Friday, in which Keri Russell plays a besotted Janeophile on a pilgrimage to find her very own Mr. Darcy at an Austen-themed fantasy resort. There’s Vincent Kartheiser, better known as the sniveling Pete Campbell on Mad Men, treading the boards of a Minnesota theater as Lizzie Bennet’s aloof and arrogant love interest. Here’s Darcy yet again, rising as a 12-foot fiberglass statue out of Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake in homage to Colin Firth’s classic wet-shirt scene from the BBC’s 1995 adaptation. For the tech-savvy, there’s the new “Welcome to Sanditon,” a web series that lets enthusiasts crowd-source the plotline for a spinoff of Austen’s last unfinished novel. And of course, there is the roiling controversy over the Bank of England’s decision to replace the visage of Charles Darwin on the £10 note with Austen’s face, which has set off a nasty Internet backlash, including death threats on Twitter against the activists and politicians who had lobbied for “dear Jane” to grace the bill.
Into this frothily overcrowded pop-culture space come two books that aim to examine the England of Austen’s life and novels—its political climate, its rural customs, its class tensions and foreign wars—and the massive Austen fandom industry that has cropped up in the past few decades on both sides of the Atlantic. That industry includes costume balls and annual conferences, guided tours of Austen’s British countryside, pulpy spinoff sequels, and zealous Internet communities that jealously guard the rarified temples of true Austenian devotion.
The first—Among the Janeites, by journalist and Austen aficionado Deborah Yaffe—is a compulsively readable romp into the heart of extreme Austen addiction. Yaffe dives deep down the rabbit hole of the “Jane Austen lunatic fringe” to answer why certain people fall in madly love, to the point of obsession, with the characters of Austen’s novels and the customs of her Regency England. This is a world of Jane Austen board games, tea bags with names like Wicked Wickham and Mr. Knightley’s Reserve, T-shirts with cheeky Jane Mania slogans (“Carpe Darcy—Seize Mr. Darcy”). We meet a direct descendant of Austen’s eldest brother, who owns a 29-foot catamaran called the Elizabeth Bennet and who founds a breakaway North American Austen chapter to thwart the snooty British Jane Austen society. We encounter a former cancer nurse who uses Austen as a healing tool in her bibliotherapy groups; an erstwhile real-estate lawyer concocting a Da Vinci Code–style grand conspiracy about the novels’ hidden dark narratives; and Internet pioneer Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco, who calls Austen her “drug of choice” and who restored Chawton House—where Austen’s brother lived and which the author visited as she wrote her late-life masterpieces—to the tune of a cool $10 million. It’s a world where academics fall in love at first sight by discussing Mansfield Park, where publishers of Austen fan fiction (Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, Duty and Desire) sell hundreds of thousands of books and meet real-life Darcys online, and where a Texas soccer mom becomes a minor celebrity thanks to her elaborate Georgian costumes—Empire-waist day dresses, bonnets, pelisses, resplendent evening silks—for the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) getaways.
These Janeites—the term was coined by literary critic George Saintsbury in 1894, as Austen’s popularity enjoyed a Victorian renaissance and besotted young aristocrats dubbed her “the divine Jane”—are the type of people who tend to get involved with “absorbing enthusiasms” and “eclectic, consuming passions.” Their ranks include tenured Ph.D.s and high-school dropouts, Texas farmers and urban elites. They probably belong to JASNA or its British equivalent and attend the annual conferences to find fellow devotees and debate the merits of “Team Willoughby” vs. “Team Brandon,” gossip about whether Anne Elliot will be happy in her marriage to Captain Wentworth, and waltz at balls based on the dance where Elizabeth and Darcy first met. They name their children and pets after Austen inventions (“Fitzwilliam Darcy, feline, Esq.”) and “characterize friends and relatives with pitiless Austen shorthand.” (Aunt Norris = “abusive and overbearing”; Marianne = “impulsive and emotional.”) They tend to be middle-aged, female, and white. They stage Rocky Horror–style Pride and Prejudice viewings (always the ’95 BBC version) and make pilgrimages to the British Library to see Austen’s portable writing desk and to Chawton Cottage to view a lock of her hair once auctioned off at Sotheby’s. They like to read one or all of the novels on an annual rotation. They are often inspired by Austen to try their own hand at writing, from historical primers and critical essays on their heroine to Jane Austen vampire fiction (Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion). Indeed, their exuberant giddiness over all things Jane puts them closer to the ranks of Potterheads, Twihards, and LotR fanatics than the acolytes of other 18th-century British novelists such as, say, Thomas Hardy or George Eliot.
And yet the Janeite big tent is not without its internal tensions and bitter controversies. Devoted Austen scholars sneer at the admirers dressing up in muslin and sighing over Darcy’s wet-shirt moment as trite groupies “lower[ing] the level of conversation,” while longtime Austen buffs harrumph over the legions of shallow followers enchanted by Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility or Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma. “The movies have made Jane Austen more accessible than ever, broadening the base of her fandom and diversifying her appeal,” Yaffe writes. “I feel a bit churlish, like some mean Alpha Girl patrolling the boundaries of the high-school clique.” In 1998, during the height of Hollywood’s Austen craze, the then-president of JASNA wrote, “‘Jane Fever’ [has] produced a corps of instant Jane Austen experts. They have seen a film or two, and may even have read through the entirety of one of her novels. Beware!”
Even so, the quarrels over who constitutes “the right kind of Janeite” often pale in comparison to the rows about Austen’s life and the true inner nature of her characters. Those who think Austen was a “confident and contented” woman from a happy, close-knit family square off against readers who find her “angry and rebellious” or claim she was the neglected child of a borderline-disordered mother. Some say she’s a feminist subversive and a master of “unstable irony”; others, a protector of “solid English values.” Is she sarcastic Jane, whose witty, sardonic quips spoke to the ’90s Reality Bites generation? Is she “tough-minded and realistic,” as entre-deux-guerres readers found her? Is she a master of character and plot or are her stories the result of an instinctive talent, as Henry James believed, likening her to “the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough”? The same battles over interpretation apply to her creations as well. Is Darcy a privileged jerk or does he suffer from autism, as one speech pathologist fervently maintains? (In response to that theory, a blogger replied, “You know, sometimes people aren’t autistic. They’re just dicks.”) Are certain characters in Mansfield Park and Persuasion involved in the West Indies slave trade, as Edward Said once claimed? And what about Fanny Price, Mansfield’s moralizing heroine and the topic of such incensed opinion that one Austen listserv warned new participants, “You should be careful about casually throwing around words such as the following in reference to Miss Price: ‘insignificant,’ ‘moralizing prig,’ ‘feeble,’ ‘dull,’ or ‘nebbish’ ... not because they are necessarily objectively wrong, but because on Austen-L they are what the U.S. Supreme Court has termed ‘fighting words.’”
Time was, an impassioned Austen votary would be left adrift with her own quiet zeal or, at best, a few other Darcy devotees would materialize in her immediate vicinity, all the better to gush with. But while Firth’s hunky master of Pemberley may have been the face that launched a thousand Janeites (visits to Chawton doubled to 57,000 in the year after the BBC’s production aired, with adherents describing the wet-shirt scene to Yaffe as an all-time erotic high that “took my breath and my heart away”), it was the Internet that allowed Jane infatuations to explode. From the early listserv Austen-L (for serious, staid Austen fans) and The Republic of Pemberley website (where “Firth-gushing” is welcome and 150,000 unique visitors log 5 million to 10 million hits a month), the web has proliferated with blogs bearing names like Austenprose, Austenblog, Stitching With Jane Austen, and Bitch in a Bonnet; a F**k Yeah, Jane Austen Tumblr and a Jane Austen Ryan Gosling mashup (“Hey girl, I’m a single man in possession of a good fortune”); Jane Austen YouTube drinking games and Jane Austen's Fight Club viral videos; an Ask Mr. Darcy Magic 8-ball app; and a host of parody Twitter accounts for Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, the Dashwood sisters, Captain Wentworth, and, of course, Austen herself, who appears in avatars as varied as Dark Jane Austen and JaneAustenNBA (sample tweet: “2011 draft class has less depth than Mr. Wickham.”).
It is fitting, perhaps, that the quintessential novelist of familial relationships and community dynamics should spawn an online world of (relatively) kindred spirits, which as Yaffe writes “has become a digital analogue of the country villages where Austen set her novels ... with its kindly neighbors and its grouchy eccentrics, its talkative protagonists and its silent lurkers.” The joy of finding other Janeites, whether online or at a JASNA ball, is like “meeting people you’d known all your life for the first time,” a founder of The Republic of Pemberley tells Yaffe. “It was such a relief.” Another fellow—the Florida lawyer with the Jane Austen conspiracy theory—enthuses about his initial discovery of the online discussion groups: “I can’t even describe it. It’s like I took LSD or something. It was like going to another planet, it was so exciting.” As Austen herself wrote in Persuasion, the “best kind” of company is “the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation”—and this is clearly what so many Austen enthusiasts have found for themselves in their impassioned corners of the Internet.
At the same time, these Austen habitués are indulging in a centuries-old impulse to use the novel as a form of escapism. As an article in a 1799 edition of Edinburgh Magazine, published a month after Austen turned 23, observed, “We fly for relief from the sameness of real life to the composition called Novels.” Many of the Janeites who crop up in Yaffe’s book use Austen as a portal to a vividly imagined alternate world, where they can escape the realities of economic recession and unemployment, abusive marriages, spouses dying from cancer, painful divorces, suicidal parents, lonely and loveless lives. (“Ms. Call, you’re waiting for someone like Darcy, aren’t you?” says a student to one of Yaffe’s single companions on a tour of Austen’s England.) In Austen’s star-crossed comedies, her fans find all sorts of smart, sassy heroines and heart-throbbing heroes who mirror their best inner selves and who embody the strong, principled men and pure, intelligent women their hearts are aching to find. It’s a world where everyone is engaged in the hot-blooded push-pull of young courtship, where men write letters with lines like “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope,” where the repartee is charged and the flirtation exquisite. No wonder there are reams of online groups with names like “I am going to marry one of the men in Jane Austen’s novels” or “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of love.” (“Jane Austen happy endings are the female equivalent of soccer victories,” Yaffe muses.) And it’s not just women who are drawn to the “head-over-heels, can’t-stop-thinking-about-you, Marianne-and-Willoughby level of infatuation” that courses through the stories. Yaffe finds men—admittedly, fewer of them, but flesh and blood nonetheless—in search of their very own Fanny Price, or declaring their decades-long love for Mary Crawford, or describing the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first, insulting marriage proposal in a fit of pique as “one of the greatest reading experiences I ever had.”
The true achievement of Austen’s genius, then, surely lies in the way she created characters so nuanced and vivid that they live on in her readers’ hearts and minds. Austen owes much to the Bard in terms of plot devices and tricks to keep two would-be lovers apart—yet where Shakespeare’s comedic creations often seem like flat shades compared with his tragic giants (with the exceptions of Prospero, Portia, and Shylock, tortured souls in a pair of very compromised “comedies,” or Oberon and Titania, those two dark and tempestuous fairies in an otherwise light and frivolous play), Austen’s characters flourish as they careen toward the inevitable weddings that await to soothe all the broken hearts, smooth the misunderstandings, and exult in the triumph of a match well made. Her world is one that, 200 years later, legions of fans want to spend hours—if not lifetimes—inhabiting because it crackles with humor and overflows with heart. In other words, because is so purely enjoyable. “Jane Austen is the practitioner par excellence of lovable literature,” one Rutgers academic tells Yaffe. “If you don’t love reading them, the works are dead,” confides another. Ultimately, this is what keeps bringing Yaffe and her ilk back time and again to their beloved Elizabeth and Darcy, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, Elinor and Marianne, and all the rest. “I love the characters with an intensity reserved for few people in my real life,” Yaffe confesses. “I just want to see that wonderfully familiar story play out one more time.”
While Austen’s characters may be alive and well in the 21st century, the England of her youth is a very foreign place to us indeed. It was a time when Britain was engaged in a series of disastrous and drawn-out battles—the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars—while a mad king sat on the throne and his subjects groaned under the yoke of poverty and crushing class divides. From the rural Hampshire of Austen’s life and novels, whose idyllic green spaces were being transformed by the onslaught of rapid industrialization, to the bustle and din of Georgian London, “Jane Austen’s England was not a tranquil place,” write Roy and Lesley Adkins, whose aptly titled Jane Austen’s England traces the mores and social upheavals that form the backdrop of Austen’s four decades in the world. “Hundreds of disturbances and riots were ignited by protests against industrial change, the enclosure of common land and, above all else, high food prices.” A “lazy, self-indulgent, and profligate” prince regent steered the country during his father’s mental absence, while dissatisfied agitators sympathized with the revolution across the channel and the aristocracy lived in fear of a French-style guillotining. These turbulent events barely register in Austen’s novels of manners and marriage, and yet they surely seeped into her world through brothers, neighbors, and family members caught up in naval adventures and political speculations as members of the middle and upper classes.
This is not a lofty history of the Regency, however, or an analysis of obscure references in Austen’s work that might belie her knowledge and opinions of the massive changes convulsing her country. Instead, the book sticks to what Jane knew—the stuff of daily life, a sociological history of what it was like to grow up in England, and particularly the countryside, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It examines the ins and outs of marriage ceremonies, childbirth practices, schooling, household rituals, clothing fashions, church life, modes of transportation, pastimes and amusements, crime in the era, medicine in the era, and burial rituals.
Many of the chapters are interesting, if only to see how Austen’s contemporaries preached and prayed, ate and entertained, dressed themselves in petticoats and lace, peddled in old superstitions about howling dogs and Midsummer’s Eve ghosts, enjoyed sports such as horse races and cock fights, went to the theater and participated in book clubs, and suffered from common plagues like smallpox and malaria. We learn that Austen and her siblings were weaned, in a practice common at the time, by a village nurse. We learn of the plight of child laborers in Derbyshire’s mills, of how to run a palatial household like Pemberley, and which herbal remedies were used as medicinal cure-alls (onion, rhubarb). In a sparkling little passage, we discover Austen’s “considerable interest in fashion” and her penchant for frequenting drapery stores when in London, where she could find the finest muslins, silks, and many-colored ribbons. We shiver at the tales of highway robberies and public hangings that haunted the public imagination.
And yet the book’s real strength lies in its descriptions of weddings, unwed pregnancies, and the intricacies of wealth and social class that form the heart of Austen’s novels. It illuminates the prime importance of marriage in a society that did not allow women to inherit land and where the untimely death of a father could plunge an unwed woman into poverty (as it did with Austen herself). It regales us with tales of eloping couples who circumvented consent laws and angry relatives by fleeing to Gretna Green in Scotland (as Lydia, the youngest of the Bennet daughters, intends to do in Pride and Prejudice). It charts the sorry plight of unwed mothers—victims of the types of rakish seducers like Wickham and Willoughby who wreak havoc on Austen’s heroines—and the opprobrium cast upon men and women who tried to marry above or below their status. Here, we are at the heart of what drives Austen’s characters, what preoccupies their minds and what must have preoccupied the mind of Austen and her sister Cassandra, neither of whom ever married and who lived largely off their generosity of their brothers. Suddenly, the marital prospects of the Bennet daughters, and the secret engagements of Edward Ferras and Frank Churchill, and the possible spinsterhood of Anne Elliot are not just a matter of love, disappointment, and deception, though they are certainly that too. They are the balance upon which future happiness and security hangs against the threat of penury, disgrace, and ruin.
We’ve come a long way from those days, though the private heartaches and public embarrassments and sublime thrills of courtship and love remain as vivid as ever. Austen was a painstakingly accurate chronicler of a particular time and place, and yet in her very specificity, she created characters who will live as long as readers fret over heartbreaks and exult in social satire. In Austen’s last poem, written days before her death, she imagines a patron saint of Winchester who gets offended because his devotees are ignoring his feast day in favor of an excursion to the races. It’s a seemingly silly subject, and yet one line stands out: “When once we are buried you think we are gone / But behold me immortal!” She’s certainly alive and well in 2013, and though Britain’s Twitter haters may not agree, the rest of us can take a moment to, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “Praise the Lord of making her and her for all she made / And while the stones of Winchester—or Milsom Street—remain / Glory, Love and Honour unto England’s Jane.”