I was in my local bookstore browsing the new titles when I came upon this loud yellow book with a curious etching of a woman in period dress riding a horse across the cover. She’s looking back over her shoulder at her bonnet, which streams behind her in an invisible wind. She’s riding sidesaddle, and I am impressed by her ability to turn in the saddle and not fall off her horse. The cover looks fresh and modern, and it sticks out pleasantly. The cover is creamy, heavy paper stock, and the pages are deckle-edged, my most favorite detail of a book. Cut pages these days look so dull, uniform, and common, and can only be saved by excellent paper and beautiful text. Yes, I am quite snobby about the looks of my books.
Deborah Yaffe’s personal, charming, and fascinating book about the world of Jane Austen fandom is as odd and engaging as its cover. A fresh take on a little known aspect of Jane Austen’s legacy, Among the Janeites explores the lives of her devoted fans who gather together on tours through Jane Austen’s England, visiting her various homes, the places where she vacationed, and the places where movie adaptations of her work were filmed. They gather at annual conferences and Jane Austen Society of North America’s (JASNA) annual meeting, full costume Regency Ball attendance optional but hard to miss. They find each other in online communities where Jane Austen FanFic runs wild. But what makes all of these hard-core fans tic? What makes them spend a year looking for the perfect Regency dress for the annual ball, spending hundreds of dollars in the process? What would make someone spend $10 million dollars on Jane Austen’s brother’s mansion?
These are the questions Yaffe hopes to answer through her personal exploration of Jane Austen fandom (Yaffe is the one on the hunt for the prefect dress) and through the stories of other Austen fans, like the former head of Cisco Systems and creator of the make-up line Urban Decay, Sandy Lerner, who bought Chawton House and dumped over $10 million into it to restore it and turn it into The Chawton House Library, a place for scholars all over the world to come and browse the collection of rare manuscripts and first editions of early British female writers. Lerner’s modest excuse for such a wonderful project was simply that she had the means to make it happen.
Yaffe’s preparation for the JASNA Annual General Meeting (AGM) and it’s accompanying ball provides a frame-work and forward motion for the book as a whole, while allowing her to delve into whatever aspect of Austen fandom she desires. Each chapter has a mix of both, but are generally topical and frequently reference previously discussed fans. In this respect, the reader would be loosing quite a bit in skipping around. Yaffe is as much a character in this narrative as the other Janeites, and it is entertaining to read her fret over the fabric of her gown, whether or not she should just get the shiny satin gloves, and the inevitable pre-ball disasters.
Running throughout the exploration of personal, writerly, scholarly, and commercial fandom is the tension between the personal and the public, between those who became Janeites first in the seclusion of a single book read hiding in a deserted corner of the school yard, as Yaffe did, and who now have to share her with all the coffee mugs, t-shirts, and key rings, with Jane Austen twitter feeds, with neophytes who find her through Kiera Knightley’s Lizzy Bennett. Yaffe holds Colin Firth’s wet shirt in the 1995 BBC mini-series largely responsible for the public and commercial explosion of Jane Austen, which seems to have since waned a bit. Yet every time I go into the bookstore I seem to find a new Austen-related book. For many Austen fans, it is difficult to see something they have loved so fiercely and so privately splashed all over the place in the most vulgar way. Yet the commercialization of Jane Austen created a huge upswing not only in her popularity as THE female British writer, but also in scholarly interest in her work, her contemporaries, her predecessors, which can only be seen as a gain. That it has also introduced her to new and increasingly digital generations of readers should only be seen as positive as well.
This however brings up another tension in Janeites: between those who view themselves as true Janeites, those who are serious about their fandom, and those who are not true Janeites, as defined by the former. These lesser fans might just watch the movies, or prefer the zombies edition of Pride and Prejudice, or have only listened to Austen on tape. With such intense fandom, lines like these are bound to be drawn in the sand. Ultimately, they don’t matter in the larger context of loving Jane Austen. This, finally, is what Yaffe finds that motivates and binds all of Austen’s fans together. Expression of that love creates the diverse and sometimes moving, often entertaining cast of characters in Yaffe’s book. When it comes down to it, love for Austen and her characters are all that is required for membership in the Janeite community, whether it be online, at conferences, at a costume Regency ball, or in the privacy of your favorite reading chair.
If you are already a card carrying Janeite, this book should provide some entertaining history and back story for people you might already know. If you are a burgeoning Janeite, this book is a good place to start and will give you good information about where to find other such as your self (I do wish there had been footnotes & an index, etc.). Or, if you are like me, a casual reader who happens to have read Jane Austen at some point in your life, this book is an entertaining and frequently moving portrait of a cultural phenomenon and the people at its core. Highly recommended.