OCTOBER 26, 2013
EARLY ON in the recent romantic comedy Austenland, a sad single woman named Jane, played by Keri Russell, reveals the depths of her shame to a tsk-tsking married friend: the Austen Room. Inside this shrine she stores teacups, portraits of film actors in cravats, and various frilly tributes to the Regency world of Jane Austen’s novels. Sadly, these items are not complemented by similar trinkets vouching for Austen’s literary talent: no “irony rules!” stickers, no “Austen’s prose is perfect” needlepoints.
In fact, there’s very little in the film that alludes to Austen’s writing at all. Instead, its lampooning of poor Jane’s obsession demonstrates how difficult it is to be an Austen acolyte in a post-Twilight world, where passionate female readers are often dismissed as horny housewives like the much-reviled “Twilight Moms” and their close relatives, Fifty Shades of Grey fans. Austenland producer, Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, has said the film — which packs Russell off to an all-inclusive Regency experience — was about “any person who is so lost in a fandom that they want to live there.” Meyer knows quite a bit about overzealous readers — and clearly, Austen readers have long been, as E.M. Forster once famously described himself, “slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.” But Forster attributed his imbecilic devotion to Austen’s knack for characterization, while Austenland seems to chalk it up to a pathetic kind of female desperation — and a desire to spend money to fuel it.
The journalist Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites tries to paint a broader picture of the phenomenon of Austen fandom than Austenland does, partly by foregrounding her own mixed feelings about the Cult of Jane. Sitting at the Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting in Dallas, warily clutching an Austen-branded thong, Yaffe’s internal monologue goes thus: “Give Austen back to me! I can appreciate her the way she was meant to be appreciated!”
Yaffe writes that her inquiry into the universe of Austen fans feels like watching “a wrestling match between the real Austen and her fabricated everything-for-sale brand.” Among the Janeites seeks to remind us that the former is at the heart of the latter, even for those who take their love of Austen to the oddest of places. Yaffe traveled around the United States, cozying up to Austen connoisseurs from tweeters and reticule-stitchers to academics and conspiracy theorists. Readers are introduced to handful of cheerful Austen bloggers who smack down online ignoramuses, as well as a bawdy sequel-writer and a pair of feisty married Austen scholars who spar over the meaning of Mansfield Park in an act of public foreplay. The book’s description of these encounters sometimes gently mocks its subjects. But Yaffe also brims with solidarity for the “tribe” of Janeites, even when they virulently disagree with each other, or even with her.
Indeed, readers of Austen, united by their adulation, are frequently at odds in their interpretation. Among the Janeites’ chapters each explore distinct areas of the Austen world — sequel writers, therapists, scholars, curators — and in every corner, there are schisms. Some think Austen’s endings are happy, others find them ominous. Some find her outlook cloistered and escapist; others discern embedded commentary on war and colonialism. (Meyer is clearly in the former category, saying “people turn to reading for fun, not to read about brutality they see on the news.”) Some see Austen as conservative and prim, others as tongue-in-cheek and feminist. Some, like Silicon Valley pioneer Sandy Lerner whose fortune restored a major Austen site (Chawton House, in England) believe an understanding of the customs and mores of the Regency period will unlock the key to Austen’s works. Others point out that you don’t have to know the difference between a gig and a barouche to enjoy her novels. Yaffe falls in the “text above context” camp, confessing that the trappings of Regency England hold scant interest for her. “I care very little about the Napoleonic Wars or the availability of sugar in the 19th century,” she writes. “But I love the characters with an intensity reserved for few people in my real life.”
That intensity — that feeling that Austen’s characters and their romances and rivalries are somehow real — is what Austenland falls short of capturing. The movie follows naive protagonist Jane into her Regency playland, but it’s a fabricated world that looks utterly unlike Austen’s. Instead of witty repartee or keen observations about social interactions, most of the humor comes from the very hammy Jennifer Coolidge as a rich American blurting out wildly inappropriate Britishisms. The assumption appears to be that the period furniture and the snug costumes worn by male characters are what draws Jane and her ilk in, rather than the intensity of their reading experience. We’re constantly reminded how naive Jane is to buy into this adventure: indeed the Regency beefcake at Austenland is mashed up with other stereotypical female fetish objects, including baby horses, bare-chested pirates, and romantic easy listening music. Austenland’s slapstick is amusing enough, and its inattention to proper Austen-related details might be forgivable, but the filmmakers’ refusal to legitimize their heroine’s passions — both literary and romantic — until the last five minutes, when she gets a tacked-on happy ending, is unnecessarily cruel. Blogger Margaret Sullivan of Austenblog, herself one of the subjects of Among the Janeites, accurately describes the movie’s tone: “Look at those silly, desperate women … [who] have to pay men in breeches to flirt with them so All Their Fantasies Come True!” she wrote, asking “why the filmmakers consider the female gaze something worthy of mockery?”
When Among the Janeites explores the subject of unhappy women given solace and coping skills by Austen’s fiction, it does so with more kindness. One of Yaffe’s subjects, Pamela Aiden got out of a bad marriage by writing Austen sequels; another dealt with personal and financial uncertainty by discovering a talent for sewing Regency gowns. Christine Shih formed a bibliotherapy group where the abuse and disorder in modern life finds its antecedent in the bad parents and rude lovers of Austen’s world: Mrs. Bennet, according to this interpretation, is a borderline personality. Another Janeite profiled in the book theorizes that Mr. Darcy’s averred difficulty “conversing easily with those I have never seen before” is due to Asperger’s.
Yaffe is rightly dubious of the fans’ more outlandish claims, or the ones that boil down Austen’s novels to a single fixation. Yet she’s sympathetic to the deeply personal, sometimes inexplicable, identification with the world of Austen’s novels that underpins the varied fabric of the “tribe.” Austen was so effective at what she did — namely, stringing sentences together to create narratives — that her readers can’t help but bring their lives into her work. Thus, the intense arguments between readers Yaffe describes. Is Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price a prig or a moral paragon? Is Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood going to be happy married to Colonel Brandon, or did Austen stick them together to teach her a lesson? The debates and interpretations vary in Austen’s literature, as they do in life. “[Austen’s] stories are not blank canvases onto which we project ourselves,” Yaffe writes. “They are complicated, ambiguous pictures of lived reality.”
Mockery of extreme fandom is an acceptable, even healthy practice. Indeed, no one would be better than Jane Austen at describing her present day readers; I wish she could offer us snarky write-ups of Austen conferences and colloquia from beyond the grave. We can safely assume she would gently take us all down a peg or two when we become modern day Marianne Dashwoods, swayed by romantic sensibility rather than wisdom. But she’d do so without sneering at us, as Austenland does. During one foray to an Austen conference, I heard Cornel West speak to a roomful of adoring Janeites. He fielded a question about whether Austen would have Occupied Wall Street. Surely she would sling many choice words at the greedy bankers, West answered, but she would also turn her wit to the foibles and infighting of “the movement.” And in her wide view of life lies her appeal. In a sense, because Austen catalogs all her characters’ follies but still allows human connections to be forged between them, we are all on equal footing in her world — and, thus, in ours. As Yaffe writes, “We all find ourselves in her because, in a sense, she contains us all.”