Jane Austen is more than an author. To many, she’s a role model, an inspiration, and a heroine in her own right, and to some, she’s a bit of an obsession. It is this latter group that journalist Deborah Yaffe infiltrates in her amusing new book, “Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.” Timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Austen’s best known novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” this is a friendly romp through a world of scholarly conferences, Regency re-enactments, and even erotic fan-written fiction.
Narrated in a casual first-person voice, Yaffe’s book, her first, mixes journalism with a touch of memoir. Describing herself as a “junior Janeite” from the age of 10, Yaffe relates how she discovered Austen’s six novels and how she has revisited them over the years. She attended her first Jane Austen Society of North America conference in 1983, and she goes on to discuss how the annual general meeting of the society has since grown and changed to become a costumed fan-driven function. Her own decision to don full Regency regalia for a conference’s Saturday night ball provides a loose thread throughout the book and allows her to explore the world of corset makers and seamstresses for whom Austen is a cottage industry. Yaffe’s concern over her outfit — Will it be ready? Will the hand-sewn corset hold? — doesn’t quite throw her into the role of one of Austen’s characters, but it does provide a lighthearted connection.
While many of her interview subjects share a similar love of the literature and some are serious academics, it is largely this strange popular side of Austen fandom that interests Yaffe. In particular, she focuses on the 1995 BBC television production of “Pride and Prejudice,” which she views as the turning point in the widespread rediscovery of the author. Actor Colin Firth’s portrayal of the hero Mr. Darcy is key, she stresses, notably the scene in which he is filmed wearing “a wet shirt clinging seductively,” and references to the “wet shirt” depiction serve as a litmus test of fans throughout. Along the way, she manages to find fans who interpret Darcy’s often silent, mulish behavior as a form of autism and others who write him up as a vampire. Each generation, she implies, gets the Darcy it desires.
Yaffe clearly has a fondness for her cohort, even the stranger members, and relates to them both in terms of their shared passion and the larger life issues of work, family, and marriage that intercept (and sometimes interrupt) their more literary pursuits. This makes for a pleasant overall tone, but at times her sympathy weakens the book. While relating the story of fan fiction author Linda Berdoll, for example, Yaffe shares how Austen’s novels and Berdroff’s own spinoffs helped the avid fan cope with an abusive marriage. However, when Yaffe notes that the marriage “couldn’t survive one final betrayal, whose details she [Berdoll] won’t consign to print,” she is doing neither her readers nor her subject a favor. Why mention an incident she can’t or won’t share? While the book doesn’t need gossip, it needs a consistent narrative, and such squeamishness leaves a gap.
What the book lacks in depth, however, Yaffe makes up in bulk. Fans of every conceivable stripe show up here, to the point where fandom comes to seem normal. Which means that when she finally makes it to the big conference, we can share her surprise on meeting a “youngish man in a baseball cap” who is confused by all the costumed Janeites at the hotel. “It’s a Jane Austen convention,” she tells him, only to be met by a blank stare. “She’s actually . . . a pretty famous writer,” Yaffe continues. He brightens, asking, “Is she here?” In Yaffe’s world, the answer is yes.