By Deborah Yaffe
Author Deborah Yaffe asks herself an important question: who are these strange people that love an obscure English author who died 200 years ago? Why do they love her works so much? Does it have anything to do with Colin Firth in a wet shirt? The answer is more complicated than you would expect. Lovers of Jane Austen – Janeites – are men and women, young and old, rich and middle class. They research the historical-cultural world of Jane’s books, and they own “I ❤ Mr. Darcy” shirts. They are legion and they are growing.
This was a fun book to read. It’s half serious study of a group of fans, and half memoir of the author’s own journey into the dark night of the Janeite soul. As an admirer herself, Yaffe is not a disinterested observer in her subjects. She understands their love and is able to connect with them on a deeper level. I enjoyed the deviations into preparing for the annual JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) ball as much as the more in-depth discussions of Chawton house and English military history.
I was relieved that she didn’t go into too much detail about who Jane was and what her books are like. I tend to find that these kind of fan-related books waste far too much time explaining the plot of, say, Pride and Prejudice, and I always feel it’s unnecessary. After all, would I be reading this book if I didn’t know who Jane Austen was? Not very likely. Thankfully, Yaffe doesn’t fall into this trap. She mentions, she summarizes, but she doesn’t waste page space on carefully explaining who Elizabeth Bennet is.
Along the way, Yaffe visits as many of Jane’s former homes as she can, including Bath, Steventon, and Chawton House. She describes not only the houses, but her emotions on seeing them, and the discussions going on around her with the other women on her tour. I’ve been to Bath, but it makes me badly want to go to other places where Jane lived. That tour sounds great. Nothing sounds more fun than touring England with a bunch of lit nerds who want to talk about Jane Austen constantly.
And of course I was delighted to recognize mentions of “fanfiction” works I have read, such as Pamela Aiden’s stellar Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman series (reviewed here). There’s also an interesting discussion of the “wet-shirt Darcy” type of fans, who became interested because of the very talented and very attractive Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC miniseries. I found the history of the fans particularly interesting, starting with writing groups and individuals and progressing to Listservs, Usenet sites, and ultimately to Pemberley.com a website still running today. It’s easier than ever for Janeites to connect with each other and discuss their favorite author. There’s even a debate about whether Jane Austen erotica should be written, with Yaffe speaking to authors on both sides of the argument.
This was a great summary of Jane in popular culture. She could have gone deeper into Jane’s influence in academia, but I realize this is a book for general audiences, and not everyone is interested in that kind of nitty gritty. I enjoyed this book, I recognized a lot of myself in it, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who is even mildly interested in Jane Austen. It’s certainly given me new ideas of new avenues to take my Jane obsession (JASNA ball in a regency dress and corset, here I co