In A World Of Jane

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 10 2013 @ 4:43pm

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For her book Among the Janeites, Deborah Yaffe explored the world of hardcore Jane Austen fans. Here she confronts misconceptions about the community:

You run across plenty of articles that suggest Janeites are a tea-sipping, cat-hugging group of middle-aged librarians who spend their spare time knitting afghans. (Not that there’s anything wrong with all that.) The dress-up side of the fandom, in particular, seems to call forth ridicule from the terminally ironic. The subliminal, or not-so-subliminal, message is that it’s all terribly cutesy and trivial.

There’s definitely a sexist aspect to all this, I think:

Janeite fandom in the 21st-century U.S. is heavily female; the people with the money to attend those photogenic conferences are often middle-aged or older; and condescending to older women is a popular media pastime. And of course, that condescension mirrors the way that Jane Austen herself has sometimes been viewed, as a sexually frustrated spinster pouring her romantic fantasies into her books, or a sweet little auntie penning those charming courtship stories. All these stereotypes (many of them stoked by the Austen movies, I think) miss out on the tough, uncompromising side of her work.

And plenty of the Janeites I met respond to that side of Austen; not everyone sees her in those cozy, tea-sipping terms. In fact, my feeling is that Janeites are quite diverse—if not in their demographics, then at least in their responses to Austen. For some people, she’s a feminist; for others, she’s a conservative. Some believe she lived contentedly in the bosom of a supportive family, and others see her as angry and rebellious. Austen’s books are a lot edgier and more complicated than Austen movies, and so are the people who are drawn to them.

Previous Dish on Jane Austen here.

(Photo of the 2013 Jane Austen Festival in Louisville by Flickr user ozimanndias8)