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among the janeites

Source: Review copy from Mariner Books
Rating: ★★★★★

We are a tribe, we Janeites.  We name our children and our pets after people who never existed, treat an elderly screenwriter like a rock star, and seek twenty-first-century life lessons in two-hundred-year-old books, or the tarot cards based on them.  Our love for Jane Austen unites us, and yet sometimes it seems that we all love something, or someone, different. … We make our Austen into a reflection of our own preoccupations, a teller of our own stories.

(from Among the Janeites, page 225)

Nearly 200 years after her death, Jane Austen, her novels, and her unforgettable characters remain immensely popular.  She wrote only six novels, yet hundreds of sequels, re-imaginings, and modern-day re-tellings have been published.  There are battles over which film adaptation is the best and which actor is Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley, etc.  Fans dressed in Regency attire attend the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), learn the dances of the period, and even tour Jane Austen’s England.  In Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, Deborah Yaffe explores the fandom of Jane Austen, literary genius and pop culture phenomenon.

Yaffe was 10 years old during the summer of 1976 when she read Pride and Prejudice for the first time.  Initially enjoying her solitary, isolated love for Austen, as the years went by, Yaffe discovered a community of other Janeites that goes beyond the JASNA conference and The Republic of Pemberley website.  Yaffe explores this varied and far-reaching community while she prepares to go all out for the ball at the 2011 JASNA AGM in Fort Worth by having a Regency gown made and assembling all the other authentic articles of clothing necessary to complete the experience.  This was a big step for Yaffe, who never felt a desire to dress up but wanted to be an active participant in this aspect of the Austen fandom.

Interspersed with Yaffe’s own journey in Austen fandom are profiles of the people she meets along the way.  Yaffe interviews Baronda Bradley, who has accumulated an entire wardrobe of Regency gowns and wears them throughout the JASNA AGM, and Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems who sunk millions into the purchase and restoration of Chawton House, once owned by Edward Austen Knight, to create a library dedicated to the writings of English women from 1600-1830.  The book also features several authors of Austen-inspired fiction, Austen bloggers, academics whose scholarly careers have been devoted to Austen, several Austen fans with interesting and controversial theories about Austen’s novels and characters, and even a woman who uses Austen’s novels in a therapy group for people whose relatives have borderline personality disorder.  Even if you don’t believe Mr. Darcy had Asperger syndrome or that each Austen novel has a subtextual story rife with sex and other shadiness, Among the Janeites is a fascinating book about the global fascination with a literary great.

Yaffe covers so much ground in the book, so many different viewpoints and degrees of Austen obsession, that I found it difficult to put down.  This is no dry academic study; Yaffe gets in the trenches and really gets to know these people so her readers can do the same.  And despite the differing opinions and the battles that have emerged within the fandom, she shows how all Janeites are united in their love for Austen and the novels that have captured our hearts, and in some cases, taken over our lives.

Among the Janeites is a fantastic study of Janeites, from the most subdued to the most radical, and I found myself frequently nodding in agreement and laughing out loud.  As my husband watches my collection of Austen novels expand to include the annotated editions and my collection of Austen-inspired fiction grow to epic proportions, I must admit I was delighted to read him passages from the book and say, “At least I’m not that obsessed.”  Yaffe’s sense of humor and adventure shine through, making her personal journey fun to follow, and it was nice to see names I recognized from the blogosphere mentioned.  Among the Janeites is highly recommended for all lovers of Austen — from those content to stick to the original novels to those who can’t get enough of all the Darcy-related trinkets — and would make a perfect gift for the Janeite in your life.

Disclosure: I received Among the Janeites from Mariner Books for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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