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The curious American cult of Jane Austen

1 February 2013

From the BBC:

She wrote it herself in 1813: “How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book.”

Jane Austen’s own work is a case in point. It may be 200 years since her most celebrated novel, Pride and Prejudice, was published, but in the US she is the subject of more wildly devotional fan-worship than ever.

With their conventions, Regency costumes and self-written “sequels” to their heroine’s novels, Austen’s most dedicated adherents display a fervency easily rivalling that of the subcultures around Star Trek or Harry Potter.

Some Janeites, as they call themselves, write their own fiction imagining the marital exploits of Mr and Mrs Darcy. Others don elaborate period dress and throw Jane Austen-themed tea parties and balls.

. . . .

For all that her stories can be by turns bleak and waspish, however, it’s the romance of Austen’s world that many Janeites say drew them in.

“There’s a longing for the elegance of the time,” says Myretta Robens, who manages one of the most popular US Austen fan sites, The Republic of Pemberley. “It’s an escape.”

. . . .

Nonetheless, it might be seen as incongruous that Austen’s fandom is so extensive in the US, a nation founded on the rejection of aristocracy and old world manners and traditions.

Indeed, when Pride and Prejudice was first published, the UK and US were at war. Nattress, who lives in Snohomish, Washington state, believes US Janeism is an expression of a persistent Anglophile streak in American society.

“I think that we look back to the motherland in many respects,” she says.

“Look at the incredible impact Downton Abbey has had over here. It’s a perfect example of how America is fascinated by British culture.”

But while Austen’s sharp prose, ironic wit and vivid characterisation are all key to her appeal, Robens believes that it is the romantic entanglements of her strong-willed heroines that draw so many to the books.

“It’s women, in general, who fall in love with them,” says Robens. “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that women want to read about relationships.”

Link to the rest at the BBC

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19 Comments to “The curious American cult of Jane Austen”

  1. I’ve never understood why people like Austen. I’ve read several of her books and she still annoys me. Yet most of the women I know who read just adore her.

    • Liz,

      I’m making, (yet another) attempt to read her.

      At the back of my head, there’s an insistent growling that repeats: “this is just acid on top of more acid.”

      The Austen cognoscenti state that this is irony. It seemeth not to me.

      Plus, there’s the endless cinderella/anti-feminist plot of marrying a rich berk and living happily ever after, IF you can reform him. How is it that women like this guff?

      Pah!

      That said, “The Jane Austen Book Club,” is a wonderful movie:)

      brendan

      • There isn’t a whole lot in Jane Austen about marrying rich blokes and reforming them. Quite the contrary, Jane Austen is quite adamant that if the man is problematic before the wedding, he’s likely going to be problematic afterwards. Instead, her work is far more about contrasting marrying for love and mutual understanding (then a revolutionary concept) with marrying for money and security (bad, usually leads to unhappiness) and marrying for lust (even worse, generally leads to disaster).

    • What about her style annoys you? I’m very curious because I find her tongue in cheek sense of humor the best part. Even above the romance.

  2. Nonetheless, it might be seen as incongruous that Austen’s fandom is so extensive in the US, a nation founded on the rejection of aristocracy and old world manners and traditions.

    This might be seen as incongruous, except that it turns out not to be the case. The U.S. was not founded on ‘the rejection of old world manners and traditions’, but on the rejection of Old World monarchical government. George Orwell observes, in his essay ‘Riding Down from Bangor’: ‘In the more populous eastern States a society similar to Jane Austen’s seems to have survived longer than it did in England. And it is hard not to feel that it was a better kind of society than that which arose from the sudden industrialisation of the later part of the century.’

    The fact is that Austen’s characters and their manners had nothing whatever to do with aristocracy, either English or continental; they were strictly middle-class — the old, preindustrial, squirearchical middle class of rural England, which was already beginning to lose its colour and influence in her time, and finally disappeared, after a long decline, in the Flanders mud of World War I and the agrarian reforms of the following years. The land-owning middle classes of rural America, especially in the North, had the same kind of manners and culture, and kept them longer, since they were insulated by distance from the new industrial bourgeoisie.

  3. Bartholomew Thockmorton

    Others don elaborate period dress and throw Jane Austen-themed tea parties and balls.

    “Oh, Rhett! Think of the balls we’ll have!”

    Balls? You’re too young to think of balls, Bula Bell!”

  4. I adore Jane Austen, and re-read her frequently. I think there are two reasons for her enduring popularity:

    a. She hits certain archtypes square on the head, archtypes that may speak more to the feminine. Imho, she nails the feminine archtypes better than anyone who came before her (with the exception of fairy tales, which do tend to have powerful feminine archtypes).

    b. She is an outstanding writer. She is extremely deft at characterization and able to intimately track a character’s internal process. I could be wrong, but I don’t think we’ve yet had another writer quite as deft at revealing character change over time that rings as true.

    c. She is sly, witty and completely on target. I would never describe her as waspish (?), she related the female experience in that era, and it frequently was bleak and disempowered. She revealed human nature exquisitely.

    • Mira,

      Thanks for the rejig of Austen. I’ll bear in mind your comments when I read her.

      brendan

    • Mira, well said! I love how Austen plays with innate human selfishness and the human capacity for self-deception. Her plots seem to turn on those qualities, but in a way that makes me laugh.

      I haven’t liked most romances, but I do like Austen. I think it is her humorous irony that does it.

      Come to think of it, Georgette Heyer does a lot with selfishness and self-deception and humor. I had not articulated that similarity to myself before.

      Now I’m wondering: are there other romance authors who marry an awareness of the ridiculousness inherent in the human condition with the romance arc, using both clever wit and compassion?

      I think my problem with many of the romances I’ve sampled (although, I have not sampled that many) is that the threat of the broken heart is taken too seriously for me. Yet, I don’t want it trivialized either. Broken hearts are painful.

      Are there authors (besides Austen and Heyer) who can hold the possibility of pain side by side with human absurdness and diminish neither?

      Recommendations, anyone?

      • If you like fantasy, you might sample Lois McMaster Bujold’s run at an equal-parts fantasy/romance. (As opposed to the usual sort of division, where the SF&F side of the bookstore is (usually) too busy with world-building and adventure to have much of that mushy stuff in any detail, while the romance side of the bookstore will delve into the emotional charge between the main characters, but tends to paint in the “fantasy” background with really broad strokes that don’t hold up to the closer scrutiny of a SF&F reader who wants to wallow around in the world.)

        You might also look at Bujold’s Komarr and A Civil Campaign (in that order! very important!), which are SF&F. Oh, and — this one should be able to stand alone pretty well, though of course it gains more depth if you go on to read the others — Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance.

        If you like fluffy UST (unresolved sexual tension), comedy, and martial arts, you might look at Rumiko Takihashi’s Ranma 1/2 manga series. It is long. It is silly. It is full of interminable amounts of “they are almost coming to a mutual understanding… AND THEN THEY BLOW IT AGAIN” mini-arcs. It is full of Silly Martial Arts and Gender Bending Shenanigans. But underlying that is the human elements of pride, misunderstandings, and awkward compassion. …way, way, underlying. You might not see it under the slapstick.

        Randomly sampling the Romance section is probably not going to get you what you want; most of my random samplings wind up with “and here is where they are instantly in lust with each other, because there is no word-count available to work around to a more realistic growing to respect each other unless they are FORCED by HORMONES to pay attention.”

        I think that may be one of the key things I like about Austen and Heyer; yes, hormones do play a part, but there’s usually also a practical streak, or a non-hormonal reason why people pay attention. (Or if it is “that person is my type,” it’s acknowledged as such…)

        • I adore Bujold. Worship Bujold. In my heart, what I want is to discover a second Bujold! Since that’s not going to happen…I re-read a lot. But I’m feeling a desire for something new these days, so I’m looking.

          I like SF/F, and lately discovered Tanya Huff. Her SF was too silly for me (I wasn’t convinced), but I enjoyed her Enchantment Emporium and The Silvered. But mostly I’m having a hard time finding new stuff, even in SF/S. I like Bujold, McKinley, Hambly, Wynne Jones, some Brust (but not all), much Cherryh (but not all), some Moon.

          I recently tried a new-to-me fantasy author from the library and was completely disgusted when it left the plotted political & societal situation utterly hanging and unresolved at the end and seemed to think the story was over just because the female protag was now solidly together with the male protag. What?!

          I think you are right that “the romance side of the bookstore will delve into the emotional charge between the main characters, but tends to paint in the “fantasy” background with really broad strokes that don’t hold up to the closer scrutiny of a SF&F reader who wants to wallow around in the world.”

          I suspect that a lot of “they are almost coming to a mutual understanding… AND THEN THEY BLOW IT AGAIN” mini-arcs might drive me batty! But I’ll try the Look Inside. Are they books? I seem to recall my kids watching some Ranma movies…or maybe I’m confused!

          I think that may be one of the key things I like about Austen and Heyer; yes, hormones do play a part, but there’s usually also a practical streak, or a non-hormonal reason why people pay attention. Yes, this! Are there any other intelligent romances around?

          Thank you for the recs, ABeth! Really appreciate you taking the time, since I’m on the hunt for good reads right now!

      • @ Brendan – cool! :D But it’s okay if she’s not for you. Thanks for giving her a chance.

        @ J.M. I really don’t know any romance authors who approach Jane Austen, Heyer is the closest I’ve found (thanks for introducing me!). I do have a few I find fun, but they are very light reading – Sorcery and Ceclia by Patricia Wrede; and Sarah Maclean’s, Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Drake. The first chapter isn’t great, push through it, that is a HOT book. :) Again, these are just for fun, they are not of the depth of Austen, even remotely.

        If YOU find any, let me know!

        • I agree that Heyer is lighter than Austen, quite a bit lighter, but I enjoy her. The other thing she does with stellar eclat is world building. Probably another reason why I love her, since I’m an S/SF fan. Nice to hear that you’re enjoying her as well. :D

          I did enjoy Wrede’s Sorcery and Cecelia. Much lighter still, indeed, but quite good. I’m still thinking about why it works so well. I can’t articulate it, which annoys me! I like to understand the foundations of things.

          I will try the Maclean, bearing in mind your caution about the first chapter.

          And I will alert you to anything along these lines that I discover.

          BTW, ABeth’s rec for Bujold is an excellent one, if you haven’t read her. The Sharing Knife is the fantasy/romance mix she was referring to. It is S/SF and includes some violence, so that will make it off limits for some. But the first 2 books of this 4-book set are basically a romance in 2 volumes (part 1 and part 2). The second 2 books carry on from there and are not a romance. (But they’re good!)

          If you decide to read the Vorkosigan series, I recommend starting with Mirror Dance rather than Komarr, however. It is not a romance, but it’s where the series acquires real emotional and psychological depth. (Again, there is violence.) So, Mirror Dance, Memory (one of my absolute favorite books of all time), Komarr, and A Civil Campaign (another of my favorites of all time). I’d be interested to hear what you think about them. :)

          • J.M. – I’ll check out Bujold, no I have not read her. Thanks to you and Amy. :)

            You know, I’m nervous about my MacLean recommendation. She is very, very light. I just enjoy her.

            It also occured to me a bunch of folks who come here write historical romance, including Mrs. PG. I haven’t read any yet, but I’m rolling up my shirtsleeves to start reading what my fellow PGers have written.

            • No harm done. :) Everyone has different tastes. I suspect the Maclean won’t work for me. Modern sexual mores moved to the regency era break the world building for me. But I’m always glad to get book recs to check. Hope the Bujold is a go for you!

  5. I love Austen as well, and also frequently re-read her novels. There is a bit of truth to America’s rejection of the European class system, but then Austen’s characters are so frequently at odds with their situation in life–in both money and love–caused by their system that most Americans can find their way through it. There is both a rebelliousness against unreasonable strictures and yet a deep respect for tradition and morality. There’s something profoundly American about that, I think.

    As for work like Downton Abbey–I think most Americans love to visit that sort of world, but would never choose to actually live there. That’s true of most fiction.

  6. If anyone’s having trouble getting into Austen, might I suggest the Lizzie Bennet Diaries? Click on this link, and then choose Episode 1:

    http://www.lizziebennet.com/story/

    This is a modern video retelling of “Pride and Prejudice,” and it’s so charming that my BOYS, who are 9 and 14 years old, are totally hooked on it and watching the videos right along with me. Boys, in love with “Pride and Prejudice!” It’s also pretty much PG-rated, at least so far (the series is not yet complete).

    What’s brilliant about the Lizzie Bennet diaries is that it separates the historical and language issues from the core story of the book, and demonstrates how utterly compelling the core story is, even when you remove it from its historical setting (which I personally love, but lots of people don’t). The characters are classic. Virtually every character in Pride and Prejudice makes me think, “I know somebody just like that.”

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