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Cosplaying Jane Austen

24 July 2017

From The Atlantic:

Jane lies in Winchester
Blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her,
And her for all she made.
And, while the stones of Winchester—
Or Milsom Street—remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour
Unto England’s Jane!

— Rudyard Kipling

On a spring afternoon 25 years ago, my mother took my baby sister and me to the grave of Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral. It would have been 1992, and quite late in the spring, as photos of that day have me in short sleeves and my sister wearing a summery little dress in her stroller. She was 2, I was 6, and Austen had been dead for 175 years.

The grave left little impression on me at the time—I didn’t know much about Austen, except that she was my mother’s favorite writer and that she had died not far from where we stood and that her bones were now beneath us. In the days when England’s church was allied with Rome, Winchester had been consecrated to Saint Swithin, and—as Mom explained—it was three days after the Feast of Saint Swithin in 1817 that Austen breathed her last in that city, under the care of better doctors than could have been found closer to the Chawton cottage where she spent the last eight years of her life. The tombstone says a lot of nice things about her character but doesn’t mention once that she was a writer. My mother, an English professor whose expertise is the British novel in the 18th and 19th centuries, told me that this was an odd omission, and I wondered whether Austen’s ghost lurked, displeased, beneath the stones of the cathedral.

What my mother did not tell me, and what she could not have known, was that, two decades later, I would find myself putting on Regency costumes and attending balls and banquets across North America, nor that—in a curious inversion of roles—I would eventually persuade her to dispense with academic self-seriousness and actually start wearing the costumes herself. All of this happened after I had joined the ranks of those enthusiastic literary necromancers who regularly summon Austen’s ghost.

These are the fans and disciples of Austen, known collectively as the Janeites, a term coined in the 1890s by the critic George Saintsbury. In the 21st century, they pop about the globe, now visiting Austen’s grave at Winchester, now visiting her haunts in Bath, now attending the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), where hundreds of Janeites materialize each year in Minneapolis or Montréal or Washington, D.C., to exhibit their finest examples of Regency formalwear, to hear the brightest Austen scholars talk about their ideas of the author—was Austen a secret radical? was she a reactionary? was she queer?—and to dispute those ideas with the proprietary vim of a family member.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Romance

One Comments to “Cosplaying Jane Austen”

  1. Suburbanbanshee

    The gravestone does so mention her novels. It is a veiled reference, but “the extraordinary endowments of her mind” is clearly not talking about anything but the novels.

    If she had written a lot of Greek poetry or done other scholarly work in the classics, it might possibly refer to that. But she did not.

    The huge elaborate stone for an unmarried woman of modest means does express love and admiration for her fortitude; but more, it expresses pride in her fame and accomplishments. The veiled bit is only to make things seemly for the time and place.

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