Book Review | Getting Lost in the World of the Janeites
In my life I’ve had several forays into fandom, including the Baby Sitters Club (BSC forever!), Doctor Who (David Tennant is my Doctor), and Harry Potter (Neville and Luna really steal the show). But through it all my one, forever enduring, fandom has been Nancy Drew.
I discovered Nancy Drew in elementary school before I was old enough to check out chapter books at school. She is the quintessential badass of young sleuths, and she is my literary hero.
Back in the early 1990’s the Internet wasn’t easily accessible. We used computers to play Oregon Trail and SkiFree. Without Facebook and Instagram to clue me in on the interests of others, I had to find out through good ol’ conversation who around me were also Nancy Drew fans. And no one else was. My friends were more into Animorphs and Goosebumps (pretty legit) than mystery novels.
Fast forward 20 years to the present. Today if you search Nancy Drew on Etsy you can find everything from art and jewelry to purses. There’s a Nancy Drew National Convention. There was a recent-ish Nancy Drew movie– which, I admit, I never watched because I was afraid I would hate it. I even have an amazing Nancy Drew tattoo done by Leslie Porter of Blue Ox Tattoo in Portland. (She’s retiring this year but if you like tattoos everyone at Blue Ox and at their sister shop, New Rose Tattoo, are incredibly talented. And they aren’t paying me to say that, they are just that good!) Nowadays it’s incredibly easy to find fellow Nancy Drew admirers, and though we don’t always agree on aspects of the stories (she should NOT date the Hardy Boys! No!) it’s nice to know other people care as deeply about a fictional character as I do.
My Nancy Drew love is why I related so much to Among the Janeites author, Deborah Yaffe. Yaffe loved Jane Austen even before the infamous Colin-Firth-as-Darcy-dripping-from-lake scene in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries (this scene is often referred to in Among the Janeites, and I will refer back to it later). Yet with the arrival of the Internet she was connected to an ever-growing group of Jane Austen devotees, more commonly known as “Janeites.” And fandoms allow all kinds of people to interact with one another.
Among the Janeites explores several hardcore Janeites and how they came to love Austen’s work. These fans include Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems and the creator of Urban Decay cosmetics. Lerner loves Austen so much she actually bought Austen’s family home – Chawton House – from one of Austen’s descendants and spent $10 million restoring it. It opened in 2003 as Chawton House Library, dedicated to the study of women’s writing in English from 1600-1830. Now if that’s not true fandom, I don’t know what is!
Another Janeite is Arnie Perlstein, a lawyer who believes each Austen novel has a “shadow story,” or a “far darker version [of the story], in which even sympathetic characters lie and scheme, indulge in illicit sex, conceal out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and even commit murder, en route to an ending that may not be so happy after all.” Perlstein is a polarizing figure among the Janeites- he is well known for his extremely long blog posts and his theories have yet to gain traction among most fans of Austen.
I feel like I would be more inclined to agree with Perlstein after a few glasses of wine or a couple of margaritas. But maybe that’s just me…
To me, the most interesting Janeites highlighted were the women who are using Austen’s novels to illustrate present day disorders, Christine Shih and Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer. Shih is convinced that Jane Austen’s mother had borderline personality disorder, and from the little that is said of Austen’s mother in Among the Janeites, she may be correct. Shih leads a bibliotherapy group to see if reading the works of Austen can help as therapeutic tools for the children of borderlines, to let them understand their situations through the lives of Austen’s characters. This idea of using fictional literature to help people through real life difficulties makes a lot of sense to me- you can view any story through the lens of your own personal experience. It’s like the saying that no two people read the same book. I hope Yaffe writes a follow-up where she checks back in on Shih’s group to see if bibliotherapy is succeeding.
Bottomer believes that Mr. Darcy had Asperger syndrome and that more than 20 of Austen’s characters belong on the autistic spectrum according to their behaviors. She wrote the book So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice, which received mixed reviews. It’s an interesting idea that Darcy’s manners derive from Asperger’s as opposed to simply his pride, especially in a time so long before Asperger’s was even discovered/diagnosed. Color me intrigued, Bottomer! Maybe I’ll pick up your book next.
Beyond individual Janeites, Yaffe also discusses some of the difficulties of Jane Austen’s fandom. Many Janeites call Jane Austen simply “Jane,” as though they personally know her. They get offended when people describe her in ways they do not agree with. They love Austen’s characters to the point where at the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) conference a speaker commented on how terrible one of Austen’s characters was, and a man in the audience stood up and demanded the speaker move on to a different topic because he had been “in love” with that character for 20 years and would not hear her spoken of that way! Their love can be intense, and their disagreements can be just as intense!
Much is made in Among the Janeites of the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice . It suddenly brought a bunch of fans to Austen who were, shall we say, not as polished and educated as the Janeites were used to. Colin Firth apparently embodied Mr. Darcy to the point where flocks of mainly middle aged women suddenly became huge fans of Jane Austen’s book. Firth’s portrayal has even inspired music, like the song “Oh, Mr. Darcy” by The Doubleclicks. Lyrics include “oh, oh, oh Mr. Darcy, oh, oh, oh Colin Firth.” Apparently everyone loved the wit of Lizzie Bennett, but they loved a certain scene with a wet Mr. Darcy even more.
Immediately upon finishing Among the Janeites I ordered the BBC miniseries and watched it, mainly to find that infamous scene. And that scene was utterly disappointing. I mean it was maybe 3 minutes long, and Colin Firth was fully clothed the whole time! I was expecting something much more scandalous. Other than that, which was definitely NOT in the book, the miniseries was a pretty faithful adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and one which I liked more than I was expecting to. Check it out if you have 5+ hours to spare.
With Austen being portrayed as everything from a feminist hero to a psychologist for her times, it is easy for Janeites to disagree with each other, be it online or in person. But even when Yaffe didn’t agree with the conclusions drawn by some Janeites about Austen, she still appreciated that so many people all around the world loved the same books she loves.
I really enjoyed Among the Janeites. It was part anthropological study and part human interest story. As soon as I finished it I wanted to go re-read Jane Austen’s works and see what I may have previously missed. I also looked online to see if JASNA was coming back to Portland anytime soon (doesn’t look like it). It made me wish I was a part of a fandom as organized and thriving as the Janeites, and one that is taken so seriously by so many. Yet I also enjoy how, without an actual fan group to answer to, I can have my own view of Nancy Drew without anyone telling me it’s wrong. And that’s pretty darn cool too.
The only thing this book is missing is pictures from the JASNA conferences. I want to see all these fans in full Jane Austen-era splendor! Pics or didn’t happen! Thanks Deborah Yaffe for helping me appreciate Jane Austen even more.
(And no, I was not named after Jane Austen. I do get asked that quite often though!)