By Nisha Susan
A couple of months ago I was trapped into watching Austenland, a movie about a Jane Austen fanatic who goes to a Jane Austen theme park to find true love. Let me give you my nuanced, grounded-in-theory and insightful opinion. It’s DEATH. Do not watch it. Keri Russell looks like someone has kidnapped her and stuck her in those Empire waist gowns. Through the movie she seems to be thinking of a way of letting let High Command know, a preferably pre-Glasnost Soviet High Command. Apart from being a dreary movie experience, Austenland is also very patronising of women who live in books, literary obsession, fandom, the kind of criticism that takes you all the way back to the century in which Austen was writing and novel-reading was considered a bubble-headed female pastime.
Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom is the diametric opposite of Austenland. It is lively, full of pertinent, relevant and irrelevant observations, extreme compassion and is delightful. It’s boggled by fandom but fully cognizant of those jealous, possessive, confused feelings you have towards people who are obsessed with what you are obsessed with.
Here are a few of the people and cultural objects you will encounter in Yaffe’s journey.
1. The fantastic meticulously recreated and custom-made wardrobes of Baronda Bradley and others who goes to the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) in character every year. Baronda owns 30 custom-made Regency era gowns.
2. Ancient Jane Austen descendants who give talks about how Great Aunty Jane was a Libran (she wasn’t, as Yaffe grumbles)
3. A whole lot of people who were turned to Austen because of Colin Firth’s wet shirt. Baffling but refresh your memory with the video or take a look at this slightly terrified looking fellow who emerged in the Serpentine last summer.
She has put her Silicon Valley millions to create a second very successful business: an edgy, non-pink cosmetics company, Urban Decay. In this delightful chapter we are told of how Lerner becomes a serious part of the Jane Austen heritage. A British male critic Nigel Nicolson comes to the annual JASNA conference one year and talks in passing of how Chawton House, one of the houses Jane Austen had lived in was on the market. Some Jane Austen lovers wanted to turn it into a Jane Austen centre but this dude thought they were asses. He wanted to create a Jane Austen centre in Bath where too she had lived briefly. Here is where he got into Lerner’s face.
‘If you are really smart, you’ll like my proposal,’ Lerner remembers Nicolson saying. ‘If you like this other proposal, you are a stupid old cow.’ And then he said, ‘If you believe that my brilliant idea is wrong because it’s in Bath and Jane Austen didn’t like Bath, then you’re a silly, superstitious old cow.’ And he kept on like this for 45 minutes.
To Lerner, Nicolson’s casual upper-class British misogyny sounded like egregious disrespect for his audience, with its preponderance of smart, well-educated older women. She was deeply offended, and nearly two years after cashing in her Cisco chips, she had the money to get even. She picked up the telephone and told her secretary to buy Chawton House.
Then the awesome Lerner worked for years to make Chawton House what it is today. A centre for the study of Early English Women’s writing, collecting thousands of manuscripts from the early 17th and 18th century.
5. Via the chapter on Sandy Lerner I discovered the book Mothers of the Novel: A 100 good women writers before Jane Austen. This is the book that inspired Lerner’s interest in the period.
6. Tremendous fan-fic writer Linda Berdoll who wrote the best-selling Mr Darcy Takes A Wife. (Sample review: “If your sensibilities are offended by explicit, passionate love scenes with Jane Austen’s original namesakes, this is presumably NOT the book for you.”
7. A Jane Austen conspiracy theorist
8. Devoney Looser, Jane Austen scholar, professor and star of a vampire roller-derby movie. Behold the Vampyras trailer.
And this was just a brief selection. Go get.
PS. While Yaffe says she watched a Tamil and Latina versions of Sense and Sensibility she doesn’t get into it. I am guessing it must be the most adorable Kandukondain Kandukondain, Rajiv Menon’s 2000 adaptation starring Tabu, Aishwarya Rai, Mammooty and Abbas.