In Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, Ted Scheinman, the son of an Austen scholar, expertly captures the most memorable moments from the year and a half that he spent “in the world of Jane Austen fandom," including Jane Austen Summer Camp and the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), whose members wear petticoats, dance, dispute interpretations of Austen's texts, and share recipes. Scheinman takes us inside the world of Janeites.
Jane Austen spent the spring of 1817 at a cottage in Chawton, England, where she was slowly dying. Visitors in the family parlor would have discovered Jane lying across three chairs that she had arranged into a makeshift couch; the parlor included a comfortable sofa, but Jane reserved that for her mother, and told her niece Caroline that she would rather suffer cricks and aches than displace Mrs. Austen:
Aunt Jane laid upon 3 chairs ... I think she had a pillow, but it never looked comfortable—she called it her sofa, and even when the other was unoccupied, she never took it .... If [Jane] ever used the sofa, Grandmama would be leaving it for her, and would not lie down, as she did now, whenever she felt inclined.
Trained as they are to read manners as a code for psychology, many of Austen's fans treat this story like an episode from one of the novels: it's a tale of family dysfunction, of moderate penury among the lower gentry, of silent English manners that take the place of words and serve where words might be more difficult. It is all of those things. But to me it's also a simpler and more infuriating story than a hypochondriac mother and an overly obeisant daughter—it's the story of how the greatest novelist of her age (and a favorite of the Prince Regent) couldn't afford a couch to die on.
Two hundred years later, circumstances for Austen are quite different. No longer a ″spinster in a backwater″—the view, as E.M. Forster lamented in 1944, of so many readers—but a bulletproof global brand, celebrated in countless film adaptations, action figures, and novelty books, not to mention YouTube series and satirical Twitter accounts. Austen has been successfully packaged and remixed in so many ways that she becomes both infinitely approachable and ever-receding; the lacunae and ellipses in her biography present opportunities for the imagination, and then frustration whenever the Real Jane inevitably slips through our grasp. If there is any group with privileged access to the real thing, it's the secret society of Jane Austen fans—known as ″Janeites″—who spend anywhere between one and a dozen weekends each year dressing in the clothes of Austen's age and discussing her life and work with a passionate fealty. At Chawton, in her dying days, Austen may have felt like an exile in the family parlor; in the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), she enjoys a permanent home where she is the lady of honor.
Rudyard Kipling—a famous Freemason—actually predicted the Jane Austen Society nearly a century ago, in a 1924 short story called "The Janeites," about a group of English soldiers who read Austen together while fighting in the First World War, and who use quotations from the novels as passwords and mantras, indicating membership among the elect. In the story, those Janeites who survived and kept their wits amid the shellshock say that Austen had kept them sane, or at least that the fellowship inspired around Austen kept them sane; the two possibilities seem more and more inextricable every time I read the story. What we know for sure is that Kipling, in a depression over his son's death in the war, had spent part of 1917 in Bath, reading Austen's novels aloud to the family as a kind of communal therapy. The secret society of broken men in "The Janeites," who warm themselves around Austen as around a shared flame, feels like a dramatization of the salvific and unifying role that Austen played in Kipling's own family.
Two hundred years after Austen's death, and a hundred years after Kipling's fireside readings, the community of Jane Austen superfans is a worldwide cabal, a scattered band of acolytes who bounce around the country and hop on planes, bound for symposia and dancing lessons in London or Bath or Mumbai or Tokyo, their suitcases bulging with petticoats and paperbacks and endless spools of laminated name tags. They attend the big annual meeting of JASNA each fall and spend the intervening months traveling smaller regional circuits, identifying one another through various tacit codes; where the Freemasons had esoteric hand signals, the Janeites have various motley badges of membership in the global Austen circle, from novelty pens to silk-screened t-shirts (Keep calm and find Mr. Darcy!) to whimsical signals embedded in an email address. (ElinorDash1811@BartonCollege.net can hardly fail to inspire trust among any properly affiliated correspondents.)
The first steps to infiltrate any secret society are simple: learn the language, make friends, strive to approximate the dress code. Eventually, if you're lucky, you will set them at their ease, even gain their trust. Then you write about them, of course, a betrayal that you hope earnestly they will forgive. "She acknowledged it to be very fitting," writes the narrator in Persuasion, "that every little social commonwealth should dictate its own matters of discourse; and hoped, ere long, to become a not unworthy member of the one she was now transplanted into." This is the essential attitude for reporting on any subculture: You must adapt yourself to the style, the cadence, of whatever "little commonwealth" you happen to find yourself in.
In my case, when the time came for me to infiltrate the Janeites, I was partially prepared, at least genetically: my own mother (with whom I have never quarreled over a couch) has been teaching Jane Austen to undergraduates for about 35 years. It may be true that Janeism is an x-linked trait, inherited from one's mother, like color-blindness. She first attended JASNA in 1987 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, delivering a paper called "Sisterhood and Friendship in Jane Austen’s Juvenilia." But back then Mom hadn't been an adept at the dress-up; she used to consider it beneath the dignity of a scholar, and in fact had never danced a Regency minuet while wearing an Empire-waist gown—not until I dragged her into it. (The fancy dress remains the first thing about which Aus¬ten skeptics will mock Janeites; devotees of Tolstoy (or Pynchon, or Woolf) do not make a habit of treating symposia as costume parties, and this thread¬ bare seriousness sets them apart from the lacy zealotry of the Janeites.) Still, Mom knew from the start that Janeism was a big tent. In 1989, she gave a paper on "Friendship in Pride & Prejudice" at that year's JASNA meeting in Santa Fe, and was impressed when attendees at the banquet were asked to check their guns at the door.
As I continued reporting on the Janeites—sometimes wearing a topcoat, cravat, and breeches; other times in civilian clothes—I began to see myself as a hapless visitor in a place that many other people simply called home. A lady once described to me her first impressions on visit¬ing Austenworld: “Finally, a place where one can be oneself.” It would be easy to mock this declaration as hollow; the woman speaking it, after all, was dressed at the time in an Empire-waist dress and a bonnet that must have been the hottest new thing in 1808—hardly a paragon of authenticity in the 21st century. But her statement contains a deep truth. For all the affectation, the Regency dialogue and borrowed postures and dance moves of a different continent, a different age, there is somehow a holy frankness to the proceedings, a general sense of camaraderie and enterprise: Let’s go mad a bit and argue over who stole the turkeys in Emma. Let’s stroll through the quadrangle with parasols and lose ourselves in a better world that never existed. Austen¬mania is a collective folly, a religion in the sort of latitudinarian-Anglican sense that stresses communion over orthodoxy (though it is possible to be excommunicated). It is a shared fiction that we tacitly agree to treat as real, and by coming together we make it real. This is no small miracle. When you're with the Janeites, you're always on the cusp of a homecoming, perhaps even of redemption. It's a truth that Kipling discovered with his family in Bath, and I like to think it would have amused Austen as she lay across those chairs during her last days on earth.