REVIEW: Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe

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among_the_janeites_coverDisclaimer: I was interviewed for this book, becoming acquainted (dare I say, friendly) with the author in the process. I disclose that for the sake of transparency; it did not affect my opinion of the book. -MCS

When we read Claire Harman’s book Jane’s Fame back in 2009, we were quite disappointed by what we perceived (perhaps somewhat defensively) as the condescending and dismissive way that Ms. Harman reported on the 21st-century Austen fandom, especially as compared to her treatment of Austen fans in earlier eras. She didn’t come right out and call us tea-sipping, cat-stroking, bonnet-wearing wet shirt fanatics, but one didn’t have to do much reading between the lines to get the impression she was barely holding back. At the time we wrote,

It would have been really interesting to have One Of Us, a Janeite who is β€œnot afraid to be seen wallowing” as Ms. Harman put it, write an overview of the State of the Fandom, even a constructively critical one.

Gentle Readers, Jane Austen must have been smiling upon our wish, for it has been granted–and then some! Deborah Yaffe’s book, Among the Janeites, is all we hoped for when we wrote that review and more. Written with wit, intelligence, and tremendous affection, this “Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom” is the most thoroughly enjoyable Austen-related book we’ve read in some time. The subject interests us in any event–we like to say we are a frustrated sociologist, which is probably at least part of why we enjoy Austen’s work–but in the hand of the wrong author, one who is not quite as much in sympathy with the tribe of Austen, it could have been, like Ms. Harman’s book, a real missed opportunity. Fortunately that is not the case.

The book is an eminently readable journalistic investigation of the fandom–rather like a feature story in a national magazine, but longer. Ms. Yaffe interviewed a cross-section of well-known (some possibly better described as notorious) Austen fans. Those of us who are active in the Internet Austen fandom, or who go to JASNA AGMs, or read Austen-related paraliterature, will likely recognize all or most of those profiled.

Even if you don’t recognize the subjects, the profiles are fascinating to read and in some cases extremely compelling. (We were positively thrilled by paraliterature author Pamela Aidan’s story; we knew part of it, but not all, and as Miss Morland might say, it was just like a book!) Ms. Yaffe admits that she is a devotee of some of the films, including the Wet!Shirt, but firstly a fan of Austen’s novels, and always looked rather askance of those of us who head further into the deep end of the Janeite fan-wallow; but in the interest of journalistic integrity–and to satisfy her own curiosity–she determines to venture in a little further, to buy a Regency gown and dance at a JASNA AGM ball. The acquisition of The Dress and its accouterments, and her journey to the 2011 JASNA AGM Regency Ball, is the arc that joins the book into a whole.

The subjects of the profiles are treated at all times with great respect, even when the author does not agree with the subject’s assertions. And the author proves that she is one of us, poking gentle fun at her own growing obsession with The Dress.

One of the interesting things we noticed about the various subjects profiled (including ourself) is that we all tend to project a little of ourselves, of our own interests and hopes, onto our perception and enjoyment of Jane Austen’s work and onto Austen herself. We don’t think that’s a problem, although a tendency to insist that others must share those perceptions or there is something wrong with them can be annoying, and serve to turn one away entirely from that person’s ideas, which is unfortunate in our opinion.

Ms. Yaffe acknowledges the sometimes sillier manifestations of the fandom, but also points out that they serve a function: to bond us as a group, even as we maintain separation into sub-tribes. The fringier ideas expressed are respectfully and objectively reported (we weep in grateful joy for the commission of actual journalism), but not uncritically. The author is one of the characters in this book, and when she disagrees with someone’s ideas, that is acknowledged, but never dismissively. Ms. Yaffe pays everyone the compliment of rational opposition.

Lately we’ve been trying to be more tolerant of some of the aspects of the Austen fandom that we find annoying. Ms. Yaffe has taught us that we can observe with interest, form our own opinion, and yet let them have their fun. However, we cannot expect philosophy from all the world. We wish all observers of our fandom were so tolerant, perceptive, and just plain kind, even some of those who profess to being Janeites. Even the much-lauded Amanda Vickery BBC special last year focused to an extreme degree on the more, er, colorful aspects of the fandom, instead of the truly awesome and interesting people.

We’re getting a bit off the track of reviewing this book, and more into a meditation on the fandom in general, which we think (we hope) this book will inspire many Janeites to do. Jane Austen’s books, read thoughtfully, can make us look into ourselves and learn about ourselves as well as our relationship with others. Among the Janeites can make us learn about ourselves as Austen fans–and our fellow Janeites as well. We can’t think of any better compliment to Jane Austen and her work.

19 thoughts on “REVIEW: Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe

  1. I loved it too Mags. Glad you were featured in the chapter Austen.net as one of the first bloggers of Austen.

    Thanks for your thoughtful review. I cannot praise Yaffe enough for her open minded and fair reporting – because this is a journalistic book written in a very engaging manner. I think she is a very talented write too. I laughed and nodded and scowled. I think that pretty much covers all angles of Austen fandom! Glad to see you posting again. I miss you voice online so much. Cheers, LA

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  2. I have put this book in my wishlist. It will be trilling to know more about us, the internet community, which as you say, have been dismissed in previous studies.

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    • Cinthia, I should mention it’s not just about online fandom. There is one chapter, called Jane.net, that goes through the history of Austen on the Internet, and some of the people involved.

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  3. Ms. Yaffe acknowledges the sometimes sillier manifestations of the fandom, but also points out that they serve a function: to bond us as a group, even as we maintain separation into sub-tribes.”
    Mags, I must admit and you are probably aware of this already that I am one of the most forceful( I nearly said angry) critics of all things “spin off,”connected with Jane
    Surely, taking your comment above, that is what it is all about really,bonding as a group.
    An interest for Jane Austen is just an excuse to get together? That and the fact it is all becoming an industry with economic tendrils reaching out.The publishing companies have now a vested interest. (Don’t tell me they are doing it for love!!!) You all may as well be a member of a golf club or netball team or cricket club( I’m thinking of this side of the Atlantic) or any book club, knitting circle or crochet circle. It’s the social get together!!! Just a shame that Jane is USED in this way.

    Tony

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    • So is your objection the spinoff projects in general, or just the commercial aspect of them?

      I agree that there are some Austen-related projects out there that I suspect were done purely for the commercial aspect–that it was done because Jane Austen is a “thing” and they want to cash in on the latest “thing.” (I saw on Twitter yesterday that there is apparently a 50 Shadesish P&P paralit out there–talk about cashing in on the latest thing! Though I think 50 Shades is kind of last week’s lunch by this point.) But I can tell you that many of us do these projects for love as much as money. The money is nice but it isn’t the point (and for most of us, that’s fortunate as there isn’t much money involved). And some people who got into it for love, or at least didn’t expect to make money, did end up making very good money out of it; but still, it wasn’t the point.

      I’m going to use the Jane Austen Action Figure as an example. I am quite certain it was produced with the idea that it would make money for the company. Many of us find it hilarious. I remember the first time I heard about it, at a JASNA regional meeting, I literally punched the air with joy, and immediately ordered it as soon as it was available. I now have three, as I’ve been given two more as gifts. I still find it delightful and amusing. I’m sure Archie McPhee, the company that sells it, have made a tidy sum from them. Is that a bad thing? The action figure makes me (and many others) smile and have a few laughs. So, does the pleasure produced from a commercial project outweigh its commercialism?

      I’ll be the first to admit that there is a lot of dreck out there. I have never suggested that we as Janeites universally support all commercial projects–quite the opposite, as I think this blog has proven over the past nine years. I wish Janeites would be more critical consumers. That’s the thing that bothers me–that there is a lot of fuss over things that do not deserve it. But that’s where taste comes into play, and as Miss Woodhouse said, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other. πŸ˜‰ And as Mrs. Darcy pointed out in the final chapter of The League of Jane Austen’s Extraordinary Gentlemen (for the writing of which I received not a single penny, lest anyone get the wrong idea), even the projects we may deplore do not change the original novels in any way. They are all still there for us to enjoy.

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  4. You would think, hearing people talk, that the Amanda Vickery programme was all about the JASNA AGM in Fort Worth It wasn’t. It was about how the interest in Jane has waxed and waned over the centuries since her first book was published. It covered academic aspects as well as social aspects and the response of the general reader through the centuries. The AGM bit was all of three or four minutes set within an hour long programme, which could have been longer. There was about a minute given to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath too.
    Vickery wanted to make a point about the spin off superficial elements of Jane fandom and your AGM gave a good example. She mentioned in a comment the more serious aspect of the AGM but that is not what she wanted to focus on. She had already focussed on the deeper academic side earlier in the programme.
    Now if the programme had solely been about your AGM I am sure she would have picked out every single aspect of it.

    I wrote a long review about this programme when it first came out over here.. I think it is somewhere lost in the depths of Jane Austens World,, Vic’s blog.
    have a great day,
    Tony

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    • Now, Tony, I know Amanda Vickery is your girl, but I did think there was an element of “Look at the twee Janeites in their bonnets” to her reportage on the AGM and the JA Festival. You said it yourself in a comment on my review of the show on this blog (which was relatively positive, considering I’m still in a bit of a snit about being filmed without my consent) that the presentation of the AGM made it appear very commercialized. That is not at all my experience of a JASNA AGM, and I’ve been to several. It’s there, but one can totally avoid it if one wants to, as the Emporium is usually off in a separate room from the other activities; and it’s there because people want it. They want to buy I Heart Darcy shirts. They also want to buy lengthy tomes by serious scholars. All are provided for.

      Anyway, my point is that I thought Deborah’s presentation of an AGM was closer to my experience. It felt more truthful to me, and presented both the serious and the not-so-serious aspects of the AGM.

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  5. Mags, the programme was not about the AGM!!! The JASNA scenes were menat to give an example of the spin off stuff as one comment within the whole programme. I thought the example was apt.

    And , yes I did mean both the spin off stuff and the commercial side on my previous comment.
    Mags YOU have a Jane Austen action figure…….????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The following is your quote Mags:
    ” Howver its hard to tell if the same consortium would have been available for an artefact such as the ring, which has no scholarly value.”

    Mags you have just rubbished the whole academic field of archaeology.
    Artefacts are very important. You can work out who used it, how it was made. what it was made of, how it was used, its social and economic meanings and its place within a larger social and historical context. I have just described a whole academic field and the reasons for the Btitish Museum and every other museum in the world .

    I had a discussion with some twelve year olds last term about the austerity measures our government is making. I told them about the cut backs in funding for the likes of museums.. Some bright kid came up with the concept that we don’t need museums with artefacts in. All artefacts can go online.. We can have online museums. He had me for a while. You can get 3D representations of artefacts and all the historical detail on a computer screen. I thought for many people he was probably right. AND then it occurred to me that an online museum is somebody else’s interpretation.. The consequences of online museums would be an atrophying of opinion and interpretation. You actually need the real thing to interact with it properly. I didn’t tell the class that. It took me days of mulling it over!!! ha! ha!

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    • Yes, I know it was not about the AGM, but the part that included the AGM was germane to my review. (And it may not have been about the AGM, but then why was I filmed there, I repeat without my consent?)

      I didn’t mean to imply that artifacts in themselves are not important. I just don’t think that Jane Austen’s ring is important to Austen scholarship. It is important to Janeites, however, which is why I think it is properly displayed at Chawton Cottage with her other jewelry and items she owned–the quilt, her embroidered shawl and kerchief, etc. I agree with you–it helps us understand the context of her life. Okay, maybe it is important to scholarship in that way, then. We really do agree on this, I think.

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  6. Do you think Ms Yaffe has written a Janeite friendly book, just to be friendly with Janeites? It does sound as though she is trying to cosy up to you all. Your above review is a great example. I can almost see you smiling Mags as you read her book, thinking,, “Isn’t she nice. She’s being friendly to us.”
    BUT I might be wrong ha! ha!

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    • Tony, with affection: you are wrong, my dear. πŸ™‚ That’s my whole point–she’s not an outsider “cozying up” to Janeites–she IS a Janeite. She’s been a member of JASNA for more than 30 years. She’s got better Janeite bona fides than I have. And as I said in my review, that’s what I wanted–one of us to write such a book. One of us who gets it, and I am here to tell you that she gets it. It’s not just about being “nice” to Janeites (Henry Tilney just frowned somewhere), it’s about understanding what makes us tick. Outsiders never really seem to get it–even when they are nice (like your girl Amanda), they tend to think that in order to appeal to a broad audience, there has to be an element of wink-wink-look-at-the-funny-people-in-bonnets. That does not happen here, and that’s what I found satisfying and enjoyable about it. I literally could not put this book down for several days. I found it incredibly fascinating and perceptive. It’s possible to be “nice” and not be as perceptive–and that’s what I liked about it. Make sense?

      And as I also said in my review, she is not uncritical, neither of some of the ideas expressed by some of the people profiled, nor of some of the sillier aspects of the fandom, including some of the commercial aspects that you also decry. Honestly, I think you two would have a lot in common! She is objective and I think gives everything a balanced presentation, but the (gentle) criticism is there. She’s a lot kinder than I am normally about it *caresses Cluebat lovingly* but like I said, the criticism is there. It’s just not a blanket condemnation, and it’s respectful, that people are allowed to have different ideas and express them, but we don’t have to agree with everything. And that’s what I have always been about here at AustenBlog–let’s examine the Jane Austen™ phenomenon critically, and say “This thing will be enjoyable to those of us who love Jane Austen” and “This is awful.” We don’t have to accept everything, but we don’t have to condemn everything, either. I know you don’t condemn everything, Tony! More than most of us, perhaps, but that’s okay. πŸ˜‰ Honestly, I think you would like this book.

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  7. Thanks Mags,, I like a bit of affection. I’m sending some affection your way too!!!
    Well I am sure Deborah’s book is open minded and factual. I would not expect less.However it comes with a willingness to please and sugar coated niceness. A typical American trait from what we hear over this side of the Atlantic.

    Amanda Vickery comes from the school of Englishness and what is more northern English humour. She is a northern lass from Halifax, with hard edged humour that comes with a naughty twinkle in her eye.
    English humour is often self deprecating, a sly look here, a bit of innuendo there, a little sarcasm and some direct cutting observations. Amanda has it all. She is being serious of course but with more than a tinge of English humour from the mill towns of the north. Dare I say, perhaps the problem is you Americans don’t understand her attitude and stance. For an academic, she is extremely entertaining and what is more she looks nice too.
    Mags, you just don’t get her.
    I can understand that.

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    • I can’t argue with a fanboy. It’s like trying to explain to a Colin Firth fan that the wet shirt really isn’t that sexy. πŸ˜‰

      And I still think you would like the book! And agree with it more than you are willing to admit here.

      Would you call ME sugar-coated and willing to please? *points at Cluebat*

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    • Hi, Tony —

      I hope you’ll read my book: I’d love to hear what you think! But the Lancashire lad I’m married to does feel compelled to point out that Amanda Vickery is from Preston, not Halifax — as you know, confusing Yorkshire with Lancashire is a dueling offense up north. . .

      Deborah Yafe

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      • Hi Deborah. You are right. I should not get Lancashire and Yorkshire mixed up. Might restart the Wars of The Roses.
        I am a southerner. living in Wimbledon and haling from Southampton originally.
        I know Amanda Vickery comes form a northern mill town and I couldn’t remember which one. I just had a stab at Halifax, Halifax being north of Manchester. I didn’t think anybody on your side of the Atlantic would notice.

        Apologise to your husband for me!!! Ha! ha!

        I might just have a read of your book. I am sure I can get it from Amazon.
        (You can get everything from Amazon. Do you think Waterstones might have it? I much prefer real book shops.)

        All the very best,
        Tony

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  8. Hi, Tony —

    Got to watch out for those Lancastrians. They’re everywhere, much like Janeites, waving their red roses and spoiling for a rerun of the Middle Ages.

    I too love real book shops, and spend most of my free time at my local Barnes & Noble. But, alas, we haven’t secured a UK publisher for Among the Janeites — perhaps others besides you suspect that its author is a wishy-washy American people-pleaser πŸ™‚ — so would-be readers abroad are stuck with the Amazon Industrial Complex, at least for now.

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