Disclaimer: 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 “not 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.