Nestling in the middle of my Jane Austen goody bag is a black lace thong.
It is the first day of JASNA’s annual general meeting, and I am sitting on the bed in my Fort Worth hotel room, examining the contents of the free tote bag I collected a few minutes earlier from a registration-desk volunteer wearing a Team Willoughby button. In “Sense and Sensibility,” Willoughby is the handsome, manipulative serial seducer who breaks Marianne Dashwood’s heart, precipitating her deep depression and near-fatal illness, and I am, frankly, a bit shocked to see a Janeite on his team. It’s not as if she had no choice: other volunteers are wearing Team Brandon buttons, boosting Marianne’s eventual husband, the devoted and selfless Colonel Brandon. “For the weekend!” the Willoughbyite explains, laughing. “Who would you rather be with for a weekend?”
The souvenir tote bag has become a fixture of the JASNA AGM, and this year’s has a satisfying heft, signifying a large quantity of freebies. We’ve come a long way since the 1983 AGM I attended as a college freshman, when the swag consisted primarily of a laminated bookmark illustrated with a scene from “Emma.” Today, the pile on my hotel bed includes Post-it notes and hand sanitizer from Southwest Diagnostic imaging; a pen from American Airlines; a bar of soap; a lime-green stuffed dog emblazoned with the love pink slogan of Victoria’s Secret; a mouse pad with an armadillo on it; a tea bag of English Breakfast, courtesy of a store in Grapevine, Texas; a bottle of Victoria’s Secret perfume; a plastic 7-Eleven coffee mug; a CD of songs from a new musical version of “Sense and Sensibility”; and countless publicity materials—postcards, bookmarks, fliers, a coaster, a fridge magnet—advertising Austen-related books, from “Approaches to Teaching Austen’s “Emma” to “Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion” (“She sips tea in the afternoon, drinks blood at night”).
And of course, the thong, considerately provided in a one-size-fits-all version. It comes with a tiny card reading, “Call me! XoXo, Willoughby,” accompanied by a real phone number, which is answered by a recording of a silky male voice, flirtatious and British-accented, urging me to attend next year’s AGM in New York City.
The whole thing leaves me slightly depressed. All the product placement—the thong is also brought to us by Victoria’s Secret, one of twenty-three conference sponsors — smacks of a level of commercialization that would have been unimaginable back when Jack Grey and Joan Austen-Leigh were soliciting members for their Jane Austen society. The discontent that washed over me during my summer visit to Chawton cottage returns: Too many people want a piece of Jane Austen these days! Give her back to me! I can appreciate her the way she was meant to be appreciated! Most days, I’m happy to share Jane Austen; I even enjoy her crossover appeal, her status as both highbrow and lowbrow, intellectual and popular. Just now, though, I feel a bit wistful about that laminated bookmark and the small, homespun Janeite world it represented.
Still, as I pack away, or throw away, the contents of my goody bag, my malaise passes quickly. Nothing can long dampen my enthusiasm for the four days of unapologetic Jane Austen wallowing that lie ahead. Nearly seven hundred people are attending this year’s conference celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of “Sense and Sensibility,” and the program is a testament to Austen’s crossover-artist status, a vivid demonstration of JSASNA’s time-honored melding of highbrow academia and swooning fandom, serious study and unserious fun. We will hear lectures with titles like “The Iconography of ‘Sensibility,’” and we will take English country-dance lessons. We will listen as university professors closely parse Austen’s language, and we will munch popcorn during a marathon showing of “Sense and Sensibility” movies. We will learn about land transportation and political economy in the time of Jane Austen, and we will buy wine charms reading W.W.J.D. — what would Jane do? I can’t wait.
“ . . . slap Edmund upside the head,” someone is saying.
My day is starting with the first of what are sure to be many visits to the conference Emporium, and a snippet of conversation has floated over to the spot where I’m browsing amid booths selling Jane Austen earrings and Carpe Darcy — Seize Mr. Darcy t-shirts. Ah, Mansfield Park—always gets the juices flowing. Edmund Bertram, the novel’s hero, spends most of the book panting for the temptress Mary Crawford while remaining pathologically oblivious to virtuous Fanny Price’s love for him. Janeite frustration with Edmund is so widespread that the Republic of Pemberley created a special acronym, ENASUTH, for the frequently used phrase “Edmund needs a slap upside the head.” On AustenBlog, Maggie Sullivan refers to him as “the lord high mayor of Wankerville.” The JASNA AGM is the perfect place for Janeites to indulge such emotions, secure in the knowledge that no one within earshot is going to ask who Edmund is, or point out that he isn’t a real person. As if that mattered.
But I have no time to join the Edmund bashing, since I’m scheduled for a workshop on English country dance, run by Beverly Francis, the dance caller I met during last summer’s JASNA tour of England. As I walk in, I spot a number of people wearing bonnets and regency day dresses. At 8:30 a.m. on the first morning of the conference. “Oh, my goodness,” says the woman beside me, who is wearing slacks. “I should have worn my dress.” Over the next ninety minutes, as we amateurs follow along in our clumsy, enthusiastic way, Beverly takes us through three relatively easy dances dating from around Jane Austen’s lifetime, dances with picturesque names like Sprigs of Laurel and the Duke of Kent’s Waltz. Then she teaches us a much older, more difficult dance, Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot, from 1695. (Maggot, in this context, means a whim, not a disgusting, wormy larva-thing.) We are learning this dance because Elizabeth and Darcy danced it in the BBC’s famous 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries.
Nearly every filmed adaptation of a Jane Austen novel includes a ball scene — lines of women in long dresses joining hands with lines of men in knee breeches, stepping gracefully forward and back, turning away and coming together, in a symbolic enactment of the push-pull of Austen’s courtship plots. It’s a folk dance form that was popular in England for centuries, though dance aficionados don’t see Austen’s era, when two-person dances like the waltz were only just beginning to arrive in Britain from the European continent, as a moment of especially great creativity for the art form. In any case, the English country dancing shown in Jane Austen movies owes more to the choreographic needs of the screenplays than to an accurate reading of dance history—Mr. Beveridge’s maggot, Beverly tells us, is not a dance that Elizabeth and Darcy would likely have done. Still, the hundreds of English country-dance groups that convene regularly for casual evening dances or occasional fancy balls are happy to initiate Austen fans, however poorly informed. In a bid for a wider audience, local groups sometimes dub their more formal evenings “Jane Austen balls.” “Jane Austen, with dance, is becoming code for something that you might vaguely think of based on the movies, which are historically inaccurate,” says Allison Thompson, a Pittsburgh Janeite who is also a dance scholar. “But you have this image, and it’s a pretty image, and so I think it’s — I don’t know if ‘gateway drug’ is too strong a word.”
Until the 2010 AGM in Portland, Oregon, I felt about Regency dancing the same way I felt about Regency costuming — I was not that kind of Jane Austen fan. But that year, research compelled me to join in, and to my surprise, English country dancing turned out to be curiously absorbing. The flutter of anxiety over finding a partner for each new dance, the concentration required to follow unfamiliar steps (is it the left foot this time? the right hand? the counter-clockwise turn?), the uncomfortable intimacy of locking eyes with a stranger across the set—it all made for an oddly intense way to spend an evening. After a lifetime of Jane Austen fandom, I finally understood why Austen so often threw her heroes and heroines together at a ball. I probably won’t seek out my local country-dance group between AGMs, but I am looking forward to dancing at this year’s JASNA ball.
After the workshop, I drift back to the Emporium, where I am alternately charmed and repelled by the merchandise on display. For every apron or tea towel or mirrored compact bearing a genuine Jane Austen quote, there seems to be a key chain or plaque or note card adorned with a line found only in an Austen movie. The real Jane Austen, I’m sure, would have died rather than write anything as maudlin as “Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the one person you can’t be without” or “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.” Hasn’t anyone around here read the books? I find myself wondering. The movies have made Jane Austen more accessible than ever, broadening the base of her fandom and diversifying her appeal, and even as I register my silent squawk of protest, I feel a bit churlish, like some mean alpha girl patrolling the boundaries of the high school clique. (But really—“Sometimes the last person on earth — ?” That one wasn’t even in an Austen movie! It was on the poster for an Austen movie!) Once again, I’m face to face with the contradictions of fandom: I’ve come to a Jane Austen conference to enjoy the company of other Janeites, but I can’t help turning up my nose, just a little, at the gross ignorance—the sheer bad taste! — of people whose idea of “Pride and Prejudice” owes more to Keira Knightley than to Jane Austen.
But of course there are genuine Janeites, my kind of Janeites, among the small-business owners who are hawking their wares here. At the Bingley’s teas booth, Julia Matson is selling loose-leaf tea packaged in boxes designed to look like hardcover books. Matson was a massage therapist and young mother who discovered both a passion for tea and a love of Jane Austen in the mid-1990s, around the time she first saw the Colin Firth “Pride and Prejudice.” In 2009, she had been selling tea online for a year — she had named her business after Mr. Bingley, Darcy’s sociable, openhearted best friend — when her husband began urging her to put an Austen twist on her marketing. At first, she resisted. “I snapped at him,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m not just going to slap some tea with her name. I take Jane Austen seriously, I take tea seriously, and I would like to be taken seriously.’” But one night a sudden inspiration woke her from her sleep: like each of Austen’s characters, she realized, each flavor of tea has its own distinctive personality. Two years after that middle-of-the-night epiphany, Matson is selling more than a dozen teas named for Austen’s people, from Wicked Wickham (“dashing tart flavor with a candy like after taste”) to Mr. Knightley’s reserve (“true and balanced”), and her Jane Austen tea series accounts for most of her sales.
Not far away is the booth for Jane Austen Books, where three women from Ohio, Jennifer Weinbrecht and her adult daughters, Amy Patterson and Beth Dean, sell Austen-related titles, from the scholarly to the popular. Weinbrecht read Austen aloud to her girls when they were barely old enough to read themselves, and in sixth grade Patterson dressed in a reasonable facsimile of Regency costume to present a book report on a Jane Austen biography. Their first Christmas together, Patterson’s future husband gave her an 1837 edition of “Sense and Sensibility,” bought online for just a hundred dollars, and her mother was so impressed by his taste that she warned Patterson, “Don’t screw this up!” The women of Jane Austen Books are the kind of people who characterize friends and relatives with pitiless Austen shorthand — this one is Aunt Norris (abusive and overbearing), that one is Marianne Dashwood (impulsive and emotional). “I am always thinking about Jane Austen,” Patterson says. “She’s always on the couch next to me.”
In front of the book display, I run into Christine Shih, who updates me on the progress of her work on Austen and borderline personality disorder. A paper she wrote on Jane Austen’s deathbed poem has been accepted to a conference in Oxford, and she is talking to Vanderbilt’s nursing school about team-teaching a course on borderline personality disorder in literature. Her bibliotherapy group has gained so many new members that it threatens to overflow her living room, and after discussing “Mansfield Park” and “Lady Susan,” participants have moved on from Austen to spend two sessions on Jane Eyre. I remind Christine of her promise to lace me into my corset on Saturday night, and we make arrangements and exchange phone numbers. Phew! I have secured my lady’s maid.
The rest of the day passes in a busy blur. A cosmetics executive lectures on the sometimes lethal ingredients in Regency-era beauty products. A romance writer describes weddings in Jane Austen’s day. A British crime writer previews her about-to-be-published historical mystery novel, which attributes Jane Austen’s last illness to arsenic poisoning at the hands of a homicidal relative bent on covering up an adulterous liaison. Baronda Bradley—dressed in sky blue, with a giant white feather in her hat—offers tips for assembling a JASNA-ready wardrobe, her many gowns arrayed around her on portable racks. Afterward, audience members finger the fabrics and snap pictures.
At one of the sessions, I meet sixteen-year-old Heather Gehrman and her mother, Hollie, who have driven three hours from Oklahoma to attend their first JASNA AGM. (Bill Gehrman, husband and father, is watching TV in the hotel room. “He said it’s a girly thing,” Hollie explains.) Fandom seems to run in the family: Bill once attended a Star Trek convention, Heather has been to a Twilight convention, and back in January, Hollie stumbled across JASNA when she went looking for something to feed her Jane Austen enthusiasm. Heather has brought along a wardrobe’s worth of Austenesque dresses that she sewed with her mother’s help, and today she is wearing pale-purple satin trimmed in antique gold braid.
Moriah Webster, seventeen, comes over to introduce herself to Heather, a rare fellow teenager in a sea of middle-aged women. Moriah too is a first-time AGM attendee accompanied by her mother. “We didn’t know that there was a big dress-up thing,” Moriah says. “I bought a dress here — it’s red — for the ball.”
“If you want to change, you could always borrow one of mine,” Heather offers. “I have five.”
Later, I catch up with Moriah’s mother, Mindi, a tiny woman with a head of curly brown hair, who teaches middle-school English in Virginia. Mindi, who describes herself as a conservative, likes Austen’s psychological insight, subtle characterization, and moral rigor. Today’s parents, Mindi says, too often sidestep moral judgment because they want to seem hip to their children, but Jane Austen has no such hang-ups. “She’s not afraid to say something is improper,” Mindi says. “I think that’s one of the things that our kids yearn for — I see it in my classroom. They want something to tell them when they’ve crossed the line.”
“Jane Austen is like a guide where there’s nothing else that’s guiding,” Moriah says.
Mother and daughter are both wearing Team Brandon buttons. “Willoughby was a jerk,” Moriah says.
I am in a hotel elevator filled with Janeites wearing conference name tags, bonnets, and Empire-waist dresses. Gradually, the elevator empties out, until no one is left but me and a youngish man in a baseball cap. He eyes my JASNA name tag. Clearly, I’m with the bonnet people.
“What’s going on here?” he asks.
“It’s a Jane Austen convention,” I reply. He looks blank.
“Jane Austen? The writer?”
“The author of ‘Pride and Prejudice’?”
He shakes his head. “No, I’m not familiar with that,” he says. I’m embarrassed. For him. “Umm . . .
“She’s actually . . . a pretty famous writer . . . ,” I mutter.
A thought seems to strike him, and he brightens. “Is she here?” he asks.
A roomful of women armed with needles and embroidery floss sit companionably, counting stitches, and the BBC is filming it all.
We are making cross-stitch bookmarks featuring Jane Austen’s silhouette and signature. They are making a documentary on Jane Austen’s popularity through the ages, which will air two months later in Britain as “The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen.” A brunette in a black pantsuit — Amanda Vickery, a well-regarded British historian with a sideline in popularized history TV — is traveling from table to table, asking earnest questions about why we love Austen. Later in the day, I will spot Vickery in the book display at the Emporium, holding up titles and commenting for the camera: “’In the Arms of Mr. Darcy’ — Jane Austen as Mills & Boon. ‘The Importance of Being Emma’—Jane Austen as chick lit. ’Mr. Darcy, Vampyre’— Jane Austen and vampires.”
On Sunday, JASNA is holding a giant book-signing for authors of Austen-related fiction and nonfiction, and in preparation for that event, the book exhibit here is crammed with titles. So many of the Janeites I’ve met were writers manqués who found in Austen the inspiration they needed to finally realize their dreams, whether online or in print. Surely, this isn’t an inevitable result of fandom. (Do admirers of Picasso rush to pick up paintbrushes?) Apparently, however, something about Austen makes her acolytes think that they too can write. Perhaps she seems at first glance an unintimidating figure—the country clergyman’s daughter, without much money or formal education, who traveled little, socialized mostly with relatives and neighbors, and wrote about the stuff of ordinary life, the family conflicts and love stories that we’ve all lived through ourselves. If she could write like that, surely we can too! To me, though, it’s the very ordinariness of Austen’s life that is the most intimidating thing about her: nothing explains her achievement except the ineffable quality of her mind, and who among us can lay claim to that?
The chairwoman of the Scottish branch of Britain’s Jane Austen Society, resplendent in dark blue taffeta and pearls, is singing lovely, melodic songs with titles like “The Highland Laddie,” while slides of Scottish landscapes fade in and out on the video screen. The connection to “Sense and Sensibility” is a bit tenuous — although Marianne Dashwood is musical, Jane Austen never tells us whether she sang Scots songs—but never mind; it’s a delightful way to spend a morning.
Next up is Elisabeth Lenckos, an instructor in the University of Chicago’s continuing education program. In German-accented English, Lenckos describes the Chawton House library’s colllection of Austen-era novels that, like “Sense and Sensibility,” center on pairs of sisters. She summarizes the plots of gothic thrillers and moral tracts, all of which sound far less engaging than Austen’s complicated, sardonic tale of self-contained Elinor and expressive Marianne. In conclusion, Lenckos passes out a quiz that will allow each of us to determine if we are an Elinor or a Marianne (“Must your boyfriend be handsome, charming and reckless, and then you wonder why your heart is broken?”).
In the question-and-answer session, the ambivalence that “Sense and Sensibility” often provokes in Janeites bubbles to the surface. Some people dislike the passionate, self-absorbed Marianne; others can’t reconcile themselves to her marriage to the much older colonel Brandon, a marriage that Austen tells us is initially founded, on Marianne’s side, on “no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship.”
“It seems to me, being a Marianne, that people are awfully hard on Marianne,” one audience member argues. “She’s a teenage girl, after all.”
“Her extremes seem to be excessive because she is so young,” Lenckos agrees. Other novels of Austen’s time deal far more harshly with straying young females, she adds. “Given the context of the other novels, she is not punished,” Lenckos notes. “She’d be dead in the other books.”
“I’ve never been convinced that Marianne and Colonel Brandon were happy,” another woman in the audience says. “I think at night, when she and her husband were making love, she thought of Willoughby.”
“But that’s not forbidden!” Lenckos exclaims.
A few rows ahead of me, I spot a ponytailed man wearing earrings, whose collared shirt proclaims, I read Jane Austen and I got the girl. His name is Jameson Stalanthas Yu, and seven months earlier, he tells me, he proposed to his girlfriend, Alice Villaseñor, a Ph.D. in English who wrote her dissertation on Austen. He staged the big moment in the most romantic setting imaginable: the grounds of Chatsworth, the palatial Derbyshire home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, which some believe was inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s estate, Pemberley. Jameson sounds like a devoted Janeite spouse-to-be: he has read and enjoyed the novels, and he has bought Alice Chinese and Thai translations, as well as all the Marvel Comics versions. Dress-up, however, remains out of reach. “I can’t afford that yet,” he says. “It’s harder for the guys to get costumes. They don’t make men’s brocade as casual wear.”
I have been in Fort Worth for two days, but everything so far has been prequel; JASNA’s AGM opens officially only this afternoon, with a plenary talk by Joan Ray, a university professor from Colorado who is a past JASNA president. She is an accomplished and entertaining speaker, unafraid to court controversy with her slashing criticisms of Edward Ferrars, Elinor Dashwood’s future husband, whom many readers find pallid and dull. He’s far from dull, Ray insists. “There is a lot more to say about Edward,” she says grimly, “and it is not good.”
Mercilessly, she fleshes out her critique, indicting Edward for aimlessness, for dishonesty, for allowing the woman he loves to suffer needlessly while he dithers over an unfortunate secret engagement. I am taken aback — Edward isn’t my favorite Austen hero, but surely he isn’t this bad? — but next to me, a Japanese scholar who will be speaking later on Austen and Frankenstein chimes in softly, “Yes! Yes!”
The rest of the afternoon is taken up with shorter breakout sessions, our choice of three out of twenty. A college instructor describes how “Sense and Sensibility” subtly engages with nineteenth-century debates between Whigs and Tories over societal responsibility for the poor. An antiques dealer explains how to buy nineteenth-century furniture, china, and glass on a budget. A self-published Regency romance novelist champions Colonel Brandon’s “sheer, unadulterated romance and derring-do.” I skip the session on snuff, guns, and cravats, led by an amateur historian whose conference biography cheerfully reports that he has attended four previous AGMs as “an accessory to his wife” and that he “has very nearly read almost half of ‘Emma.’”
On the way back to my room, I notice a Jane Austen jigsaw puzzle lying partially completed on a side table in the lobby. Arnie Perlstein is standing in line for the elevator, chatting animatedly to one of the breakout speakers, a community-college teacher who discussed attitudes toward primogeniture in “Sense and Sensibility” and the biblical Book of Genesis. “What gets me is when people say ‘Would she do it on purpose?’ ” Arnie is saying. “It’s like Will Shortz. You don’t say, ‘Did he put that clue in on purpose?’ ” I can’t tell if his interlocutor knows that Will Shortz is the crossword-puzzle editor of the New York Times.
Since 1950, “Sense and Sensibility” has been adapted for the screen at least eight times, and for tonight’s movie marathon, we will be treated to three of those adaptations: the 2008 TV miniseries, with a script by the revered Andrew Davies, author of the wet-shirt “Pride and Prejudice”; the 2011 movie “From Prada to Nada,” which transplants Austen’s story to the world of Latinos in contemporary Los Angeles; and a never-before-seen modern update called “Scents and Sensibility.”
As I settle down with my popcorn next to a Denver Janeite named Jennifer Petkus, I am already worrying about “Scents and Sensibility.” At this afternoon’s plenary session, a producer of the film promised that we would find it “wholesome” and “adorable,” adjectives that seldom come to mind when I think about Jane Austen. And, as I feared, the movie never rises above the level of an after-school special, as its barely differentiated heroines—call them Perky and Plucky, since neither seems much endowed with either sense or sensibility — navigate their romantic dilemmas while launching a home hand-lotion business to pay for their little sister Margaret’s leukemia treatment. By the closing wrap-up, which gravely informs us that Margaret recovered from her leukemia and “moved with her mother to a ranch in Colorado, where she raises therapy horses,” Jennifer and I are speechless with mirth.
“Elinor here was up at five-thirty,” the young mother is saying to her breakfast companions, as a bright-eyed toddler sits stolidly in the stroller beside her. Yes, I confirm a moment later: Amanda Himes’s baby was indeed named after one of the heroines of “Sense and Sensibility.” We Janeites do that kind of thing. Among the sponsors of a past AGM was an anonymous donor making a contribution “in memory of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Feline, Esq.”
In the hotel lobby after breakfast, I run into Baronda Bradley, who is wearing an aqua-green, classical-Greece-inspired gown, one of five new ones she is debuting at this AGM. She has found a part-time gig at a local university, but the promising job lead she was counting on months earlier has fizzled, and she’s still looking for full-time work. Here at the AGM, however, she’s not just another casualty of economic collapse; she’s a star. “Love that dress!” a passerby calls out. Someone else stops to take her picture.
Saturday—a full day of speakers, culminating with the banquet and ball — is the heart of the JASNA conference, and as I look around the meeting space where we’re all gathering, I notice more people than ever in costume or sporting evidence of recent visits to the Emporium: coffee mugs decorated with Austen quotes, t-shirts listing the titles of all the novels, proliferating team Brandon and team Willoughby buttons. Heather Gehrman is wearing blue satin and a fashionably mismatched pair of earrings — a nickel-sized disk bearing a picture of Colin Firth’s Darcy on one ear, a second disk reading keep calm and Austen on on the other.
The morning plenary and breakout sessions fly by. A college professor from Canada lectures on the literal and metaphorical duels in “Sense and Sensibility”; at her waist hangs a small sword she had to get special permission to transport across the border. I hurry from a fascinating, thoroughly academic session on chinese and Eastern European translations of Austen’s novels to a breezy, entertaining talk by a video game editor on digital and pop-culture responses to Austen. (note to self: check Youtube for Jane Austen drinking games.) From dueling to tweeting, in a single morning: such is the Janeite world in the early twenty-first century, sixteen years after Mr. Darcy donned a wet shirt just as digital technology was creating the virtual space where we could all talk about it.
For lunch, I join a reunion of our summer JASNA tour, and we pass around photos and share messages from those who couldn’t make it. I have already run into many of my fellow tour members in the halls of the conference. In the emporium, I found Debbie Mcneil, who has never before dressed in costume or danced at the ball but who is thinking of buying a feathered headband for Saturday night. As we eat lunch, the conversation turns to “Sense and Sensibility,” and Sue Forgue, the creator of the online regency Encyclopedia, says she worries more about Elinor’s marriage to the diffident Edward than about Marianne’s marriage to the reserved Colonel Brandon, which more often raises Janeite hackles. We discuss Joan Ray’s harsh assessment of Edward. Was she fair to him? Everyone has an opinion. As the Janeite conversation swirls around her, Judi Roth, a bubbly sixty-year-old from Ohio who took the summer tour with her twin sister, sighs happily. “This is my favorite,” she says.
* * *
We are almost late getting back to the ballroom for the most anticipated talk of this AGM. On the video screens next to the podium, a montage of scenes from ”Sense and Sensibility” adaptations is playing, to the accompaniment of “Nessun Dorma,” the stirring Puccini aria that served as the theme for italy’s 1990 World Cup tournament. As the aria reaches its climax, with the tenor declaiming, “Vincerò! Vincerò!” (“I will win! I will win!”), a succession of Elinors and Edwards passionately embrace. Apparently, Jane Austen happy endings are the female equivalent of soccer victories.
Soon, the video screens fill with a new montage. As Connie Stevens purrs, “Sixteen Reasons (Why I love You),” familiar scenes unspool before us. Elizabeth and Darcy kissing on their wedding day, in the BBC’s 1995 “Pride and Prejudice.” Colin Firth in a reindeer sweater, as the Darcy-inspired hero of “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Colin Firth as Darcy, gazing at an off-screen Elizabeth with an adoration so naked that the moment is known in Janeite lore simply as the look. Then, as Stevens’s song fades out, a man in a white shirt strides toward Pemberley, dripping wet. and onto the stage steps…
. . . a white-haired, seventy-five-year-old screenwriter, and we leap to our feet in a spontaneous standing ovation for Andrew Davies.
Davies is this AGM’s biggest draw, the author of much-praised adaptations of four of Austen’s six novels, as well as TV and film versions of many other classic and contemporary works of fiction, including “Bridget Jones.” Not every Janeite likes his work—he is famous for making explicit on the screen the sexual tension that remains implicit on the page—but no one can ignore it. he is almost too big a draw: months earlier, an AGM volunteer accidentally discovered that a small group of fans of the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell, whose novel “Wives and Daughters” Davies had adapted for TV, was planning to attend his JASNA talk without registering, or paying, for the whole conference. Partly in response to this tip, volunteers have been carefully checking AGM name tags at the door of each event all weekend. Secretly, I am hoping that the Gaskellites attempt an entrance—I’m not sure I can die happy without witnessing a smackdown between regency hostesses in Empire-line dresses and party crashers in hoop skirts—but alas, they seem to have thought better of their scheme, and no one materializes.
It’s their loss, for Davies proves to be a diverting raconteur, entertaining us with an hour’s worth of funny, self-deprecating tales from the Austen-adaptation trenches. He explains some of the choices that made his “Pride and Prejudice” “a very pro-Darcy adaptation.” He riffs hilariously on the sixteen-year age difference between Emma and her future husband George Knightley, recasting the story of their lifelong friendship as a Tennessee Williams–style plantation drama replete with overtones of pedophilia. In a Brit’s version of a Southern accent, he impersonates a faithful retainer slyly telling Mr. Knightley, “You sho’ do like Miz Emma.”
“We cannot allow ourselves to think such thoughts, not if you’re going to write a nice adaptation,” Davies continues, his audience in stitches. “So I just wiped that as far as I could from my thoughts.”
He discusses his controversial decision to spell out something that Jane Austen leaves ambiguous in the pages of Northanger Abbey: that the shallow coquette Isabella Thorpe not only flirts with, but also sleeps with, the amoral rake who is courting her. “I do feel sorry for her,” Davies says. “To be shagged and abandoned like that was a very bad situation. ‘Are we engaged?’ she says.”’
He pauses. “Oh, that’s in my version. I keep forgetting Jane Austen didn’t write that.”
“She meant to, of course,” he continues, as we giggle. “It was in the draft, but Cassandra said, ‘Leave it out. The people will guess what happened to her.’”
Finally, we reach his Sense and Sensibility (“a very anti-Willoughby adaptation”), which opens with a moment kept decidedly offstage in the novel—Willoughby’s seduction of Colonel Brandon’s teenage ward, imagined by Davies as a fire-lit scene of whispered come-ons and half-naked limbs. “Why did I start off with such a sexy scene?” Davies asks rhetorically. “Well, because that’s the sort of man I am.”
I could happily listen to Davies’s stories for another hour, but the punishing AGM schedule demands that he close after taking almost no questions, disappointing several people waiting for their turns at the mike, including Arnie Perlstein. During the tea break, as Janeites cluster around Davies, snapping pictures and requesting autographs, Arnie tells me what he’d planned to say — that although Davies had sometimes been accused of over-sexing Austen, he had actually under-sexed her, because Emma’s Jane fairfax is pregnant with John Knightley’s baby.
After one last breakout session — yet another college professor, this one analyzing the bond between Elinor and Marianne —I head for my room. The banquet and ball are less than three hours away. It is finally time to put on the dress.
Christine is late for our corset-lacing appointment, and I am quietly panicking. I have managed to achieve the requisite shelf look by lacing the corset in front, rotating the lacings to the back, and slipping my arms into the loops of ribbon at the shoulders, but I will definitely need help tying the drawstrings on my dress. Where is she? I call her phone and get voicemail.
I am standing in front of the mirror, adjusting the corset, when, with a deceptively tiny, sickening pop, one of the ribbons tied atop my left shoulder rips from its seam. My $260 corset sags abruptly, and I stare at the detached ribbon in stunned disbelief. This never happened to Elizabeth Bennet! Was the corset poorly made? Did I damage it while slipping my arms through the loops of ribbon? have I gotten that much bigger in the three months since its arrival? I have no time for analysis. I rush to the bathroom for a safety pin, but the tight-fitting corset restricts my arm movements, and I can’t manage to reattach the ribbon. I decide to wait for Christine and hope she has better luck.
Five minutes later, Christine arrives—delayed by an absorbing discussion of plans to found a literary society honoring Ann Radcliffe, the gothic novelist whose works Austen both loved and mocked. Christine commiserates over my corset catastrophe, quickly discovers that safety pins are hopeless, and instead decides to restitch the errant ribbon. Fortunately, she turns out to be remarkably handy with a needle—that nursing training has obviously paid off — and she sews the ribbon back into place with tiny, neat stitches. She ties the strings of my dress, helps adjust the overdress, and steps back to admire the effect. “You look great!” she coos supportively, in her warm Louisiana accent. I thank her effusively for her lady’s-maid skills, and she goes off to change her own clothes. Alone again, I take a deep breath and look in the mirror.
The news is not good. The dress is as lovely as ever, but on my body, its horizontals accentuate every unflattering line, while its straight drop obscures every compensating curve. I resemble nothing so much as a small blue refrigerator. I don’t feel like a princess, a Jane Austen heroine, or an authentic regency lady; I feel like a twenty-first-century woman who’s about to appear in public in precisely the wrong dress. A pox upon these dress-up Janeites and the mess they’ve gotten me into! But there’s no help for it now. I pull on my expensive gloves, pick up the matching reticule in which I’ve stashed my room key and my camera, and head for the elevator.
The crowded pre-banquet reception is a riot of costumed Janeites. Everywhere I look, I see silk, satin, and taffeta, cutaway coats and knee breeches, tall headdresses and cameo brooches, as well as plenty of modern cocktail dresses and sober suits, plus one green t-shirt emblazoned Mrs. Darcy. The speech-language Pathologist Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, a feathered headdress atop her gray pageboy, is there, accompanied by her husband, Lindsay, who is wearing a vest and a billowy white shirt. My seamstress, Maureen O’Connor, elegant in a light-blue gown with ribboned sleeves, finds me and surveys her handiwork. She’s smiling, but I can’t help wondering if she’s thinking that I should not make a habit of wearing clothes like these. Still, people keep asking to take my picture; the gown is so beautiful that even my failure to do it justice doesn’t seem to matter. Bizarrely, after all my years of disdaining dress-up, I have somehow become one of those picturesque Janeites whose photo will end up in a scrapbook in Albuquerque or Louisville.
We adjourn to our banquet tables, where I discover that sitting in a corset is remarkably uncomfortable. I am silently praying that Christine’s stitches hold until the end of the evening. Elsa Solender, JASNA’s former president, rises to give the traditional toast to Jane Austen, but first she recalls JASNA’s founders — Jack Grey (“he looked adorable in knee breeches”), Joan Austen-Leigh, and Solender’s dear friend Henry Burke. “Tonight, I shall be toasting our goddess,” she says, “but also the trio of titans, American titans, who founded our society.” And then she offers again the familiar lines from Kipling: “Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade! Praise the lord for making her, and her for all she made . . .”As Solender concludes, we all rise and clink champagne glasses. Tears spring to my eyes, because suddenly none of the bad stuff—the faulty corset or the unflattering dress or the cheesy commercialization — matters as much as being part of a community of people bound together by a love of books.
Naturally, Baronda Bradley is leading the costume promenade. We costumed Janeites head out the door of the hotel and into the balmy October night, our procession stretching for a full block through the streets of downtown Fort Worth, as passersby snap pictures with cameras and cell phones. “Do you have a couple extra dresses? We might join you,” call out two young women in stilettos and skinny jeans. A street-corner preacher ignores us. “Jesus says you must love him more than your brother and your sister, your husband or your wife,” he announces. Back at the hotel, I run into Sonya Samuels, the red-haired Angeleno from the summer JASNA tour. She isn’t in costume, but watching the promenade, she seems to have caught the bug. “I want to get a dress now,” she says.
Our ballroom is a low-ceilinged hotel basement carpeted in a hideous green-and-burgundy leaf pattern, a far cry from the salons of Pemberley. But more than a hundred people are dancing, as an all-female band reels off centuries-old tunes and Beverly Francis calls the figures of the margate hoy and the midnight ramble. I find a partner, join a set, and try to concentrate on learning the new steps while ignoring the ominous creaking noises that I very much fear are coming from my corset. Halfway through a dance, I realize that my worst fears have been realized: a ribbon on the other shoulder has snapped, and now the right-hand side of my corset is sagging under my gown. The BBC camera crew is on hand again, filming the Janeites at play, and Christine’s needlework may be the only thing standing between me and an internationally televised wardrobe malfunction.
Still, the music is beautiful, Beverly’s calling is expert, and the ball has moments of magic, as I look down the room at rows of people in regency costume moving semi-gracefully through dances Jane Austen might have known. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Phyllis teaching the basics of English country dance to several young men in black t-shirts who have wandered in from another convention. Midway through the ball, Andrew Davies, in jeans and a black oxford shirt, joins the dancing. When the last country dance ends, the band strikes up two final waltzes. Baronda circles the room in Eric’s arms, and Andrew Davies partners a woman young enough to be his daughter.
By midnight, a group of us are making our way tiredly through the lobby.
“It was a lovely ball,” the Janeite beside me sighs wistfully. “It went so quickly.”
Andrew Davies is a few steps behind, but as some of us stop at the elevators, he sweeps past, surrounded by women in regency gowns.
“We’re carrying right on to the bar,” he calls out cheerfully.
The rest of us gaze after them. “He has groupies,” somebody murmurs.
Back in my room, I peel off my damaged corset—Christine’s stitches held after all, God bless her—and briefly consider slipping into something less precarious and joining the Davies acolytes in the bar. But I don’t have the energy. Instead, I crawl into bed with my Kindle and stay up way too late finishing my latest “Pride and Prejudice” spinoff, a charming young-adult version updated to a snooty Los Angeles private school. Of course I know that Derek and Elise will end up together, since they share the initials, not to mention the major plot points, of their famous prototypes. But it doesn’t matter. I just want to see that wonderfully familiar story play itself out one more time.
In a cavernous foyer, more than two dozen authors are signing their Austen-related books.
Pamela Aidan is on hand with a novella about the thirteen-year-old Fitzwilliam Darcy, her first foray back into fiction since the success of her trilogy. I recognize some titles from my adventures in fan fiction, others from the postcards that filled my goody bag. Laurel Ann Nattress of the Austen prose blog launched her collection of Austen-inspired short stories at a nearby Barnes & Noble two days earlier, and the AGM’s attendees have welcomed her with open arms, she will tell me later. “People chasing me down in the elevator for signatures!” She says, “I felt like a Jane Austen celebrity.”
I run into Christy Somer, a self-described former flower child whose graying hair cascades luxuriantly to her waist. Christy contributes frequently to the online Austen discussion groups, usually arguing for the traditional view of Jane Austen as a fundamentally contented person securely rooted in a supportive family. In cyber-space, she and Arnie Perlstein are often locked in combat, though their conversations seldom take on the venomous tone of his disagreements with other list members. Christy and I chat about Edward Austen Knight’s wife, Elizabeth, and her attitude toward her brilliant sister-in-law, and about Jane Austen’s love for her oldest nieces, Anna and Fanny. Arnie joins us, and our conversation turns to Austen’s ongoing discussion of Austen’s letters, with their sometimes affectionate, sometimes caustic observations about relatives, neighbors, and family friends.
“I’ll tell you,” says Christy, “She loved Mrs. Harry Digweed, because —”
“She was mocking her!” Arnie cries. And they’re off…
The AGM will not close officially until noon, but as we gather for brunch, a morning-after atmosphere already suffuses the room. Most people have packed away their feathers, reticules, and gowns, although a few die-hards are still sporting bonnets and Baronda is wearing her denim regency dress. As we eat our waffles, actors portraying the married couples of “Sense and Sensibility” circulate, answering questions in character, until colonel Brandon drives Willoughby from the room at sword point. Before we scatter to our homes, the organizers of upcoming AGMs urge us to attend their parties too. In New York next year, with no publication anniversary to commemorate, the theme will be “Sex, money, and power in Jane Austen’s fiction,” and Sandy Lerner will be speaking about — what else? — money. And in 2013 we will reconvene in Minneapolis to celebrate the big kahuna, the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of “Pride and Prejudice.”
We are a tribe, we Janeites. We name our children and our pets after people who never existed, treat an elderly screenwriter like a rock star, and seek twenty-first-century life lessons in two-hundred-year-old books, or the tarot cards based on them. Our love for Jane Austen unites us, and yet sometimes it seems that we all love something, or someone, different. In Austen’s novels, Linda Berdoll finds inspiration for racy sex scenes, and the evangelical Christian Laurie Michael sees a commitment to biblical values. Sandy Lerner’s Jane Austen is confident and contented; Arnie Perlstein’s is angry and rebellious. We make our Austen into a reflection of our own preoccupations, a teller of our own stories.
I am ending my travels more convinced than ever that those tempting, pat explanations of Austen’s appeal — Anglophilia or escapism, feminist sensibilities or romantic longings — can never account for the diversity of Austen-love. What single theory could encompass Joan Austen-Leigh’s revered ancestor and Christine Shih’s abused child, Devoney looser’s literary scholarship and Debbie Mcneil’s Elizabeth Bennet soap? Yet if my journey among the Janeites has taught me anything, surely it is that Austen’s work is not just a Rorschach test, a collection of inkblots with no meaning beyond the mind of the viewer. The rich diversity of responses to Austen captures something real about her — the depth and complexity of her writings, which, like diamonds held up to sunlight, reflect something different from every angle. Her stories are not blank canvases onto which we project ourselves; they are complicated, ambiguous pictures of lived reality. We all find ourselves in her because, in a sense, she contains us all.
I know now that I will never be the kind of Janeite who wears satin empire-waist gowns in public, and I doubt I’ll ever pen my own “Pride and Prejudice” sequel, write a scholarly monograph on “Emma,” or travel long distances to shake Colin Firth’s hand. Although I no longer have to hide my books from the recess monitors, I’m still the kind of Janeite who is happiest curled up alone with my old copy of “Persuasion” or discussing the finer points with friends, in person or online. Like the members of any tribe, we Janeites don’t always see eye to eye, whether it’s about zombie mash-up or regency dress-up. But maybe the diversity of the fandom suggests something hopeful about the possibility of human connection. Beyond our passion for austen, what most obviously unites our disparate group is something we have in common with the members of every subculture — of every culture, really: the desire to share with other human beings
The things that bring us joy. Until the day he joined an Internet discussion group, “It never dawned on me how amazing it would feel to talk about the books with other people,” Arnie Perlstein once told me. And despite the vitriolic responses his ideas sometimes draw, he keeps coming back. “It would be horrible to be all by myself with it,” Arnie said. “I want to connect to those who feel the same way about this.” As we turn the well-thumbed pages of our “Pride and Prejudice” paperbacks, perhaps, unconsciously, we Janeites are looking for ourselves. But in the community of fandom, we find each other.
Brunch ends, and suddenly the lobby is crowded with Janeites dragging wheeled suitcases, arranging taxis to the airport, saying goodbye. I run into Debbie Mcneil, getting ready to go home to Skip. She bought that feathered headband from the Emporium after all, she tells me, and she wore it to the ball. Next year, she thinks she may dance.
“The Tribe” from “AMONG THE JANEITES: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom” by Deborah Yaffe. Copyright © 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.