It began a couple of centuries ago with a country clergyman's daughter wielding a quill pen and was kicked into high gear in 1995 by a hot movie star in a soaking-wet white shirt.
Jane mania, Austen adoration, call it what you will. But in 2013 — 200 years after the publication of her best-known novel, Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen is big, baby. Bigger than ever.
We're not talking about her six sharply intelligent novels residing sedately on academic syllabi and library shelves. She lives online at popular websites like Republic of Pemberly (8 to 10 million hits per month) and scads of blogs. The Jane Austen Society of North America holds an annual convention, complete with the Regency costume ball, attended by hundreds of people. Tourists come to England in droves from around the globe to visit her cottage at Chawton and her grave in Winchester Cathedral.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of authors have published sequels to her books or novels based on them, ranging from the respectful (Second Impressions) to the modern (Bridget Jones's Diary) to the just plain silly (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). And that's not even counting all the often-steamy Austen fan fiction.
Her work has inspired all manner of movies and TV series. The newest, Austenland, opens locally Sept. 13, with Keri Russell playing a fan who visits a resort designed to replicate the author's fictional world. The latest Jane-related effort announced by the BBC, where Austen is a major industry, is an upcoming series based on Death Comes to Pemberly, crime fiction grand dame P.D. James' 2011 P&P sequel.
And, even though she died in 1817, Austen is often in the news. The Bank of England's recent decision to put her image on the 10-pound note, replacing Charles Darwin, unexpectedly led to controversy. And last year, a turquoise ring that is one of the few existing artifacts known to have belonged to Austen fetched $237,000 at auction. The buyer was American singer Kelly Clarkson, a longtime fan — but Britain blocked the ring's export, and the Jane Austen's House Museum is raising funds to buy it from Clarkson and keep it in the writer's native country.
In this, the bicentennial year of P&P, a steady stream of Austen-related books flows to my mail bins. Two of the most recent, both nonfiction, offer very different but fascinating takes. Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by journalist Deborah Yaffe looks at the author's surprising presence in the 21st century. Jane Austen's England, by husband-and-wife historians and archeologists Roy and Lesley Adkins, places her in historical context in the real world of Regency England.
Web & wet shirts
Austen (1775-1817) had six novels published, two of them posthumously, but was little known in her lifetime. Her reputation grew steadily, however, and she has long been considered one of the finest writers of fiction in English. Authors from Henry James to J.K. Rowling have acknowledged her influence. Not to mention that Austen, with some help from those wild Bronte sisters, more or less birthed the modern romance genre.
For the first 180 years or so, Austen's fans enjoyed her work in private, or in classrooms or book groups. But in the last two decades, her modern fandom has exploded, and in Among the Janeites, Yaffe credits that to two factors.
The first, of course, is the Internet, which has provided a home and a way to connect for fans of all stripes. Austen's fans were ahead of the curve, Yaffe writes: "In 1991, when a McGill University English instructor founded the first Jane Austen Listserv, the World Wide Web did not yet exist." Now there's an Ask Mr. Darcy app, a version of P&P recast as a Facebook feed and Twitter accounts for Austen herself and many of her characters.
The second factor, Yaffe writes, was "Austenmania's Big Bang — the shot of a wet white shirt clinging seductively to the chest of British actor Colin Firth, in the BBC's 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice." That scene, she points out, of Mr. Darcy emerging from a swim in a pond after a vigorous horseback ride, doesn't exist in Austen's novel — but it became an iconic image for her fans anyway, as did Firth's portrayal of the uptight rich man despised and then desired by the spirited Elizabeth Bennet, in the plot that became the template for a million romantic comedies.
Yaffe, herself a longtime member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, writes about a diverse array of devotees. There's Baronda Bradley, a Texas woman who owns more than 30 custom-made size 6 "breathtaking Regency outfits" that she wears to JASNA's conventions. At first Yaffe thinks this is nuts, but soon, she writes, "the Regency dress-up Janeite aliens had ... eaten my brain," and she finds herself buying not only a made-to-order dress but the rather terrifying corset it requires — only to find that the outfit makes her look like "nothing so much as a small blue refrigerator."
Even more extraordinary in her ardor is one of the founders of legendary tech company Cisco Systems: "What sets Sandy Lerner's Janeite devotion apart is, oh, roughly $20 million." That's how much of her fortune Lerner has spent buying and restoring Chawton House, the estate owned by Austen's brother Edward Austen Knight. On its grounds is the cottage where Jane lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life. Chawton House is now the Centre for the Study of Early English Women's Writing. Lerner also published — 26 years after she began writing it — a sequel to P&P called Second Impressions, "an inside baseball reference to First Impressions, Austen's original title for Pride and Prejudice." Lerner cracks, "There's two sex scenes in the book. ... Nobody's found them."
When Yaffe met her, Devoney Looser was a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia (she's now on the faculty of Arizona State University) and the author of Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism. She is also, Yaffe writes, "the only Jane Austen scholar ever to star in a roller-derby vampire movie," and she skates in roller derbies under the name Stone Cold Jane Austen. Looser's husband, George Justice, is an Austen scholar as well, and Yaffe describes a marriage punctuated by robust discussions of the writer's motives, politics and significance — Looser calls her "a Rorschach test."
Yaffe meets a woman who sees Austen's books as case studies of borderline personality disorder and conducts "bibliotherapy" sessions for people trying to cope with the condition; another woman who works with people on the autism spectrum sees its symptoms in many of Austen's characters. And then there's Arnie Perlstein, a former lawyer in South Florida whose obsession is the belief that Austen's books have dual meanings, that below the social satire and romance lie "shadow stories" full of illicit sex, concealed pregnancies and murder.
For most of Austen's readers, though, her fiction is a ticket to a gentler, more elegant world they can visit, at least, in imagination.
Romance & reality
But what if they could visit Regency England during Austen's lifetime? That era — the closing years of the 18th century and opening of the 19th — is the subject of Roy and Lesley Adkins' Jane Austen's England, and it's a bracing counterpoint to the BBC versions.
The first thing a time traveler might notice would be the smell. "This was an era before antiperspirants," the Adkinses write, "before the widespread use of soap, before a time when people washed their bodies and changed their clothing on a regular basis, and when virtually nobody immersed themselves in baths or showers. Everyone would have smelled, even genteel women like Jane Austen."
What's more, without indoor plumbing and with horses still the main form of transport, the streets were pretty nasty, too. When women were venturing out in those long, wispy Regency gowns and delicate slippers, they often wore pattens, a kind of platform sandal made of wood or iron that raised their soles and hems several inches, or even a foot, above the sewage and manure in the road.
The book, organized by stages of life from "Wedding Bells" to "Last Words," is especially interesting on the lives of women. Austen was unusual, and privileged, in that she had several years of schooling followed by home education. More than half of English children had no education at all. Child labor laws didn't exist, and kids routinely went to work by age 6 or so, on farms, in mines or factories, as servants or, if they were really unlucky, as chimney sweeps. A typical work week for children and adults was six 10- to 14-hour days.
Of course, with medical care primitive, vaccines nonexistent and sanitation appalling, many children didn't live to age 6. Giving birth to them, in "this era before anaesthetics, antibiotics or any understanding of infection . . . was hazardous and painful," and many women and infants did not survive it. Such outcomes were so common that, in a letter to her sister in 1798, Austen could make a macabre joke: "Mrs. Hall, of Sherbourn, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband."
No wonder she tended to end her novels with the wedding.
The Adkins' book also details the politics and economy of the time. In 1801, England had a population of 8 million, and 80 to 90 percent of all land was owned by the aristocracy — part of the same kind of extreme imbalance of wealth that had so recently led to the French Revolution. During most of Austen's lifetime, England was at war and racked with economic hardship, crime waves, fears of invasion or insurrection, and tremendous loss of life.
"This place of radical change is the real England of Janes Austen," the Adkinses write. "We wanted to show how the mass of ordinary people, our ancestors, lived and fitted into her England."
It's not that Mr. Darcy could not have existed. But he would have lived the life Austen describes only because of enormous wealth and an army of servants — he would have been, in effect, the one percent. It seems even in her own time, Austen was creating a gentler world — an elegant, enduring dream.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.