The Evolving World of Jane Austen Fans
Some of you may remember that I reviewed a book on Sherlock fandom a while ago, which was published by the University of Iowa Press in their Fandom and Culture series. I’ve now been lucky enough to get another review copy from the same series, looking at the face of modern Jane Austen fandom. How has this very limited selection of original material been reworked, adapted and interrogated in the modern world? How can fans possibly find new things to say about novels that are 200 years old? You’d be amazed. This entertaining romp through ‘Janeite’ fan culture takes us from Colin Firth’s wet shirt to Clueless and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; from BBC adaptations to erotic fanfiction. Like Sherlock’s World, Austentatious is occasionally repetitive and could have done with a fiercer editor, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating celebration of the passion with which Austen’s works continue to be read, loved and reinterpreted.
Books have previously been written on Jane Austen fandom in real life: the pilgrimages; the visits to Bath; the Regency balls. These ‘real world’ expressions of fandom are necessarily dominated by the ‘classic’ image of the Jane Austen fan: the middle-aged, well-off white lady who can afford the time and money to go jetting off on expeditions. Luetkenhaus and Weinstein are more interested in how fan culture has been transformed by the internet, in a variety of ways. There is much emphasis on fanfiction; on the gatekeeping of fan communities; and on the innovations of transmedia concepts such as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which I discovered a few years ago thanks to Simon Thomas’s Stuck in a Book blog, and then binged over the course of a weekend). Both authors are interested in the way that fans have reworked Austen’s stories, or read between the lines, to allow for greater racial and sexual diversity in a Regency world that (perhaps incorrectly) has been read as exclusively white and straight.
Something which clearly matters deeply to both Luetkenhaus and Weinstein is the way that scholarship and fan culture cross over. They’re both academics as well as passionate fans, and they explain how traditional tensions in this field are beginning to soften, allowing academics to ‘out’ themselves as fans without jeopardising their professional reputations. I find this fascinating, because I’ve always assumed that people choose their area of speciality precisely because they love it. Whether we call that being a ‘fan’ nor not, I don’t know. Am I a fan of Renaissance Florence? Where’s the line between ‘geek’ and ‘fan’? I wrote stories about Leonardo da Vinci in my teens (no, I’m not sharing them); on first visiting Florence, I was as excited as any Harry Potter fan at Warner Bros Studio; and I have a Vitruvian Man action figure on my desk at work. Given the chance, I’d dress up in Renaissance costume faster than you could say ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili‘. I might not proclaim these things at the start of a professional article or lecture but, like Luetkenhaus and Weinstein, I feel that ‘my’ generation of scholars is more accepting about the geeky elements that coexist with our professional interests.
But I digress. Let’s have a quick romp through the different chapters and see how our pioneering Austen fans are rewriting the rules. Chapter 1 focuses on the way that adaptations can introduce motifs which become ‘fan canon’, namely that very famous scene with Mr Darcy’s wet shirt. I learn, to my interest, that said shirt has become a celebrity in its own right and was loaned to the Folger Shakespeare Library not so long ago. I also learn that it was actually considered news when academics announced that Mr Darcy probably didn’t actually look like Colin Firth. (Has anyone told them he wasn’t real?) Chapter 2 looks at Clueless, described as ‘one of the most groundbreaking films of the Austen megaverse‘, which immediately gave me a mental image of Austen’s characters banding together outside their own novels like a Regency version of the Avengers (Mr Darcy as Hulk, anyone?). Ahem. Clueless is much loved because it adapts Emma to a modern setting without losing the wit and irony of the original text. This same chapter nods to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which becomes a major recurring reference point in the book. Interestingly, it also considers what happens when modern adaptations don’t work, and why that might be. I didn’t even known that the producers of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries had also made a web series based on Emma, called Emma Approved, and the book is enlightening in its examination of why this didn’t succeed as well as its cult predecessor.
Chapter 3 argues for fanfiction as feminist practice, though I thought it lost its way by muddling its arguments. On the one hand, Austen fanfiction is claimed as feminist because it’s fanfiction, which is written mostly by and for women. Fanfiction is often said to be a subversive sphere, dominated by female and queer voices, thus challenging the straight white male perspective that dominates ‘the canon’. But, on the other hand, Austen fanfiction is said to be feminist because Austen herself was feminist, writing about unconventional women. Does that make Austen fanfiction doubly feminist? Feminist-squared? I just don’t think we needed an entire chapter about it: it felt a bit like hammering in a peg which didn’t really need to be hammered at all. Chapter 4 returns to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and looks at how this modern alternate-universe adaptation of Pride and Prejudice recasts the main characters’ concerns – marriage isn’t as important as dealing with student debt, job-hunting and escaping the trap of the parental home as soon as possible. It focuses on how this web series reworked the character of Lydia, transforming her from the vapid featherhead of the novel into a more rounded character with her own tragic arc, thereby developing Austen’s original characters in directions she never explored. Chapter 5 takes this further, looking at how fans seek to broaden representation in Austen’s world, whether through racially diverse fan-casting (I would totally watch a Pride and Prejudice with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Lizzie, Idris Elba as Mr Darcy and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mr Bingley), or fanfics which flag perceived queer subtext in the original novels (the Elizabeth / Charlotte Lucas pairing was a new one to me). You might not agree that these relationships are implied – I’m not sure I do – but I appreciate the desire of readers of all races and sexualities to see something of themselves in their favourite characters, and to engage with Austen’s novels in deeper ways.
Chapter 6 turns its focus on a particularly bizarre reworking of Austen, namely Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The authors say they didn’t really enjoy the novel but they loved the film. I would go further: I thought the novel was puerile and dreadfully written: anything good in it had been lifted verbatim from the original Pride and Prejudice and I simply don’t understand why it got such warm reviews. But maybe I shouldn’t immediately write off the film. We shall see. In Chapter 7, we move into the territory of sex and identity in Austen, or rather, the lack thereof. That hasn’t been enough for some fans, who have turned to erotic fanfic (whether amateur or published in book form) to fill in the gaps. Yes, there are quotes. Poor Mr Darcy, that’s all I’m saying (‘torch of love‘? Really?!). This chapter is also notable for a withering put-down of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Eligible, which updates Pride and Prejudice with very mixed success. And finally, in Chapter 8, there’s a discussion about whether or not Lady Susan (in the film Love and Friendship) is bisexual. Again, this speaks to the desire of queer fans to find something that speaks to their own experience in Austen’s world, and the argument is interesting – even if, as a historian, I have serious doubts about it.
Austentatious is fun and, like Sherlock’s World, illuminates the depth and passion of the fandom. It helps that it’s written by two self-professed fans who have explored the furthest reaches of the Janeite world in their research for the book, and whose light, easy style makes it feel like geeking out with a couple of friends. Incidentally, I must thank both ladies for introducing me to the photo of Benedict Cumberbatch posing waist-deep in a pond in a wet shirt as ‘Mr Darcy’. That cheered my day up enormously. But there are issues, because the book tends towards repetition. We’re told over and over again that fanfiction originated in female-dominated zine and letter exchanges, and we delve several times into the current ethical question of whether fanfiction has to be free – part of a ‘gift economy’. We’re also introduced to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries several times, each time as if it’s never been mentioned before. I’m sure that this is just the result of the way the book was put together – chapters being written out of their final published order – but it does need a shrewd and ruthless editor to tighten things up.
To continue that point, Austentatious – like Sherlock’s World – focuses overwhelmingly on internet fandom. There’s a good reason behind that: the existence of other books on real-world fandom for Austen; and the fact that the internet has made the fandom much more inclusive, accessible and populous. But that narrow focus contributes to the sense of repetitiveness and I wish we’d had time to explore other fun Austen-related things. For example, Luetkenhaus tantalisingly mentions ‘Jane Austen board games, card games, and computer games. One friend gave me a book called “A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice“‘. It would have been great to look at how Janeite fandom is migrating back off the internet and creating demand for such things. And come on. Guinea pigs?! Who doesn’t need that book in their life? Now excuse me while I go and binge on the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, maybe with a side of Clueless for good measure…
P.S. Obviously I ended up searching on Amazon for Jane Austen fan stuff and have been thrilled and amazed by the options. You too can have your very own Mr Darcy pillowcase, and wake to see Colin Firth brooding at you every morning. There are Mr Darcy and Anne Elliot Christmas decorations, although to be fair these could substitute for any random lady or gentleman in Regency costume. There are mugs with Pride and Prejudice quotes, or earrings featuring your favourite Austen book. There are even – I found these on Etsy – custom Pride and Prejudice Funko dolls, which I would seriously consider getting if they weren’t over £200 for the set (you can get official Funko dolls of the characters as they appear in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which seems somehow unfair, as the proper characters aren’t officially available). Or how about a custom doll of Jane Austen herself? The possibilities – and the rabbit-hole, it seems – are endless.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review