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A Shared Inheritance
“Are you Mr. Darcy?”
The girl in short braids could not have been more than ten years old. We were standing by the registration table in a small anteroom, surrounded by a tweedy gaggle of tenured scholars and one or two graduate students. Posters of Jane Austen adorned the walls in silent observation. I looked down at this tiny and quite serious lady, whose expression matched her question: curt and businesslike, the soul of efficiency. She might have been a private detective or a tax collector. A brief parade of women in sundresses brushed past us en route to the weekend’s first lecture.
“Are you Mr. Darcy?” she repeated. It was a kind of accusation that had the momentary effect of silencing the company. “A lady over there told me you were.” She stabbed her finger in the direction of the main room. A lot seemed to depend on my answer.
“Not yet,” I informed the girl. “But I will be tomorrow.”
She nodded, as though I had affirmed a long-held suspicion. “I told my friends that I would dance with Mr. Darcy. Do you dance?”
I decided to tell her the truth. “Very badly.” The girl finally smiled but looked somewhat vexed.
“But you know they’re giving dance lessons today and tomorrow, right?”
I said I did, and promised to be there, and to save her a dance at the weekend’s grand ball. She nodded and introduced herself, shaking my hand with a worldly sort of professionalism. Just as I was about to laugh, a volunteer usher swept past us, saying that the opening plenary was about to begin. The girl went off in search of the mother she’d left unsupervised, and I joined the flow of people entering the lecture space, which the conference organizers had dubbed “Pemberley.”
* * *
Such moments are representative of the year and a half that I spent in the world of Jane Austen fandom. They were also its best part. Throughout the bicentennial of Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen’s most famous novel, I bounced from one Austen extravaganza to another—observing, dancing, listening to and delivering talks—but for me the story still begins and ends with a single conference, a four-day affair in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that introduced me to a world of which I’d been only dimly aware, and that I still have not fully escaped.
At the time, just a few years ago, I was teaching courses in journalism and English literature while doing graduate work at the University of North Carolina. My advisor, James Thompson—a compact, ruddy-faced man with an immortal smile, an earring, and a motorcycle—had decided to establish the Jane Austen Summer Program, known unofficially as “Jane Austen Summer Camp.” James pitched it as a sort of quasi-academic gathering that could nonetheless attract the proles—the civilian enthusiasts who take part in the special universe of Austen fan-fiction and web series and bumper stickers and action figures, and who (James assured me) are capable of reading Austen as seriously as the most humorless poststructuralist.
The idea struck me as fantastical: a Jane Austen Summer Camp! Yet I didn’t doubt for a moment that James and Inger Brodey, his colleague and coconspirator, would attract a crowd. Austen mania is simmering even in a slow year; for the bicentennial of Pride & Prejudice, the turnout was assured. American enthusiasm for Austen is (as I would soon learn) passionate to the point of obsession, and Austen is considered by universities, film studios, and publishers alike as a sure thing. And I was more than a little bewitched by James’s description. The projected conference sounded dreamlike, a little unreal: We would dine together. Nearly all attendees would bring Regency costumes. There would be dancing. There would be a one-act play. There would be afternoon tea. There would be a harp. Maybe two. Fancy scholars would give talks, but so would costumers and graduate students and “independent scholars.” The whole idea of a Jane Austen Summer Camp jangled with friendly dissonance. It managed to suggest Jane Austen at a sleepaway camp in the Catskills or the Great Lakes, winning the archery competition, fiddling with the reverse-osmosis water filter, and refusing to participate in kickball.
Hearing James and Inger plotting the weekend, I was impressed by their close attention to material detail: finding the right harpist; naming the four main conference rooms after the four main estates in Pride & Prejudice; ensuring that Inger’s children had suitable costumes. And I was thoroughly seduced by the levity with which they approached this work: all giddy mischief. At the same time, I remained a little distrustful of anyone who would pay good money to spend a summer weekend wearing silly clothes and discussing the importance of (say) eighteenth-century agrarian philosophy in Pride & Prejudice. Who were these wonderful weirdos?
Most important, James and Inger said they were prepared to pay graduate students for helping organize the weekend. I was fascinated. I was broke. I was in.
* * *
A few days before the Janeites arrived, during preparations with Inger and James, it occurred to me that the camp would provide material for a light magazine piece—that I would in fact be crazy if I didn’t sell someone an account of the imminent bedlam—so I e-mailed an editor, describing the juiciest bits of the weekend: the clothes, the dances, the period food and drink, the theatricals that the graduate students would perform. “I think they might make me dress as Mr. Darcy,” I wrote.
The editor responded within five minutes: “OH MY GOODNESS YES!!!” Suddenly I had another role: I would chronicle the weekend as a surreptitious participant-observer and gossip collector. Already I’d been anticipating the event with bemused skepticism, and the assignment merely lent professional credibility to the semi-satiric outlook I had been cultivating. I was prepared to play dress-up, to observe a group of literary eccentrics, to be amused by them, and, having mined them for excellent comic material, to write an essay and be done. I was prepared to find everything ridiculous, and anticipated that by the end of the weekend I would be thoroughly sick of Austen.
This was more or less my frame of mind when my mother called. James had invited her to speak—they’ve been seeing each other at Austen symposia for a couple of decades, and are on friendly terms—but Mom was recovering from replacement surgery on one of her knees (the other would soon suffer the same fate), and she sent James her regrets while assuring him that I would represent the family “with distinction.” I couldn’t help but feel that she had overpromised.
On the telephone, as I described my excitement and trepidation at the weekend’s approach, Mom informed me that having to use a walker had given her “great triceps”—“the last time my arms were this strong was when I was lifting toddlers all day”—and asked that I not disgrace her at the summer camp. She rattled off the names of all the people she knew who’d be attending; their credentials; their spouses’ various eccentricities; what journals they edited, and what conferences they’d been blacklisted from—all with stern instructions that I was to be “presentable” at all times, and especially that I wouldn’t forget to iron my shirts.
“I’m not a child, Mom,” I said. “I can be trusted in company.”
“Yes, dear, but you do realize some of these people have seen your baby pictures.”
I groaned. Mom was having none of it. “Don’t be silly; you’re getting paid. I don’t want to hear that you were aloof, or that you refused to dance. Remember that you’re my surrogate—”
“—and you don’t want me to sully the family name.”
“Well, not if you can help it.”
She extracted the relevant promises: that my outfits would be immaculate; my bearing, courteous and attentive. But I also pointed out that the summer camp might eventually lead to Austen overload. “What if I reach a point where I just can’t take it anymore?”
My mother made a noise indicating contempt for the possibility. “It’s just four days,” she said. “You’ll be great.”
“This is your world, Mom,” I said, needling her.
“You might just like it.”
* * *
“We long for an age when people knew the rules of deportment, and followed them. It is a truth universally acknowledged that there was once a time when all children were well behaved and congressmen all told the truth.”
James was at the front of the room in Pemberley, discussing the widespread idea that Austen’s appeal depends on a kind of moral nostalgia: “Readers often claim that they are drawn to Austen by her sense of order, that conduct has rules and consequences.”
It was the opening talk, titled “Manners Envy,” and had all the markings of a hit for this crowd. The day was also very hot, the kind of hot where you start reading your own suffering into other people. We were in the great room in one of the university’s more extravagant brick piles. Many in the audience raised a Regency-style pocket fan against the late-afternoon sun declining through the French windows. The thick heat of a Carolina summer pressed in. Some removed their bonnets, and more than one man loosened his collar; ties were rare, and became rarer as the talk proceeded. A trio of older women laughed over a photograph, then silenced one another, rapping each other on the knuckles with fans and brochures. A row ahead of them, the girl in short braids maintained a stoic impression, as though willing herself to forbear the juvenile behavior of her neighbors; a row ahead of her, I spotted one of my mother’s spies.
Toward the front of the room, congregated beside and behind the lectern, sat a handful of people who could only be professors of English literature, and who spent the moments before James’s talk behaving like schoolchildren reunited after a very long break as they laughed at private jokes likely hatched decades ago in a room—and on an occasion—much like this one. Certain women, defiant of the heat, kept bonnets glued to their heads, and no one looked more serious than the gentleman at the rear with muttonchops framing a face as pink as a grapefruit, apparently having struck a compact with the heat that his soul would sooner depart this earth than the tie from his neck.
Even those accustomed to academic conferences and the eccentric specimens of humanity they attract would find this crowd unusual. The room was divided in dress: the majority wore twenty-first-century attire, but a serious contingent was already repping Regency outfits, and some of the more daring attendees wore the fashions of the 1780s and ’90s, when Austen began her literary apprenticeship and came of age. A scholar of colonial economics in the English novel sat between a middle-schooler and an amateur haberdasher; the latter identified as a Marxist and, that evening, would explain to me in passionate terms the political history of the top hat.
From my seat toward the rear of the room, I scanned the backs of heads or sides of faces, playing a sort of bingo: Duke; Arkansas; oof, there’s [redacted], whom I’ve been warned about; to her left that nice dude from the German Department, and the gentleman who’s delivering a seminar on “the female gaze in Pride & Prejudice”; there’s the New York State contingent, and Susan, who edits Persuasions, and, yesss, the lady who published the funny paper on Sanditon. The heroine in Austen’s Persuasion at one point complains privately of a gathering “too numerous for intimacy, too few for variety.” Based on my initial reconnaissance, the Austen summer camp would be both deeply intimate and wildly heterogeneous: even among these few dozen people (fewer than eighty, certainly), there was variety to tire the most energetic collector. There were the creamers, the fan-fictioners, the cosplayers, the tea makers, the Tarot readers, the Frenchmen, the bridge players, the hip-hop fans, the Girl Scout, the professors, the middle school teachers, the computer programmers, the law school students, the former punk rockers, the motorcycle freaks, the secret Victorianists, the graphic novelists, the Austen bloggers.
And it wasn’t hard to pick out the core graduate students—the rank and file, ready for a weekend of buttling and scuttling. There was Emma, who would soon charm the throngs with her talk about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a web series that retells Pride & Prejudice through the conceits of twenty-first-century social media. There was Michele, of the chestnut curls, who would play Jane in our theatricals. There was Ashley, a born-again Christian who writes about communities of English evangelism in novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and who was in one sense living the plot of a Regency romance, having just gotten married—following a five-day engagement—when her equally Christian husband was suddenly recalled to his post in the armed forces. Then there was Adam, one of those beautiful souls who was probably born scribbling a footnote, an ageless academic with the ageless academic’s traditional boyish gravitas. At twenty-seven, with his wire-rim spectacles, an unself-conscious grin, and the western fedora that he wore with his trench coat whenever it rained, Adam presaged the way he would look at forty-seven and at sixty-seven.
James’s voice continued from the front, and his ready audience tittered at even the simplest quip: “The novels are undeniably social—Elizabeth is unimaginable on Crusoe’s island…” The beauty of that sentence is that it instantly disproves itself—everyone in the crowd immediately imagines Elizabeth on Crusoe’s island, and the image feels somehow in keeping with the idea of the entire weekend.
Before launching into “Manners Envy,” James had convened the weekend with a short and awfully sweet speech thanking all the necessary people and institutions but mainly stressing the conference’s democratic impulse: you are welcome here, James intimated, whether you have a Ph.D. or not; there are many ways to study Austen, and no one will make you feel stupid for not “doing” Austen in the sanctioned way. He further suggested that next year’s gathering would focus on Sense & Sensibility, and floated the idea of one day holding a summer camp about “Austen and the Brontës.” It was a bold suggestion—Austen partisans and Brontë partisans are famously opposed—and the crowd caught its breath in shock. (He also expressed gentle alarm over the suspected presence of “crypto-Trollopians” in the audience, a joke that landed with surprising force.)
James’s voice was devotional and studiously subdued, as though apologetic for the enthusiasm it worked so hard to efface; in dress, James had honored the gravity of the occasion by abjuring his extensive collection of novelty Jane Austen T-shirts in favor of a casual blazer. He looked ecstatic, and rumpled, in equal measure, and once you know James those little rumples in his appearance take on the quality of something earned through honest labor. There are stylish academics and rock-star academics and antisocial academics and hair-tearing academics and bomb-throwing academics and so on, and then there are academics like James, whose professional status (lofty) seems to exist in precise disproportion to their vanity (indiscernible), with the result that James now goes through life looking accidentally distinguished and deeply tickled by the whole affair.
The room remained rapt throughout this little convocation.
“‘We lead, as it were, a double, or if one will, a halved existence,’” James recited, quoting the sociologist Georg Simmel. “‘We live as an individual within a social circle, with tangible separation from its other members, but also as a member of this circle, with separation from everything that does not belong to it.’” James’s point was that we emulate or inherit social tendencies, and that Austen’s characters must all, in one way or another, sort out their behavioral inheritance. I thought again of my mother, and of the attendees that weekend who would report back to her, and began to feel nervous.
* * *
James was concluding his talk with those wonderful rolling sentences that have the footnotes built in—the understanding being that even once we’ve finished the main business of the sentence, there are whole realms of literature to invoke in a series of nested relative clauses that qualify or embellish the conclusion with a series of knowing jokes, one of which might pertain to Thackeray, another to Mick Jagger—indeed, James tells us, he fears he is beginning to sound like that rambling woman in Emma—and the room leans forward at each parenthesis and subordinate clause, willing the words out. It felt quite unassuming, this opening paper, but it also held all the weekend’s possibilities within it. James had presented new scholarship, in which he posited Austen as a foundational figure in sociology (a version of “Manners Envy” would appear in a celebrated book that he published in 2015), and he had done so to a “mixed”—that is, civilian and academic—audience. And he had also served as master of ceremonies and as court jester, while offering a melody for the gathering, a motif of sociability and the not unserious question of whether we can redeem ourselves in one another.
The audience, with all its motley energy, ate it up, assenting eagerly to facts and assertions that would baffle any other room. James “reminded” us that the word “civility” appears seventy-nine times in Pride & Prejudice; most people nodded, except for one woman who immediately shot her gaze into a paperback, as though checking his math. It struck me at this point that the crowd was utterly giddy—people were snorting from the unrestrained laughter of belonging, and the little girl who was eager to dance with Mr. Darcy kept looking up at the woman who was clearly her mother to see if she was getting the jokes. The degree of excitement was frankly embarrassing, or would be to most adults on most days in almost any circumstance. James Thompson is not a rock star (even if he probably rode here on a motorcycle). But to these people, at that moment, James was in the flattering position of being the opening act for Jane Austen. And they loved him. When James stumbled at one point, begging pardon for his “afternoon aphasia,” audience members proved more than happy to supply character names alto voce: “Miss Bates!” “Yes, I believe—” “Miss Bates indeed.” “Quite right.” “—in Emma!”
I scrawled in my notebook: “Democratic conferences invite mutiny.”
Two searching pairs of eyes will inevitably find one another, and as I rose to leave Pemberley, a broadly grinning woman from the New York contingent thrust her hand in my direction. A brief glance at her nametag confirmed that she was an acquaintance of my mother’s and, what was more, a regional coordinator for the upstate New York chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
“Is it—Miss Marie Sprayberry?” I asked. (The Henry Fielding–est moment of my life.)
“And Mr. Scheinman!” She shook my hand with vigor and leaned in with noddings of the head, which I learned was her way of sharing confidences. “You do your mother proud. I see you will chair ‘Austen and Romance’?”
“So they tell me.”
“And you are a guest film critic on the plenary about the adaptations?”
“Well, I can’t say how excited we all are”—indicating a smiling cabal of upstaters—“to be here, and I only wish your mother’s poor knees had permitted her to attend.”
“That’s very kind of you. I’m ashamed to say I think you see her more than I do.”
“I assure you,” Marie said, actually producing and unfurling a fan, “I will send her a full report, on all aspects of the weekend.”
I had no doubt she would—though I could not have known that this report would cause me some small trouble.
* * *
There exists a category of citizens best described as Janeites-for-life, a scattered band of acolytes who troop around the country and jet-set to London or Bath or Mumbai or Tokyo, luggage bursting with petticoats and paperbacks and Norton editions and hand-annotated Event Schedules and endless spools of laminated nametags. They attend the big annual Jane Austen Society of North America meeting, but they also bop through a less-trafficked circuit that, if one has the stamina, need never end. There is always another symposium at the local chapter of JASNA, or a talk by a professor at a nearby university on “Austen and the Real Housewives of Uppercross,” or a screening of the Bollywood smash Bride & Prejudice. Like members of any secret society, they can identify each other through subtle or silent codes, and initiates all carry their motley badges of membership in the global Austen circle, from novelty pens to silk-screened T-shirts (KEEP CALM AND FIND MR. DARCY) to playful indicators embedded in e-mail addresses: ElinorDash1811@BartonCottage.net will inspire trust among all similarly devoted correspondents. They come to laugh and to learn, to dance and to listen, to admire and to be admired, to teach and to be taught, to question their assumptions about Jane and to confirm them.
The democracy of Austen gatherings is the thrilling and disarming (and only slightly anarchic) secret of it all. The snobberies of the high academy toward hobbyists, emulators, and people so prosaic as to look for a moral in a story resolve themselves, or go briefly on sabbatical. The guiding principle of such gatherings is the yes-and of improvisational comedy. If a gentleman raises his hand during a question-and-answer session and offers, instead of a question, a winding and irrelevant homily on the author and actress Elizabeth Inchbald, the speaker will acknowledge the offering and thank him for it and find a way to navigate back to the subject at hand without any deprecation. This is not to say that judgment suspends itself at an Austen gathering—far from it; there will be whispered remarks about that gentleman over supper—but merely that an attitude of expansive inclusivity is the foundational premise. Such is the hospitality prescribed in the novels, and such is the shared delight among people who otherwise would remain utter strangers, that resentment and unpleasantness achieve only brief, and rare, appearances. The Janeites would not have it otherwise.
There is something rarer, too, made possible in the society of the Janeites: an evenhanded commerce between representatives of the academy and their civilian counterparts, whereby the professors do honest trade with the costumers, and the costumers in turn are scrupulous in attending talks and panels. In many cases, thanks to the air of camaraderie and a general mash-up of eighteenth- and twenty-first-century fashion, the distinctions tend to blur. On one particularly embarrassing occasion, I stood for a full quarter of an hour next to an elegant lady in bonnet and gloves before recognizing that this woman was in fact a prestigious professor and close friend. We laughed over it, because where else would you glance at someone and say, “Oh, just another person dressed as Henrietta Musgrove”?
Some are born Janeites, some achieve Janeism, and some have Janeism thrust upon them. My own case is an amalgam of all three propositions. My full Christian name, Edward, will indicate my mother’s Anglophilia, but when I tell you my sister’s name is Jane there can be little mistaking the matter. My mother recalls two of our conversations during my sister’s gestation. In one, Mom is lying on the couch, telling me she needs a nap. “Mommy’s a little tired,” she says. “Mommy’s a little pregnant,” I respond. In the second, she is at her desk and I approach, the miniature portrait of a snotty undergrad during office hours. “You love Jane Austen,” I say, with a note of accusation.
“So if it’s a girl you should name it Jane.”
* * *
One of my sister’s friends recently asked her if she had been named for the novelist. Omitting the secondary consideration that Jane is also a family name, my sister admitted this to be the case. The friend offered a sunny observation: “Well, it could have been worse; she could have named you Fanny!”
“You don’t know how close you are to the truth,” Jane replied.
Fanny was the family dog.
My mother, indeed, could hardly have groomed me better for Janeism. A professor of English at a very small private university in upstate New York, she has been teaching and writing about Austen for nearly forty years. (Mom is, bless her heart, a neoclassicist, and what she lacks in conventional Austen elitism she more than recoups in distaste for the Brontës.) Under her tutelage, I was raised on a partial survey of the Brit Lit canon. One particularly painful moment found me in tears at the tender age of ten when, upon rereading the last chapter of David Copperfield, I became convinced that I would never find my Agnes, much as Dickens often despaired that he would never marry his wife’s sister. (He didn’t.) When we lived in England, before I had read much Austen or had any notion of the ongoing fealty she inspired, I was dragged along to see Austen’s plaque in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, and the little Chawton cottage where Austen spent so many years, and even her grave in Winchester Cathedral. For a brief period, any childhood illness experienced by my sister or me was treated with six installments of the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice, plus DayQuil to taste.
Austen was so pervasive that I rarely picked up one of the novels; at thirteen, I began my first, Mansfield Park, probably her oddest and least popular, and I enjoyed it without too much reflection, noting the narrator’s general distrust of charm and her satisfying instinct for retribution. My sister and I were similarly aware, in a dim way, of the larger Austen world in all its finery, but our contact with it was limited. I would notice a Jane Austen action figure in Mom’s office (packaging materials: “comes with writing desk and quill pen!”), sent by a former undergraduate mentee who had contracted my mother’s affection for Austen—an affection that defends itself with the tools of lampoon: the placement of that action figure on a bookshelf says, “Yes, I am inordinately fond of this curious author, and yes, the very idea of Austen-as-superhero is delightfully absurd, and I’m acknowledging that absurdity by displaying her action figure pristine in the box, as though it were a collectible Batman doll or something, when in fact this figure has no grappling hook nor freakish muscle definition; her superpower is the ability to sit at a desk with a quill pen, which is both hilarious and the greatest superpower of all. I am quite serious about all of this, and quite aware of how frivolous it might seem to the uninitiated, and I make no apology.”
I think I also understood the impulse to apologize, or to roll one’s eyes at the Janeites. How else to explain the strong note of accusation in my suggestion that Mom name my sister Jane? It was an accusation of weakness, of predictability. Even at four years old, a boy in America has learned not to trust the softer, womanly enthusiasms of Janeism; if I had been somewhat precocious in terms of reading, I was at least equally precocious in reflexive anti-Janeite misogyny.
One way or another, I made it to university without ever reading Pride & Prejudice and thought very little about Austen until I found myself at age twenty-five suspending a career in journalism to study political literature of the early eighteenth century at the University of North Carolina. My advisor was James, an authority on Austen who does not fit the Janeite stereotype. First, he is male. Second, he commutes to campus on a sleek motorcycle, which, in the summer, also takes him through the Black Hills of South Dakota and other rugged, windswept places on America’s frontier. If someone requested proof that serious Janeism can coexist with serious emblems of masculinity, I would proffer James as Exhibit A. You know those THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE T-shirts? I have always wanted to make one for him that says THIS IS WHAT A JANEITE LOOKS LIKE.
When James taught Austen’s Juvenilia and six novels to a small group of doctoral students in our third year, he also used the occasion to recruit us. Under his and Inger’s supervision, a troupe of us agreed to spend part of May and June launching the four-day “Jane Austen Summer Camp,” with the basic rules I have described: we would welcome lay readers as well as professional scholars, the food would be good, the punch would be fortified, and the dancing would rival that of any of the film adaptations. James and Inger had been planning to launch a yearly Austen camp ever since reading Jill Lepore’s 2011 account in The New Yorker of her visit to the “Dickens Universe,” a weeklong conference-slash-celebration that has been a fixture for more than three decades at the University of California in Santa Cruz. As he read about this learned extravaganza, James told me, “It sounded wonderful—as it says in the books, this darted through me with the speed of an arrow, that we should do this with Austen.”
As James put it, after he and Inger returned from a scouting expedition in Santa Cruz: “It has an entirely different feel from a regular, professional conference, where everyone’s trying to discourse at the highest intellectual levels—the Dickens camp does that, in what the philosophers would call ordinary language. So high-level, sophisticated, very subtle arguments can be made without jargon, without technical terminology, without endless genealogies of critical points and so on and so forth. And I loved that concept—it seemed a great opportunity for people who spend their lives in the library to learn how to talk to normal people again.”
Austen is the rare sort of author who makes possible this unaccustomed exchange between academics and civilians; those who think of her as primarily a domestic novelist might be surprised at the extent to which Austen is able to kick scholars out of their armchairs and into action. Throughout the short summer camp, and for a long time thereafter, concerned friends would get in touch via social media, responding with a mix of mockery and alarm to a profusion of photos in which I was dressed like an early-nineteenth-century gentleman. One of my favorites came from my friend Max in Los Angeles, when he heard I was embedded with the Janeites: “Oh man, here I thought you were just reading Latin all day,” he said. “Turns out you’re reporting directly from the trenches!”
It was a lovely compliment, and Max’s little note set off a bell that he could not have anticipated. There is, in England, a proud tradition of reading Austen during times of war, a tradition that became something like gospel during World War I, when, along with so many of his generation, one promising young scholar decamped from his armchair to mix with enlisted men and fight the Central Powers. In his bag could be found sodium tablets, instant tea, a few packets of cigarettes, and the complete works of Jane Austen, of whose literary estate he would soon become a sort of unofficial executor.
* * *
R. W. Chapman spent July 1918 on the left bank of the Vardar River in Macedonia, shooting Bulgarians, reading Samuel Johnson, and thinking very seriously about Jane Austen. In literary circles, Chapman already constituted a big gun: A star classicist from a young age, he had won the Gaisford Prize for Greek prose in 1903 while still a student at Oriel College, Oxford. By 1906, he was assistant secretary at Oxford’s Clarendon Press, where he helped launch the Oxford English Texts series, establishing authoritative versions of writers deemed central to British civilization. In the following years, he would become one of England’s most ambitious lexicographers, write learned but amiable essays for The Times Literary Supplement on authors ancient and modern, and pay his court to Katharine Metcalfe, a fellow admirer of Austen who was an assistant tutor at Oxford and had edited the Clarendon Press’s 1912 edition of Pride & Prejudice. In 1913, they wed—a partnership both romantic and scholarly, one that would reward all future readers of Jane Austen. If you’re reading Sense & Sensibility in paperback—really, in any edition that postdates 1923—you’re almost certainly reading the Chapman-Metcalfe version.
Though his primary project during the Vardar front was an edition of Johnson’s travel journals, Chapman was also beginning collations for his eventual editions of Austen, including a supposed restoration of Austen’s texts—plus notes elucidating matters political, religious, and military—and would write the occasional mordant essay from Macedonia to castigate previous dabblers in the Austen canon: “The writer has seen the late Dr. Verrall’s copies of Jane Austen (modern reprint) and compared his marginal suggestions with the original editions. Some of them seemed to be unnecessary; of those which seemed probable, almost all were to be found in the readings of the first edition.” Even at the front, Chapman kept burrowing in his books, seeking some more authentic contact with Austen. As for many Englishmen fighting abroad in the Great War, the nation’s literary canon—and Jane Austen in particular—offered a reminder of home, of what England was fighting for. And back in Oxford and London, Austen’s clarifying reminder of English virtue sparked a reshaping and expansion of her popularity. In the first decades of the twentieth century, England herself was feeling “manners envy,” and modern Janeism arguably began with late-colonial nostalgia for a fictional age.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the scholar and critic George Saintsbury coined the term “Janeite,” referring to the devotees whom Austen’s novels had come to attract or inspire. Borrowing the coinage, Rudyard Kipling published “The Janeites” in 1924, a short story about a band of Brits in World War I who establish a secret brotherhood premised around a cult of Austen. In the story, a lumbering working-class veteran named Humberstall is sweeping the floors of a Masonic lodge in London after the war, where he regales his fellows with recollections of reading Jane at the front. Humberstall is an amiable raconteur but quite clearly shell-shocked, with the “eyes of a bewildered retriever.” It was Macklin, Humberstall’s “toff” of a commanding officer, who initiated Humberstall into an arcane club of “Janeites”—men who would obsessively reread and circulate the six novels among themselves in the mess halls and the gunneries of their corner of the French front. Warming to Jane, Humberstall says, he consoled himself from the stresses of war by renaming his regiment’s three big guns “Mr. Collins,” “General Tilney,” and “Lady Catherine de Bugg”—a truly wonderful malapropism for “Catherine de Bourgh,” the imperious dowager in Pride & Prejudice. When Humberstall goes so far as to paint these names on the guns, he is called to a disciplinary tribunal: “They said I was wrong about General Tilney. ’Cordin’ to them, our Navy twelve-inch ought to ’ave been christened Miss Bates … But they give me full marks for the Reverend Collins—our Nine-point-two.”
Why have Kipling’s Janeites clung so fiercely, so joyously to Jane? Because it kept them sane, and it kept them alive. “She was the only woman I ever ’eard ’em say a good word for,” Humberstall says of his former officers, then quotes Macklin: “It’s a very select Society, an’ you’ve got to be a Janeite in your ’eart, or you won’t have any success.” Upon hearing the account back in London, his fellow Masons express marvel, and jealousy: “No denyin’ that Jane business was more useful to you than the Roman Eagles or the Star an’ Garter”—honors conferred by Masons among themselves. “Pity there wasn’t any of you Janeites in the ’Oly Land. I never come across ’em,” laments a veteran of the front against the Turks in Palestine. What Humberstall’s new companions envy isn’t the reading; it’s the fellowship that the reading made possible. “You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place,” Humberstall says. “Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was.” Kipling’s story suggests that you don’t need to be a “toff,” or even educated, to draw pleasure from Austen and the community that she encourages.
* * *
In 1915, Kipling had gone with his family to Bath, where, in between trips to the pump room, he reread the novels. In a letter from the period, Kipling writes, “The more I read the more I admire and respect and do reverence … When she looks straight at a man or a woman she is greater than those who were alive with her—by a whole head … with a more delicate hand and a keener scalpel.”
His son, John, would die in France later that year, and as Kipling lacerated himself for having been a drumbeater for the war, Austen proved a balm. In a January 1917 diary entry, Mrs. Kipling expresses “delight” at her husband’s habit of reading the novels aloud to the family. Here, as so often, Austen’s novels functioned as something between entertainment and a kind of moral therapy. If Austen is a keen anatomist of bad fatherhood, a possible prick to Kipling’s conscience, she is also the author who brings people together. “I believe Jane was a bit of a match-maker in a quiet way when she was alive,” the narrator of “The Janeites” says. “I know all her books are full of match-making.” This remark is confirmed by the Chapman-Metcalfe union, and the many couples who attend Austen conferences together, or who meet one another there—not to mention the platonic affection between Janeites who otherwise would have very little to talk about.
* * *
Chapman recalled his wartime in Macedonia with a warm nostalgia—he had, after all, survived and returned to his wife—and his reverie of reading Johnson in the high Balkan winds offers a winsome caricature of the solitary scholar:
I had a camp behind Smol Hill … and a six-inch gun (Mark XI, a naval piece, on an improvised carriage; “very rare in this state”), with which I made a demonstration in aid of the French and Greek armies, when they stormed the heights beyond the river; I think in June … I had a hut made of sandbags, with a roof constructed of corrugated iron in layers, with large stones between … and here, in the long hot afternoons … a temporary gunner, in a khaki shirt and shorts, might have been found collating the three editions of the Tour to the Hebrides, or re-reading A Journey to the Western Islands in the hope of finding a corruption in the text. Ever and again, tiring of collation and emendation, of tepid tea and endless cigarettes, I would go outside to look at the stricken landscape—the parched, yellow hills and ravines, the brown coils of the big snaky river at my feet, the mountains in the blue distance, until the scorching wind, which always blew down that valley, sent me back to the Hebrides.
What’s so very important about this passage is how its fancy or ridiculousness fails to dilute—indeed, is bound up with—its seriousness of purpose: Chapman underlines the comical incongruity of a gunner nerding out to Samuel Johnson in a war zone, even as his lyrical transports—a sense of privileged dislocation, of being wrested from the present by the living breath of a previous age—are entirely earnest, and not unique to Chapman. Editing the text of Mansfield Park a few years ago, Claudia Johnson labored over the placement of a comma until she had a similar experience to Chapman’s: “Again and again, I read the two sentences aloud quietly to myself to settle this question until, finally, under these inauspiciously pedantic circumstances, a startling thing happened: I heard Jane Austen breathe.”
The point is typographical—a comma indicates, among other things, where an imagined speaker will take a breath—but also quite literal: I believe she heard it. Textual recension is an ungrateful task but one of the worthiest in the academy, and the thought of Austen animating that task is irresistible. For two centuries, thousands of readers have shared such moments of unlikely revelation, of proximity to Jane or an illusory sense of her presence. To the more mystical Janeites, that same quiet intake of breath is our traffic with the ghost of Jane; it is the air we share when we come together. There is a toast at the annual JASNA banquet, with hundreds of attendees in period garb raising their glasses as Austen’s likeness is projected onto various screens around the hall, and the association’s president offers a few words, and there’s a brief pause before any cheers or clinks; slender silence amid so many people is bound to feel holy, and it’s in the space of that silence that I first felt the curious presence that Johnson describes.
* * *
E. M. Forster, one of the more conspicuous Janeites of his age, greeted Chapman’s editions with nothing short of rapture. Forster’s love for Austen would be lifelong: “I am so fond of her,” he said in a BBC broadcast in April 1944. “She’s English, I’m English, and my fondness for her may be rather a family affair.” He seems to have been particularly roused by the Clarendon editions, and their illuminating notes on the culture of Austen’s own time—notes that would prove especially helpful to scholars and admirers of Austen in the States, where such Regency terms as “curricle” and “entail” were not, even in the 1920s, terribly familiar among the general reading public. Chapman’s notes were further enlivened by his close attention to, and collation of, Austen’s surviving letters, which informed his editing of the novels just as deeply as any Oxonian principles of textual recension. Reviewing Chapman’s editions in The New Republic in January 1924, Forster told an American audience that the world of Austen worship had been asleep before Chapman, and now it was awake:
I am a Jane Austenite, and, therefore, slightly imbecile about Jane Austen … One reads and rereads, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, one greets her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers. The Jane Austenite possesses none of the brightness he ascribes to his idol … For instance, the grammar of the following sentence from Mansfield Park presents no difficulty to him: “And, alas! how always known no principle to supply as a duty what the heart was deficient in.”
Chapman, in Forster’s self-effacing but not unserious account, is one of the few non-imbeciles in the world of Janeites; rather than greeting her “by the name of most kind hostess,” Chapman had edited her the way he and his Oxford mentors had edited classical texts in Greek and Latin: the same care and seriousness owed to Lucan was certainly owed to Austen. What a difference it makes, to treat Austen as a serious author! Instead of slumbering, criticism sharpens, and with his faculties intact the critic can pare away lines of dialogue that have run together (Kitty in Chapter II of Pride & Prejudice) or restore the sacred placement of a comma, while guiding readers into a fuller version of Austen’s world with helpful notes on her family and her age. Forster lavished praise on the utility of Chapman’s notes and described Chapman’s editing triumph as little short of wizardry: “Without violence, the spell has been broken. The six princesses remain on their sofas, but their eyelids quiver and they move their hands. Their twelve suitors do likewise, and their subordinates stir in the seats to which humor or propriety assigned them.”
Then he offers a Janeite’s lament:
Yet with all the help in the world, with a fine edition like Mr. Chapman’s and the best of literary criticism to our aid, how shall we drag these shy, proud books into the centre of our minds? To be one with Jane Austen! It is a contradiction in terms, yet every Jane Austenite has made the attempt. When the humor has been absorbed and cynicism and moral earnestness both discounted, something remains which is easily called Life, but does not thus become more approachable.
Here, Forster outlines the paradoxes attending this particular area of readerly devotion: books at once shy and proud, and the contradictory impulse to be ourselves and yet to “be one with Jane Austen”—these are peculiarities that pervade the reading of Austen, and persist when we close the book. Needless to say, there is no traditional literary practice that can satisfy a curiosity so singular yet so widespread. “Something remains,” Forster says, with a mysteriousness that is not coy; it’s the same something that appeared in episodes such as the one Claudia Johnson describes, and that pops briefly into existence whenever Janeites gather.
* * *
It is important to emphasize that, were it not for my mother’s knees, I might never have entered Austenworld the way I did. Indeed, it took many years of genicular misfortune to land her where she found herself at the time of the Pride & Prejudice bicentennial: that is, temporarily crippled and in need of two titanium knee replacements within the space of six months.
The knee stuff began when I was very young. We were living in England, and my mother had a nasty habit of falling, especially on cobblestone streets. Mom would trot along, occasionally allowing her toe to scrape the ground, and too often—all the time, in fact—her foot would catch, and down she would plunge. This habit begat a pattern of intensification. The more she fell, the more difficult it was for her to raise her feet above the stones on the street, and the more frequently she would tumble. She made a lot of jokes (“Oh look, I did my tumbling act again; why don’t I just join a circus”), but it was awful. I remember Mom in her English-professor uniform, paisley scarves and a nice gray little tweed jacket and those hard black walking heels or else a rugged pair of wood-and-leather clogs, which snagged the cobblestones of London or Oxford or Warwick, until the cycle of occasional tumbles became unbearable. There were lower-back issues, and hand sprains, and, eventually, worse. By 2013, a few months before the camp in Carolina, she needed new knees.
This was no small loss for Austenworld, where my mother has been a semi-regular presence very nearly since the Jane Austen Society of North America began in October 1979 with a group of a hundred Janeites at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan. And besides worrying me to death, her infirmities would soon send me as a surrogate speaker on her behalf.
* * *
Allow me to oversimplify. All of Austen is a story about inheritance, from the plays and novellas that she wrote as a teen, to her final compositions, including the last dyspeptic satirical romp of Sanditon, a satire on real estate development at an emerging coastal resort. Pride & Prejudice is no exception. The novel opens on the five Bennet sisters, who have been born into a fine estate—firmly within the sphere of the gentry—in the countryside of southern England, where they live with their busy and meddling mother and their charming but perilously aloof father. Their comfortable position is threatened only by an unhappy provision in the Bennet will that the estate must pass to a male heir; in this case, the sisters’ cousin, an awkwardly unctuous cleric named Collins. Meanwhile, Mr. Darcy, the grand patrician hero, must reconcile his own duties to a far grander estate with his love for the portionless Elizabeth Bennet—alongside his conviction that, despite her hot head and eccentric family, Elizabeth is the one person whose love and wisdom can help him be a better steward. (Darcy is, of course, wildly, inconsolably attracted to her person and her wit—like the mid-twentieth-century critic Lionel Trilling, he can say that “I am meant to fall in love with Lizzy Bennet, and I do.”)
But Pride & Prejudice is about more subtle modes of inheritance, too, including attitudes and prejudices and a general sense of your role in your neighborhood—in a word, manners. For much of the book, Lizzy emulates her father: from Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth inherits a distrust for affectation, an appetite for reading, a way with an epigram, and a deadpan instinct to enjoy the weaknesses of others. These are qualities that prove powerfully seductive to the reader, who approaches the book through Lizzy’s eyes and delights in her persuasive vision of what is what. Throughout the first volume, Austen is so delicate in substituting Lizzy’s opinions for your own that you might not notice it until the trick is done.
Yet there is a sinister element to the posture she inherits from her father, who himself seems to alternate between a laughing, Democritean wisdom and something nastier. He mocks their mother right in front of her five daughters and encourages them to do the same; his lack of interest in his youngest daughters prompts him to placate them through innumerable indulgences, and with disastrous consequences.
In the first volume of the novel, Lizzy is as disgusted by Darcy’s studious hauteur as she is pleased by her father’s ironic distance, and she abjures the one with the same enthusiasm with which she emulates the other. As the book proceeds, though, she recognizes that her father’s unremitting archness can be a social liability, while Darcy’s supreme emotional continence emerges as something of a virtue: In the novel’s first half, Lizzy is her father’s daughter, and follows him in deriding her mother’s grasping busyness. Only after recognizing how badly her father has mismanaged her younger sisters does Lizzy understand that she’s made an error—that she has abrogated practical responsibility in favor of a general superiority. She may have inherited all her father’s finest characteristics—his charm, his intelligence—but she also got the bum ones—the intellectual snobbery, the moral arrogance—that, uncorrected, would lead to a life of alienation and sadness.
Again, I am oversimplifying, grossly. The fact remains that Austen’s best-known novel is primarily about managing two inheritances: an estate, and a moral sociability. Mr. Rochester attracts Jane Eyre by scowling; Darcy wins Lizzy’s love by treating the servants kindly.
This is one reason that I am unmoved by readers who throw down the book and say it’s all just so much marriage plot. To quote Clueless: As if! Marriage is merely the capstone, the emblem that marks a moment of larger social renewal. The real business of the novel is not arranging the wedding—it’s about arranging a community such that it is ready to celebrate and be enriched by the new couple. There is something unbearably selfish about the two-person romance, about Romeo and Juliet or Heathcliff and Catherine. Austen’s novels do not belong to this species of love story. They are ensemble affairs, not duos against the world, and they’re far more concerned with the question of how to live among our fellow beings than how to marry your best friend. The books end in weddings, but that doesn’t make them love stories—it just makes them comedies.
An iconic scene in Pride & Prejudice finds Lizzy in a copse of trees, reading a letter from Darcy that unravels nearly all of her prior beliefs about his conduct and character. At last, with a sort of awful clarity, she speaks aloud—“How despicably I have acted!… Till this moment, I never knew myself.” Certain contemporary readers accustomed to the rhythms of romantic comedy read this moment as the end of self-denial, the moment when Lizzy owns that, yes, she does have the hots for Darcy. Such readers miss the point entirely. Elizabeth has indeed arrived at revelation, but it’s nothing as silly or as selfish as shouting her love from the mountaintop; it’s a serious moment of self-censure for having misread nearly every social cue that she’s received throughout the book, and for having harmed those she loves as a result. This is not the self-seeking of intimate love; it’s the self-censure of a social conscience.
I’ve come to think of this as the right way to understand why Austen is so particularly suited to a crossover conference that feels a bit more like a camp or festival. Austen makes a great deal of sense as a unifying pop figure who can bring together so many people. Her novels don’t offer us solitary rhapsodies so much as social possibilities, and Janeites don’t wander aimlessly but navigate together, tacking and then correcting, like any good Austen heroine, when we recognize that our path is askew, or that we’re bound for a collision. The arrangements for the conference mirrored the proceedings of a gentry house party from 1813 or 1793, with grad students playing the precocious children and younger set who provide the central energy and occasional scandal—and also stage a racy play, much as Austen’s family had done and the young Bertrams do in Mansfield Park; the professors were the parents, clergymen, and aunts, alternately making matches and decrees; the civilians became the neighborhood—Meryton or Highbury or so on—and the finely drawn secondary characters who reflect us back to ourselves. In Austenworld, even our roles—our duties—can feel inherited from the world of Jane.
In the weeks ahead of the summer camp, I had tried to anticipate the scene, the dramatis personae, but imagination failed. I knew the novels, and much of Austen’s biography, but this scene of modern-day fanatics would be, to me, entirely new. Concerned friends were far more vivid in their forecasts. Upon hearing that I’d be nestled among the Janeites, one friend expressed alarm and another deep jealousy. Many who wrote me in advance of that first summer camp shared clear prejudices about Janeites. They seemed to think that anyone who went to these things would have to be insufferably pretentious, or insufferably boring, or both, or else pathetically unhappy in love and resigned to a life of cat-fancying and book clubs; joyless people without imagination; readers who long for the manners of a lost age because they can’t hack it in their own. This is all massively silly. You can level many accusations at someone willing to render themselves ludicrous by tripping on their evening gown or busting a button on their corset, but being “boring” isn’t among them. Anyone who cannot find entertainment and variety at an Austen conference is more to be pitied than censured, but there’s no reason we can’t do both. A lot of this widespread reaction is very clearly gendered—a requisite posture of disdain from all men from puberty onward. It would be an insufferable knitting circle, one buddy said; an old editor told me I would grow so sick of the Austen world I’d never read the novels again—or else (he mused) I’d find myself brainwashed and never read anything else; it would be a great place to pick up chicks; it would be a terrible place to pick up chicks, et cetera. Of course, everyone was wrong.
* * *
I had now caught my first glimpse of the Janeites. Soon I would see them in their private ecstasies and public rhapsodies: the secret love they steal in chaste kisses at the ball; the versions of Austen that they write and rewrite, adding sex or switching gender or extending the narrative beyond the happily drawn conclusions whose very artifice is so often a joke for Austen.
The closest comparison is to a religious diaspora, a far-flung church, whose functionaries convene in heterodox worship—the group comes together over shared enthusiasm for its primum mobile, and at the same time, once together, comports itself (as best it can) by the letter of the text as handed down through Chapman and Metcalfe and Johnson and the rest. I do not mean to overstate, nor to mock, nor to imply immodest zeal among these good people. Janeism is a religion only in these two respects—reverence for the Godhead, and adherence to the text.
* * *
Friday morning saw ninety degrees before breakfast, and as I approached the brick eminence of Hyde Hall, with its octagonal faux-gatehouse and happy little cloistered gardens, an older woman eyed my nametag and green lanyard, the greenness of which indicated that I was an “organizer.” She waved me down with a retractable umbrella.
“Young man,” she observed, by way of summons. I smiled and squinted over my sunglasses.
“I do not know what is happening.”
“I wish to attend the plenary panel on ‘Austen and Romance.’”
“It’s right inside,” I said, pointing toward the French windows of Pemberley. “You can’t miss it.”
The lady shook her head. “But then I’m to proceed to Rosings, and I am confused.” She thrust her schedule of events in my direction.
“The two venues are awfully close, and both inside. I’m happy to show you, if you like.”
“I don’t see how we can remember all these rooms,” she said with a stare, as though I were guilty of some architectural misdemeanor. “Longbourne looks quite as nice as the others, and really it shouldn’t. Do you agree?”
“I do see your point. But then, Hunsford or the Cheapside house wouldn’t quite have the same ring, you know?”
She paused for a moment. “But what will you do for Sense & Sensibility?” she asked. “How will you keep all the rooms straight?”
I laughed. “Well, that’s getting a year ahead of ourselves. Of course, we could hold a session on ‘the picturesque,’ but we’d have to find the right moor, and probably a fog machine as well.”
She appraised me again without smiling. “I am off for tea. We can conclude our discussion in Pemberley, if you like.”
“It would give me pleasure.”
I disengaged myself, wolfed two plates of fruit in the Hyde kitchen, donned and straightened my blazer, and made for the panelists’ table at Pemberley, there to chair the plenary on “Austen and Romance.” Inger had provided laminated cue cards, with which I was to signal each scholar when her time was winding down. The first said FIVE MINUTES LEFT; the final, YOU’VE DELIGHTED US LONG ENOUGH. Though it was a supposedly simple task, the enthusiasm of the speakers often dwarfed my modest efforts, and the cue cards, masterful bits of passive-aggressiveness as they were, proved less useful than, say, a shepherd’s crook, which would have been more direct.
One of the panelists began to quote the first line of Pride & Prejudice—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—and by “acknowledged” the full audience had joined in. Seventy-plus adults intoning this sentence is wonderful and creepy in equal measure; think the Nicene Creed, delivered by ebullient zombies.
Copyright © 2018 by Ted Scheinman