I am not a fan of fandoms. I think it’s basically because I’ve never liked cliques. Starting a WhatsApp group nearly brought me out in hives until I had made sure that there were enough Admins to make sure that everyone had the ability to invite others. I feel like it’s kind of primary-school level behaviour to decide that you’re having your little secret club and so-and-so isn’t allowed in. That being said, cliquey working environments are depressingly common. However, my issue about ‘fandoms’ is the notion that somehow people have to ‘prove’ themselves in some strange way so that they are allowed to like something that they already enjoy. Years ago, I shared a house with a girl who told me that I should not read books by Neil Gaiman because I was not involved enough in geek culture. The saddest part of this episode is that I obeyed her directive for a further four years, then finally read The Ocean at the End of the Lane and loved it. What can I say, I think I thought she might like me more if I didn’t overstep into her territory. So my default answer to the question ‘What does it take to be an Austen fan?’ is simple. Nothing. It takes nothing. You want to be one, hey presto, abracadabra, you’re a fan. But of course, there’s more to it than that.
In becoming a Jane Austen fan, you gain the label of a ‘Janeite’, one of the oldest fandoms in the world. Straight away, this label irritates me. We don’t say Dickens fans are ‘Charlesites’ or indeed any other male writers – why does the woman have to be referred to by her first name? From here we get the fans who refer to ‘Dear Jane’ or ‘Divine Jane’ which is an incredibly patronising label for a writer who could pack a fairly sharp one-liner. It has been suggested before that the kind of people who identify as Austen fans are not the types of people who Austen would have actually wanted reading her books. My own thought is that Janeites are such a diverse bunch that this seems like an excessively sweeping statement. But … you do wonder.
There is so much merchandise around the Jane Austen fandom. From tea to bed linen to cushions to clothing. Aside from an ‘I ❤️ Captain Wentworth’ pin badge, I don’t really own any of it. Rather than attending the Jane Austen Bath Festival or similar, I read Among the Janeites and was amazed at the lengths that some people have been driven by Austen-mania. I hate the implication in fandoms that unless you’ve bought this or that merchandise or been to a convention or worn that hoody … well, you’re unqualified and not a fan. I don’t want the paraphernalia around Austen, I just want the books. Does that make me insufficiently committed to the Austenite cause?
Strangely, I always notice crossovers with the Harry Potter fandom, of which I am also sort-of part. I don’t buy the merchandise and I am so-so about the films but I have been to Harry Potter Studios and I do own the first three books in illustrated form. People have long noticed improbable parallels between the two series and indeed Jane Austen is JK Rowling’s favourite author. The caretaker’s ghastly cat is called Mrs Norris, they’re all obsessed with birth and bloodlines and the whole Firebolt subplot is very similar to the mystery around Jane Fairfax’s pianoforte. Alan Rickman had roles in both franchises but each of the two roles had certain things in common – both had fallen in love in childhood with someone doomed to die young and both lived their lives trying to make up for having let that person down. But more to the point, the way that the fans try to live in both universes is very similar. There is also the way in which the characters in both universes have become so real to their fans that they are believed to secondary lives beyond that which their authors laid down on the page. Think of all the theorising around this or that character – even the servants have gotten their own spin-offs.
What is interesting too is how the intersection between books and onscreen adaptations have caused controversy for both fandoms. For Harry Potter, it’s the ‘Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire’ moment. For Austen fans, it’s the wet shirt scene. You either love it or hate it. The Austen adaptations have come in thick and fast since the 1990s with Jane-mania only growing stronger. It has changed the fandom with different factions championing this or that actor as the ‘true’ Darcy or Wentworth. However, as I mention earlier in the Fan Challenge, Austen is not a visual writer. Appearances do not concern her. She is always more concerned with what is going on internally. Yet with the advent of the adaptations, the external has gained the upper hand. The aesthetic has taken priority. There are many ‘fans’ of Jane Austen who have only watched her stories onscreen. Her books are ‘heavy’, ‘dull’, ‘too difficult’, ‘slow’. And it is this kind of talk that makes my brain start to spin.
I don’t like to tell people what to do, still less to tell them what to read. This may seem strange for me to say given that I write and run a book review website, but I only started writing this as a way of sharing my love for books without haranguing my friends and loved ones about it in person. I kind of figure that if you’ve come this far, you’ll be able to take my recommendations in the spirit that they are intended. However. I think that if you are going to be an Austen fan, you do need to read the books. And by read, that can also mean listen to on audio or in any other format which suits you. But the genius of Austen comes in her prose. She is a writer, a comic writer and her comedy is not best displayed visually but rather in the original text. If you are only watching the films, then you are a fan of period dramas, not an Austen fan. That is absolutely fine and in that case, I would suggest that Georgette Heyer is a good next stop. But also, do try the original novels. Over the years, I have found it so tedious when people express surprise or mock-awe that I am reading Austen. There is a reason why her books are popular. As classic literature goes, it’s easy-going and hugely funny. For me, all it took was to pick up a library copy of Pride and Prejudice and although a lot of it passed me by on the first reading, I’ve been hooked ever since. Being an Austen fan is easy.
For the rest of my Austen in August Fan Challenge – see here