What my mother did not tell me, and what she could not have known, was that, two decades later, I would find myself putting on Regency costumes and attending balls and banquets across North America, nor that—in a curious inversion of roles—I would eventually persuade her to dispense with academic self-seriousness and actually start wearing the costumes herself. All of this happened after I had joined the ranks of those enthusiastic literary necromancers who regularly summon Austen’s ghost.
These are the fans and disciples of Austen, known collectively as the Janeites, a term coined in the 1890s by the critic George Saintsbury. In the 21st century, they pop about the globe, now visiting Austen’s grave at Winchester, now visiting her haunts in Bath, now attending the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), where hundreds of Janeites materialize each year in Minneapolis or Montréal or Washington, D.C., to exhibit their finest examples of Regency formalwear, to hear the brightest Austen scholars talk about their ideas of the author—was Austen a secret radical? was she a reactionary? was she queer?—and to dispute those ideas with the proprietary vim of a family member.
Shared fandom is an endorsement of one’s own eccentric enthusiasms, a world of like minds, a collective agreement to treat as wisdom what the rest of the world long ago dismissed as folly. As such, fandom of any sort is a salve for loneliness, but Austen fandom doubly so, as her books, and the communities that they evoke, feel so very snug, so neatly governed by the basic rule that in properly reading one another, we get closer to our best selves.
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I fell into the world of Janeites very nearly on accident during my graduate studies in English, where Austen was an important but hardly central figure in my research (I was mainly studying the ways that 18th-century British satirists shaped their voices using tools from the poets of ancient Rome). But for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice in 2013, my grad-school advisor decided to establish the first annual Jane Austen summer camp at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I accepted a very modest stipend to help with duties that I was assured would be largely clerical. But then they needed someone to play Mr. Darcy, and I was one of the only people in the zip code who identified as male and also studied Austen, so the call came down, and I agreed to impersonate the dour but redeemable patrician. And thus began an unexpected, yearlong tour through this odd, stylish, recondite world.
Most people harbor a dim or at least narrow view of the Janeites, and when friends heard I had fallen in with this crowd of petticoat-wearers and novel-readers, they were quick to offer words of caution: Beware the insufferable spinsters, they whispered; the Janeites will all be strange social outcasts, the sort of people who trust no one but their cats. My well-wishers made these ludicrous suggestions with a hint of worry, as though they thought I was at risk of joining a modish cult. Only this last part was true.