Cosplaying Jane Austen

Two hundred years after the novelist’s death, people still bond over her works. Sometimes, costumes are involved.

Hugh Thompson / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Jane lies in Winchester
Blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her,
And her for all she made.
And, while the stones of Winchester—
Or Milsom Street—remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour
Unto England’s Jane!

— Rudyard Kipling

On a spring afternoon 25 years ago, my mother took my baby sister and me to the grave of Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral. It would have been 1992, and quite late in the spring, as photos of that day have me in short sleeves and my sister wearing a summery little dress in her stroller. She was 2, I was 6, and Austen had been dead for 175 years.

The grave left little impression on me at the time—I didn’t know much about Austen, except that she was my mother’s favorite writer and that she had died not far from where we stood and that her bones were now beneath us. In the days when England’s church was allied with Rome, Winchester had been consecrated to Saint Swithin, and—as Mom explained—it was three days after the Feast of Saint Swithin in 1817 that Austen breathed her last in that city, under the care of better doctors than could have been found closer to the Chawton cottage where she spent the last eight years of her life. The tombstone says a lot of nice things about her character but doesn’t mention once that she was a writer. My mother, an English professor whose expertise is the British novel in the 18th and 19th centuries, told me that this was an odd omission, and I wondered whether Austen’s ghost lurked, displeased, beneath the stones of the cathedral.

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.

* * *

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.

The truth is that most Janeites do not knit, nor are they any more likely to keep cats than are readers of Trollope or Milton, and you’d be right to be disappointed at these tired and misogynist stereotypes. As for the charge of spinsterhood: Simply survey the room at any Janeite ball and you’ll note that the unmarried women are enjoying themselves at least as much as the married ones, so one can hardly do other than raise a glass to singledom. The families, too, are inevitably having loads of fun, and some of the Janeites whom I love most are the little kin-connected units who treat Austen as part of a private inheritance shared between parents and children. But then, perhaps I’m just biased in favor of those families, like my own, for whom Austen is a genealogical fixture.

Loving Jane Austen can sometimes look to outsiders like a Pinterest aesthetic, and the Janeite soon becomes accustomed to dubious glances from the uninitiated. American fans of Jane Austen love her unconditionally; the English love Austen but are often embarrassed about it. E.M. Forster spent decades in just such a state. Reviewing R.W. Chapman’s edition of Austen’s oeuvre for the New Republic in 1924, Forster’s lede is pure self-deprecation: “I am a Jane Austenite, and, therefore, slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.” In April of 1944, during a BBC radio essay, Forster once more made an apologetic bleat, expressing his diffident but ardent love: “I am so fond of her. She’s English, I’m English, and my fondness for her may be rather a family affair. … Anyhow, please don’t dismiss her as a spinster in a backwater. She’s much more than that.”

That’s hardly a spirited defense of the artist whom Rudyard Kipling had dubbed “England’s Jane”—but I have learned from experience that apologizing for one’s Austen love is a loser’s game. I’m fond of Forster’s flaccid little apologia because my own investment in Austen is so clearly a family affair, and also because it’s clear that Forster doesn’t care very much about explaining himself. Why does he love Jane Austen? Perhaps because she’s the local talent. Perhaps because she reinvented the novel—or perhaps because the novels animate a vision of English society that, by Forster’s age, offered pre-industrial nostalgia with the trappings of realism. Forster doesn’t really elaborate. He wishes only to affirm his love, and to recommend it—to enlarge the “family” of Janeites, and to suggest her as a comfort during a wartime broadcast.

This worldwide “family” of Janeites perseveres, and their studiousness is hardly less ardent than their fandom. Indeed, the two are often inextricable; the true Janeites whom I met at conferences and cotillions are diligently invested in the novels and in various elements of Austen’s life and afterlives. Besides amateur scholars of English agrarian history, there are loads of high-school teachers and haberdashers and theater directors, plus historical novelists who spend years researching the successive fashions of the Regency, lest a single bodkin appear in the wrong decade as they’re writing their next books. Some of the clothing mavens seem to be locked in an arms race with each other: Baronda Bradley, a Janeite in Texas who has been attending JASNA conventions for 20 years, wears multiple period dresses on each day of the conference. At the 2005 convention, in Milwaukee, she was hailed as “Baronda of the 2,000 dresses,” and it’s a testament to her that I still can’t tell whether the epithet is even an exaggeration.

* * *

Unlike Bradley, my mother says that she had never worn the garb until she saw a mortifying photo of me, as Darcy, wearing white tights, cream-colored breeches, and a blue topcoat. This image was suitably disarming, and Mom was struck, too, by a new sense that one could enjoy the more frivolous bits (funny dresses!) without losing credibility; indeed, as she learned, wearing a Regency getup will earn any scholar deep street cred among the Janeites. We’ve attended two big Austen conferences together—Mom wears the gown with real panache—and after I stopped attending, she began carrying the torch for both of us. (My mother has become a regular eminence at the now-annual UNC summer camp, and every year I look forward to her live updates on the proceedings, which she delivers in long periodic sentences via text message.)

The uninitiated still wonder: Why on earth would otherwise conventional adults spend hard-earned money jetting across the United States and Canada to talk about six novels written by an unmarried Hampshire lady whose books have, in one sense, become synonymous with a sort of bourgeois predictability? What compels shy bookish types to give themselves over to elaborate cosplay? Certainly it’s true that when you’re dancing “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” or “The Duke of Kent’s Waltz”—two traditional English country dances of the early 19th century—it is natural to ask: “How the hell did I get here?”

But the question dissipates amid a thousand more immediate concerns: The clasp on your waistcoat is coming undone, or you’re about to tread on your partner’s toes, or you can’t tell whether that cute Janeite in the corner is admiring or laughing at you. Then you finally talk to her, you discover that she’s literally quoting the novels to you as a form of flirtation, and you start to recognize: Austen brings us Janeites together and then gives us a script for how to get along, how to read the room, how to observe, reflect, and behave in a small community of others whose feelings and fates may well be bound up with our own.

And so, clasped in the public intimacy of a Regency cotillion, you see that Janeism offers its acolytes a peculiar sort of consolation, and a brief cure for social atomization: a flattering, antiquarian remix of our dissipated modern selves. It’s a retreat, too, to a fictional world where politeness was sexy, and where villainy and bad manners were eventually punished. It’s an unlikely and heterodox community, driven into one another’s arms by Austen. In this way, the novelist has her vindication: The Winchester tombstone may not mention the novels, but their charms are sufficiently lasting that they continue to propel us into tights and petticoats during heat waves, 200 years after she died.