Talking with Deborah Yaffe

Deborah Yaffe, author of "Among the Janeites: A

Deborah Yaffe, author of "Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom" (Mariner, August 2013). (Credit: Randall Hagadorn)

Austenmania has officially reached epidemic proportions. Granted, the Jane Austen theme park that Kerri Russell will be strolling through in the film "Austenland" (opening in September) is fictional, but Shannon Hale's bestselling novel (the basis for the movie) is just one of many recent books riffing on Austen's beloved Regency-era comedies of manners. When an "American Idol" winner (Kelly Clarkson) shells out six figures for a ring that once belonged to Austen, you know she's become a pop-culture phenomenon. Deborah Yaffe's "Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom" (Mariner Books, $15.95) explores "Austen love" with humor, affection and surprising emotional depth, thanks to the revealing interviews the author conducted. Yaffe explained it all for Newsday in a phone conversation from her home in Princeton Junction, N.J.

 

You show people turning around troubled personal lives because of reading Jane Austen. One woman started self-publishing Austen spinoff fiction online during a bad marriage and wound up getting divorced and marrying a man she met after he sent her a fan email.

I love that story; it's probably my favorite one in the book. When Pamela was telling me her story, I was thinking, "I can't believe the gods of journalism have given me this!" And the Internet really has helped people who love Jane Austen find each other. The fact that the Internet came along around the same time as the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice" in 1995 is really important.

 

You call that famous scene with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, when he plunges into a pond and emerges in a seductively wet white shirt, "Austenmania's Big Bang."

A bunch of things came together with that miniseries. Of course, it's a really great story; you can't undervalue that. It has great performances and an excellent script that was quite faithful to the novel. It has high production values, which was somewhat unusual at the time. And Colin Firth is really sexy!

What role did the Internet play in spreading Austenmania?

Obviously there were a lot of people who loved Jane Austen before the Internet, including me. But while for book-sale purposes I would like to believe there are millions of us out there, it's still a small community; you could easily live in a town where nobody you know feels the way you do about Jane Austen. But if you are able to get on the Internet, you will find lots of people like you from many different places. I think the Internet is responsible for the formation of a worldwide community of fans.

I'm really interested in the different discoveries people make in Jane Austen. I think it's fascinating that people can read the same words on a page and see things that are so different. I find that encouraging; it says something about our humanity and how varied we are. We can find community around these shared enthusiasms at the same time that they are different for each of us.

You write that each Janeite has "an Austen who reflect back to us a mirror image of the selves we'd like to be."

I didn't understand that about myself until I was talking to all these people. Then I started to think, "What is it that I find in Jane Austen?" I really did have to say that my Jane Austen does not sound unlike the person I like to think of myself as being: the detached, ironic observer who's very clear-eyed and objective and has a sharp edge -- that's my journalistic persona.

My mother likes to tell a story about when I was in kindergarten. I wasn't making friends, and the teacher said, "Well, here's Deborah's problem: When the kids are all piling blocks on top of each other to make a tower, Deborah stands back and says, 'If you put that block on the top, it's all going to fall down.' And it doesn't help that she's always right!" That's who my Jane Austen is: always standing on the edge of the ball, watching other people and shaking her head at their silliness and contradictions, then writing it all down.

But you did actually go to the ball at the 2011 annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America -- even though you write that your period costume made you look like "a small blue refrigerator."

It was not a pretty sight. One of my Facebook friends wrote, "Where are the pictures?" I said, "I will neither confirm nor deny that those pictures exist, but if they do, they will not be seen until I am dead." But I'm a writer. When my corset strap snapped, half of my brain was thinking, "This is such a disaster; what am I going to do?" The other half was thinking, "OK, it'll be good for the book."

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