How I Became a Jane Austen Superfan
Ted Scheinman Goes All the Way To Austenworld
A love for books and mischief is often born in childhood, and it seems possible that no child in English letters has ever had as much fun pillaging her father’s library as the young Jane Austen; certainly no other child has left such a record of her resulting spoils. In her juvenile notebooks, Austen logs a series of literary performances in various forms that also serve as a reader’s diary and a partial family scrapbook. Austen began these sketches around 1787, having survived two stints at boarding school, neither of which was a model academic experience. At the first, she and her sister, Cassandra, nearly died of typhoid fever, while the second was overseen by a one-legged huckster who claimed to be French and called herself Madame la Tournelle, but who in fact was an Englishwoman named Sarah Hackett. She couldn’t speak a word of French, but the imposture of her exotic last name seems to have convinced various fathers of the gentry that hers was a school where their girls might learn the European niceties—the sort of school, as Austen would later write in Emma, “where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.” The peg leg, at least, was real.
Instead, Austen’s true education was in the family library, which she approached as a young marauder who marked her favorites with wicked parody. This period of artistic apprenticeship, beginning in earnest when Austen was 12, includes some of the most vigorous short comedy in English prose. These days, to the uninitiated, Austen is remembered as an artist of manners, a prim moralist, a feminist avant la lettre, or merely a kindly domestic ironist—or more likely some mixture of all these. But in childhood, hers was a dark imagination, where she applied the cadences of 18th-century moral writing and popular melodramatic novels to narrating tales of viciousness and dissipation. As her family would emphasize almost to the point of annoyance after her death, the young novelist loved Alexander Pope’s moral epistles and Samuel Johnson’s moral essays even more, but the truth is she was an eclectic (and certainly not a squeamish) reader who devoured the bestsellers of the day, some of them rather lurid for preteen consumption. Like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, the young Austen read French romances and all manner of Gothic novels, the juiciest of which were heavy on rape, incest, and grisly death. George Austen may have been a clergy man, but he was hardly censorious, and his daughter read what she pleased, whatever her siblings and Victorian descendants might claim thereafter.
Already as a child and teenager, Austen is said to have had a dry presence at the table, but in her performances on paper—and in her family’s amateur theatricals—she was a swashbuckler. Her precocious ear for moral aphorism was matched by an instinct for the jugular. Austen would later describe her artistic range as a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.” Her line refers to miniatures, locket-sized portraits of loved ones, a metaphor for the ostensibly modest scope of her novels. Her earliest miniatures, though, are rather more like Hogarth illustrating Rabelais—wicked little parodies that use her father’s library as a shooting gallery. Like rising authors of any period, she learned her craft at the considerable expense of her predecessors. Or, to quote the critic Frances Beer, “At 12 the little assassin is eagerly at work,” satirizing the novels she loved (as well as several that she didn’t).
Reading through the young Austen’s notebooks, it’s hard to escape the sense that, even at her meanest or most acerbic, Austen is always and everywhere a fan. Imitation is flattery, and parody is backhanded flattery, and Austen could not have written such delightful little hit jobs on Samuel Richardson and Eliza Haywood and others of her forebears if she hadn’t read and reread her models with such voracity. In this sense, the juvenile notebooks—with their dedications to her sister, her brothers, and her female cousins—are a record of fandom: passionate but ambivalent immersion in a world of letters that she found equally ridiculous and intoxicating, and she renders this experience with such fine comic strokes that it’s hard, even for a 21st-century reader, not to join in these perverse celebrations of her literary enthusiasms.
“Those siblings and neighbors who gathered to watch the Austen family theatricals—many of whom are said to have cackled over the bravura comedy of the Juvenilia—stand as Austen’s original fan club.”
Like many young parodists, though, Austen soon out grew parody, infusing the works of her middle teens with ever-more-realistic characters and situations. This shift from satire to sentiment was not simple (and never complete), but the notebooks remain a fascinating touchstone for anyone interested in literary fandom, and how the most flamboyant parodies are often the most affectionate. Fans of Pride & Prejudice, for example, will remember the first volume of the novel, where Mr. Collins makes a thoroughly un-charming marriage proposal:
“And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection. To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the 4 per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to. On that head, therefore, I shall be uniformly silent; and you may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.”
Yet Collins’s embarrassing little homily begins to sound like Keats when we compare it with this, from “Frederic & Elfrida,” which Austen wrote in her early teens:
“Lovely and too charming fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding squint, your greasy tresses, and your swelling back, which are more frightful than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures at the engaging qualities of your mind, which so amply atone for the horror with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor.”
Collins is impossible without the earlier instance, but the earlier instance is also not possible without Austen’s deep reading among the sentimental romances of her day. The assassin was really an apprentice, and the parodist soon turned her talents to something more lasting.
Austen continued in this vein for the better part of a decade, occasionally contributing essays and comic sketches to her brothers’ literary magazine and invariably attending, or participating in, the theatricals that became a tradition in the household, after her brothers James and Henry developed a mania for writing sentimental or satirical prologues and performing for the families of the neighborhood. The young Austen men found that the theater afforded them scope for flirtation and innuendo with the young ladies of Steventon, and the brothers used these plays and sketches as opportunities for bantering and peacocking—a motif that would later prove central in Mansfield Park. For her part, Jane seems to have been most interested in the comic possibilities of the stage, and her opus as playwright was a six-act spoof of Samuel Richard son’s Sir Charles Grandison, a rather didactic brick of a novel that Austen cut down to size and ruthlessly lampooned. Like the rest of her work from the period, it’s a virtuoso hit job, and the staged version reportedly took just ten minutes. Those siblings and neighbors who gathered to watch the Austen family theatricals—many of whom are said to have cackled over the bravura comedy of the Juvenilia— stand as Austen’s original fan club, reflecting Jane’s own admiration for wit and language back onto her. It was a group that would expand outward from their Hampshire hearth to include, before long, Sir Walter Scott and the Prince Regent and, somewhat later, Emma Thompson,
I dwell on these early squibs because they’re important for understanding Austen, but also because they were my introduction to her writing, and for a long time the only work of hers that I had read. The Juvenilia was the extent of my Austen exposure as a child. This is highly irregular, and I might not even have opened that one, except that the Penguin paperback I lifted from my mother’s office fit perfectly in the outside pocket of the backpack that I wore on the airplane that carried my sister, my parents, and me to England in January 1995.
That year, at the ripe age of nine, I was an American abroad, and like many insufferable Americans abroad before me, I was writing. My genre experiments included medieval romance (“The Selected Exploits of Sir Edward of Essex”), an unfinished abridgment of Romeo and Juliet in heroic tetrameter, and lots of truly terrible plays. We were stationed in London that year while my mother taught American undergraduates on a study-abroad program. It was an odd and abrupt sort of cultural awakening for me, and not just because of Austen’s Juvenilia: when Mom took her students to plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company or some little fringe theater in Hampstead, my five-year-old sister and I came along as mascots, and soon I was mixing with London’s theatrical set, some of whom sent their kids to the same wildly posh primary school where my mother’s employers had established my sister and me. Many mornings, we would see Rowan Atkinson involved in the deeply slapstick task of delivering his children to the front gates. I joined the school cricket team and even got to play at Lord’s, while, off the pitch, I enlisted my British classmates in a Shakespearean theater troupe and spent non-cricket afternoons writing with a fancy-feeling rollerball pen inside a fake-vellum notebook, both purchased with spending money at Waterstones. Somehow I had absorbed the dangerous notion of the expatriate artist, and became utterly drunk on letters and London, certain that my alleged literary talent would soon earn the rapt applause of a discerning audience. As with Catherine Morland in Bath, it was my first experience of being surrounded by so much wealth and so much culture, and it proved the beginning of an English fixation, one that began with the theater and culminated, inevitably, with an English girl.
Her name was Nathalie, and she was the daughter of a well-known British actress, and already at nine she summered on the French Riviera and supped with the first families of the realm; at school she was a natural gravitational center, hopelessly cool, the first kid in the class to discover the attractive posture of disillusionment. To me, an ignorant American from dairy country in upstate New York, the highlights of whose parochial childhood included community baseball games and the annual village farm parade, she was a revelation. She was Estella to my Pip, Titania to my Bottom, and she became the object of a precociously faithful obsession that involved long-term career plans: she’d be an actress like her mother, and I’d write her scripts, and together we would rule London’s West End. While I tormented myself with such visions, Nathalie seemed to find my scripts more useful than my adoration. But she agreed to pool her money with mine and my friends’ to buy a theater where we’d stage a mix of Shakespeare and originals, and where we would also serve period dishes between acts, a sort of Tudor dinner theater. The food was Nathalie’s idea, though she stated firmly that she was an actress, not a cook, and would never roast a capon for anyone. I promised I would honor her wishes, and that night I visited my mother’s dictionary to look up what a capon was.
But of course, we had no money—we were young artists. Even after buying lottery tickets several weeks in a row we found ourselves no richer than before. Our most ambitious production took place not at the Old Vic but in someone’s parents’ flat, a masterpiece of compression that we titled, at Nathalie’s urging, The Ten-Minute Hamlet. Looking back, one assumes Nathalie had seen a staging (or at least the script) of Tom Stoppard’s Fifteen-Minute Hamlet—her mother was a regular collaborator of his—but, if our conceit was less original than most of us knew, the fact remains that we beat Stoppard by a clean five minutes. Nathalie insisted on being Ophelia, and a mock kiss between us, in the third act, marked the high point of my first decade—at once a literary and a sentimental education, and the first time I’d ever belonged to anything approaching a literary fan club—a circle of shared passion, dedicated to reenacting a previous age in manners, clothing, food, and love.
“I didn’t last in Austenworld, but for a time it was ludicrous, intoxicating, and sometimes heartbreaking—what began as satire progressed through sentiment and ended some where between the two.”
Around 18 years later, I found myself suddenly involved in another eccentric literary fan club: the Jane Austen fan club, its members known simply as the Janeites, into whose world I entered half willingly and half accidentally—and certainly with no idea of what lay in store. It began with a summer conference billed as a “Jane Austen Summer Camp” where, over a four-day period, from the opening plenary through the grand ball (where scholars and children dressed in breeches and bonnets spun together through the intricate dances of a Regency cotillion), I came to learn the rules of this secret society that has existed for 200 years, now counts initiates on every continent, and offers seductions even to the skeptic. Following my partial conversion at the summer camp, my ambivalent fascination with this world would take me to several meetings of the biggest Austen conference of them all—the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), where hundreds of superfans congregate to dispute interpretations, share recipes, peddle fan-fiction and petticoats, and argue with the finest scholars in the world. Throughout, I took notes on nearly everything, feeling sometimes like an anthropologist and other times like an embedded reporter, camouflaged in breeches. I didn’t last in Austenworld, but for a time it was ludicrous, intoxicating, and sometimes heartbreaking—what began as satire progressed through sentiment and ended some where between the two. Austenworld is a deeply self-referential and sometimes gossipy world—one, as Henry Tilney says in Northanger Abbey, “where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.” My mother, Deborah Knuth Klenck, has spent four decades as a close reader of Jane Austen, and while she has never been a zealot for the costumes, she is somewhat known in that society for her academic essays and for her occasional appearances at JASNA conferences. Between her former students and her many friends on the Austen circuit, my mother has a bit of a fan club herself, or at any rate a wide network of correspondents, and these secondhand acquaintances lent me an instant credibility in Austenworld. They also served as an extended neighborhood of voluntary spies, who reported on my doings to my mother. Did I skip the dance rehearsals? Doze off during the lectures? There were phone calls on the subject. My mother is an exacting proponent of etiquette; as children, we were taught that if we looked or behaved shabbily in public, the shame would redound onto our parents, and to the extent that my adult conscience is capable of speech, it speaks in the register and cadences of my mother. The last thing I wanted was to feel like a supervised child. An inheritance is a blessing but, as I discovered, also confers duties.
But Austen gatherings are inevitably about family. Longtime fans who attend for the first time often attest to a feeling of homecoming, of meeting a set of like minds and like hearts. But fans also tend to arrive with at least some portion of their families in tow. Sometimes it’s the sharp-eyed youngster who has read all of Austen by age 12; other times it’s the sister who prefers the Brontës, and who vents her spleen through mordant epithets; still other times it’s the clueless husband, who has never been moved to finish one of the novels but who nonetheless submits without complaint when his wife insists on dressing him up, and who wisely defers to her on questions of Regency neckwear. Some parents bring their children to be indoctrinated; some children bring their parents for the same purpose. Without my own curious childhood I should never have cut much of a figure in Austenworld, and without my mother I might never have found my way in. But oddly enough, the crowning pleasure of my time in Austenworld was when I reminded my mother it existed. For years she had gone to these things only sporadically, and never had she worn the costumes. Now, I am proud to say, she goes every year, delivers a paper, and, when it’s time for the ball, slips into an Empire-waist gown—and though her knees do not always permit a minuet, I am told that at every conference you will now see her at a table by the dance floor, a glass of punch in her hand and a coterie of adoring graduate students at her elbows.
Whenever one of my old confederates in Austenworld reproaches me for being absent, I can only respond that my mother for me is as favorable an exchange as they could ask. And then I promise to try to come next year.
From Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Ted Scheinman.