A few weeks ago (January 27 to be precise) a friend sent me a link to an article her husband was sure I would find interesting.
Janeites: The curious American cult of Jane Austen
A bit of trivia ~ I here apologize to the memory of literary scholar George Saintsbury who coined the term Janeite in an introduction to the 1894 publication of Pride and Prejudice. I thank the Jane Austen Fans of Ireland for setting me straight as I had credited Rudyard Kipling.
The article was trying to posit an explanation of why Americans like to dress in Regency era clothing, have tea parties and balls and devour sequels not written by Jane Austen.
Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose suggested to the author of the article that the elegance of the time is a part of the draw as is looking to the motherland, siting the intense interest in Downton Abbey as an example. Further explaining that Jane wrote only six books and it simply wasn’t enough, people don’t want to give up the characters.
But the overriding conclusion of the article seemed to be that the romance of the stories is what draws people to them even though we know that romance was not Austen’s intent. In fact, Jane created what we see as romance now; successful men who love strong, independent women. She was way ahead of her time. And while I agree with most of the assessment I think the article missed the most important thing that draws people to her and has for two hundred years. At least it is what drew me to her and is the reason my mother gave me Pride and Prejudice when I was fifteen which was my introduction to Jane.
In an era when novels were dark and foreboding she wrote bright, lively tales that often included scandal but scandals that were always resolved without death or destruction. Even Maria Bertram Rushworth in Mansfield Park, who is not allowed the society of her family, is still taken care of in comfort along with her Aunt Norris. As Austen says in reference to this ‘punishment’, “the penalty is less equal than could be wished.
In spite of all the discussions of love and romance, of continuing stories, of wanting to connect with the era and the author via parties and books, I believe Austen’s true appeal comes not from the stories themselves or even the wonderful characters but from her overriding faith in all that is good in humanity.
A strange confluence of small things contributed to this conclusion for me and it is only my opinion as I dare not speak for others. I was watching the Screen Actors Guild awards and something struck me. A large number of commercials for television shows caught my attention. Many, most I’ll say, were for shows I will never watch.
For example: The History Channel has programs entitled Ice Road Truckers; Swamp People and Shark Wranglers; where is the history in that?
Bravo, originally was dedicated to independent films of quality and the performing arts like a live performance of Romeo and Juliet, it now airs Shahs of Sunset and the multiple ‘Real Housewives’ shows.
TLC – The Learning Channel was an information based channel that covered many different subjects including but not limited to medicine, home improvement, cooking, nature and science. Now in the forefront of their programing is ‘Here comes Honey Boo Boo’ and ‘Gypsy Sisters’. What precisely are we learning from those?
Then there is A & E – The Arts and Entertainment Channel that gave us Horatio Hornblower and the 1995 Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. Now it airs shows like Duck Dynasty, Shipping Wars and American Hoggers. I see very little entertainment in this type of programing and no art of any kind. Then there are television shows and movies filled with crime, murder and mayhem and shows about fashion, style and living that are mean-spirited and insulting.
All of this supposed entertainment seems to cater to the basest human instincts and emotions in our society. Coupled with the greed of the corporate world as well as the rudeness and lack of manners in the general public, I find that “the more I see of the world the more I am dissatisfied with it.”
Jane Austen had an incredibly strong faith in God and people. In my mind it is not the stories, which were very much ahead of their time, or her wonderful characters that are her genius, but the spirit she infused in all her works: that is her true genius.
While she did make what we would like to believe was everyday life quite pleasant, Jane’s world could be and often was not just unpleasant but dismal. England was at war virtually her entire life; still she opted to portray the good in the world. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth tells Darcy to “think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure”. Her books show that this was her own philosophy and not just Elizabeth’s. She even chose to see pleasure not just in the past but in the present, her present. While her brothers were risking their lives aboard war ships, more than one sister-in-law died in child birth and a favorite cousin and sister-in-law was stricken with breast cancer Jane was writing stories to uplift the spirit.
So I have a ‘tea party’ any time someone comes to my house (I always offer tea and baked goods: seldom are they turned down) and whether you pour boiling water over a tea bag in a mug or steep leaves in a pot and serve it in china cups, the tea ‘ceremony’ is civility itself. Sitting with friends enjoying a cup of tea gives me pleasure.
When I wrote Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen I tried to capture the spirit I feel in Jane’s words in the character I wrote and whether I accomplished that is not for me to say but it is her spirit that infuses my life. I wear Regency style dresses because I like them (I’ve been wearing empire waist dresses, which were very popular at the time, since 1967 when I made my first). I carry a fan in the summer and wear a cloak in the winter. I prefer to live a civil and graceful life. If that makes me a member of the cult of Jane Austen then so be it. People have called me an anachronism but I suppose all of this simply makes me a Janeite. What makes you a Janeite?