Austen sits in the centre of a huge, picturesque lake with ripples moving outwards for film and television, romantic fiction, historical novels, and biography. By the time they reach the shores the ripples have formed YouTube adaptations and modernizations of her novels, Pinterest boards, and Etsy shops.
Of the vast amount of interesting features that I discovered on my investigations into Jane Austen fan culture the most consistent one is the influence of the 1995 BBC TV dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice. For many passionate Janeites 1995 is Year One of their devotion. That was the cultural event that triggered the establishment of fansites (in the early days of the web – Austen was there) and stimulated dedication to and imitation of her work.
In the collection of essays and interviews, Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen (Intellect Books, 2015) that I had the great privilege of editing, the contributors investigate the global movement of Austen fandom and her appeal. I know better than to regard any undertaking on this subject as definitive! Far from it. But more on that later.
So, to begin at the beginning: for me, there was never a time when Austen did not feature in my life. I grew up in a household where books were primary to everyday life. I don’t remember the first time I read Austen. I know it was before the age of 11 because when I started secondary school I knew Pride and Prejudice in detail. Along with everyone else, I enjoy the adaptations, from the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, but they have not defined my perspective of the novels. For me, that is still Austen’s voice – direct from the page.
However, what has become increasingly apparent as I have worked on the fan culture is the importance of the visual language that is generated from the text. The many styles of adaptation – from Regency detail to 21st Century West Coast vloggers – that can be formed from Austen’s original are in response to her vivid descriptions of place and society, and her masterpieces of characterization. Her formula has translated into multimedia culture and online formats. These depend heavily upon the tone of dialogue and the author’s own interventions in her narratives. Great dialogue communicates great drama. Austen’s work has found a natural home on stage and across a variety of screens.
Whilst some cultural hierarchy might still determine television, movies, and web series as low-brow, it’s redundant to affix Austen adaptations with this label. They are all a great storefront for Austen’s novels, showing her immense variety and wit. They encourage engagement with her work after which fans’ enthusiasm only grows thanks to her innovative, satirical, and witty prose.
For example, the Italian fan culture has grown in recent years, according to Dr Eleonora Capra in her essay ‘Between Tradition and Innovation: Celebrating Jane Austen in Italy today’ (Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen). This is largely thanks to the improvement in translations of the novels that emphasize Austen’s satire and irony. New routes into appreciating Austen’s work now exist for Italian readers after she had largely been viewed as a romance author in that country and this has led to a surge in her popularity and the establishment of the Jane Austen Society of Italy.
This is clear evidence of how well Austen’s work translates and how her wit and intelligence travels and reinforces her status even further. And it is with this in mind that I want to reach out to fans and bloggers, JAFF authors, and crafters, historians, and those with a general interest that might have tipped over into zealous passion! Because of the number of contributors that I had to turn down when I compiled the book and the obvious lacunae in the contents, I have embarked on a new project. This is a documentary to be called ‘The Joy of Jane’ and will be about the fans. So please contact me if you want to be interviewed or featured as part of the filming. I will also launch a Kickstarter promo to look for offers of support – so watch this space.
I already have several valuable contributions filmed – including Adrian Lukis, Wickham himself – with his reflections on what that role has meant for him. So – join the debate about why, how, and what makes Austen so enduring, and what the future of fandom and Janeite culture might be comprised of.
You can also catch me in person at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath on Friday 18th September at the Theatre Royal: http://www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk/events/darcymania-the-fan-culture-of-the-hero-talk/
~Dr Gabrielle Malcolm, editor Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen (Intellect Books, 2015)