New York Times
July 11, 2017
Every few years, I reread a Jane Austen novel, and I’m not alone, according to Among the Janeites, Deborah Yaffe’s playful exploration of Austen obsession. In fact, if I were a true Janeite, I’d be handstitching my empire-waisted gown and perfecting my country dancing, and I’d enjoy it, as Yaffe does when she decides to go all out for a Jane Austen Society of North America (Jasna) convention. What I might not enjoy are the members’ competing opinions about who Jane was and what she would be thinking about every little issue, personal and political. And the Janeites are not all women: Yaffe interviews quite a few men. Perhaps the most peculiar is Arnie Perlstein, a conspiracy theorist convinced that Austen buried in her apparently conventional novels a “radical critique of 19th-century patriarchy” that he has “spent more than 15,000 completely uncompensated hours devising.” Other Janeites don’t need compensation. Among the most fascinating is Sandy Lerner, one of the founders of Cisco Systems who, along with her boyfriend-then-husband-now-ex-husband, gave you the router that allows you to sit up in bed and read this review on your computer screen. After Lerner sold her stake in Cisco, she bought and refurbished Chawton House, where Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight lived, and where (in the nearby village of Chawton) Jane herself spent the last eight years of her life. Lerner then installed a large library of women’s literature written between 1600 and 1830 in Chawton House and opened it for study by students and scholars.
Yaffe’s tone is light but precise. Her “journey through the world of Jane Austen fandom” is amusing and sometimes mind-boggling. Every avid devotee has her or his very own Jane, whether secretly abused or coolly observant or a revolutionary in disguise. One fan Yaffe meets is the scholar Devoney Looser, author of The Making of Jane Austen. Looser goes to Jasna conferences and participates in Janeite projects, but what she’s really interested in is how the Jane Austen whose books were first published simply as “by a Lady” became the ubiquitous cultural presence she is today.
Looser begins by asserting that “she was not born, but rather became, Jane Austen,” which might have been a surprise to the Lady, given the self-confident wit and psychological perceptiveness of her novels. What Looser is actually after is what has led to Janeite-ism. To this end, she offers a good survey of the landscape of books in the 19th century: how they were presented to buyers and readers, how they were illustrated, which authors were popular and why. If the chapters on illustrators suffer, it’s only because Looser gives us too few examples to view. (She does point out that for much of the 19th century Austen’s characters were portrayed by illustrators as contemporaries of their readers; it wasn’t until roughly 70 years after Austen’s death that the characters depicted in the novels began wearing Regency gowns.)