Everyone can tell you when they read their first Jane Austen. It’s like losing your virginity—nobody ever forgets.
—Edith Lank, Janeite
The amiable body of men and women have assembled at the Ritz at the Bourse theater in Philadelphia. They have made pilgrimages from other counties—one even interrupting a vacation in New Hampshire—for one purpose only.
They have traveled great distances to see “Becoming Jane,” a screen portrait of the young Jane Austen (1775-1817) as embodied by the rose-cheeked Anne Hathaway.
The Ritz has furnished the tea, Miramax the muffins.
The atmosphere is charged with anticipation and amused dread.
Understandably, this is how some members of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) prepare for the coming of the second Jane renaissance in little more than a decade. Will it be worthy of Austen? Or just an attempt to cash in on what member Margaret Sullivan calls the “Jane brand”?
Janeites, as they are known, acknowledge that imitation is the sincerest form of show business. But some wonder why, increasingly, the tributes to Austen, the social satirist minimalist in her address, arrive in the ribbons and furbelows of the romance movie and novel—when they are so much more than that.
Still, they are curious about all things Jane. For them, she is the most timeless, and therefore the most modern, of writers because her subject is the human heart. Her adherents range from NBA all-stars to university presidents.
Whether it is to the latest film (“Becoming Jane,” opening Friday), works of fan fiction (“Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict”), or Web journals (Sullivan’s frisky AustenBlog), the Janeites flock. They are not birds of a feather, but most would agree with the first line of “The Jane Austen Book Club” (soon to be a major motion picture), “Each of us has a private Jane Austen.”
As Herself put it: ““Everybody likes to go their own way—to choose their own time and manner of devotion.”
AustenBlog devotees pray for snark and spark. Orthodox Janeites pray for historical and textual accuracy. More liberal Janeites, such as JASNA’s effervescent regional coordinator, Elizabeth Steele of Doylestown, Pa., pray for a movie, book or miniseries that captures Austen’s wit and spirit. “Clueless,” the freewheeling 1995 update of “Emma,” is a particular favorite (there is widespread belief among Janeites that it would be Jane’s choice for best adaptation).
Sometimes their prayers are answered. “Beautifully done. Shame it isn’t true,” says Kim Kurz, 51, of Newtown, Pa., emerging from the theater where she saw “Becoming Jane.”
“The same might be said of `Shakespeare in Love,’” chimes in the jolly Sullivan. Sullivan, one among a baker’s dozen of JASNA members at the screening, says she’d “love to see a fun, farcical film in that vein about Jane, but this isn’t that movie.”
As Austen said, “Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”
Director Julian Jarrold’s “Becoming Jane” speculates that certain events in Austen’s life later surfaced in her six novels. It has one shortcoming that the author herself anticipated: “The enthusiasm of a woman’s love is beyond even the biographer’s.”
JASNA members look forward to Robin Swicord’s movie adaptation of “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler, starring Maria Bello, Emily Blunt and Kathy Baker. And to the new adaptations of “Mansfield Park,” “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” scheduled to air on PBS early next year. Likewise to “Miss Austen Regrets,” the biopic slated for broadcast on “Masterpiece Theatre.”
Their bookshelves already groan with novels such as “Me and Mr. Darcy,” “Austenland” and “Just Jane.” On their night tables is Sullivan’s own “The Jane Austen Handbook,” a practical book that answers the perennial question, “What would Jane do?”
Janeites are harvesting the fruits of the new Austen renaissance while enjoying those of the last. Not since 1995-96—when “Emma,” “Clueless,” “Sense and Sensibility” and the BBC “Pride & Prejudice” with Colin Firth hit the screens, and Helen Fielding became a publishing sensation with her “P&P”-inspired “Bridget Jones’s Diary”—has Austen been so omnipresent.
Local JASNA membership is proliferating as fast as the Jane brand. According to Steele, in 2004 the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter had 95 members; today they number 179.
“The perception of JASNA is that we’re a bunch of tea-sipping old ladies with cats on our laps,” says Sullivan.
“The reality is that we’re well-read and appreciate originality in any field, whether it’s Stephen Hawking or Johnny Depp,” adds Steele.
Attesting to Austen’s broad appeal, Philadelphia-area Janeites range from Elizabeth Sollecito, 14, of West Chester, to Paul Savidge, 46, of New Hope, to Lorraine Hanaway, 80, of Wayne.
“It was great,” Sollecito said of “Becoming Jane.” “I enjoyed it immensely,” said Savidge, an attorney for Bristol-Myers Squibb, “but would have liked to see a stronger actress.” The puckish Hanaway, a JASNA president from 1984 to `88, found it both “a jumble” and “a romp.”
“I liked how Jane was portrayed as determined to write,” said Steele, one of many Janeites who derive strength from the novels. Austen lived in a world that was tilted against women, and the thrill of her characters is in how they use their wit to level the field. As Austen observed, ““In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.”
“All kinds of women who would be afraid in the present climate to call themselves feminists like to identify with these sarcastic, intelligent and strong heroines who assume their equality with men without making an issue out of it,” said Princeton scholar Claudia Johnson during the last Austen renaissance.
All kinds of men are attracted to these heroines, too. Notably, like Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, a major “Pride & Prejudice guy.” In a recent speech he said, “I guess (people) wonder how a love story from Regency England could be relevant to a 21st-century basketball player from the South Side of Chicago. Class struggle, overcoming stereotypes and humble beginnings, getting out of your own way and letting love take over: These are things I can relate to, definitely.”
It is Austen’s “signature blend of irreverence, eloquence and wisdom,” as University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann puts it, that has helped turn the Austen cult into a religion with more famous adherents than Scientology.
The FOJs—friends of Jane, as Sullivan calls celebrity Janeites—include Julie Chen, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, Nora Ephron, Janeane Garofalo, Harpo Marx, Mary McGrory, Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her lively adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility”), and B.B. King. Yes, that B.B. King.
About one subject—friendship—Austen proved to be less prescient than she was in most other things. “Business, you know, may bring money,” she said, “but friendship hardly ever does.” Friends like hers have made her a box-office powerhouse.